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The Path Not Taken

F-18 Fighter Jet

Books reviewed in this essay:

Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry R. Posen. Cornell University Press 2014

America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, by Bret Stephens. Sentinel 2014

This generation’s U.S. foreign policy, resulting as it has in lost wars and almost universal disrespect for Americans, does not have many defenders.

Politicians and pundits of the Establishment Left, who made socioeconomic reform the hallmark of their foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s, stopped advocating it in the 1980s—or any other means of supporting their remaining pretenses of global leadership. Whether they call themselves “internationalists” or “realists,” they are about reducing America’s power, and cover impotence with terms such as “multilateralism” and “leading from behind.”

Neoconservatives continue to support America’s primacy, as well as traditional geopolitical commitments including victory in the “war on terror.” They led the Bush administration into picking up “nation-building” as the Left was dropping it, became its last defenders, and were dragged into sharing the American people’s disdain for it. Now, neoconservatives are at a loss about how to square such means as they are willing to use with the grandiose ends they still advocate.

Libertarians, always fearing the U.S government’s infringement of individual liberty more than any threat from abroad, see the past century’s wars and expansion of governmental power as the same baleful phenomenon.

Conservatives bemoan the government’s definition of the national interest in terms of a global agenda; wars that are endless and indecisive because waged unseriously; the mismatch between ends and means; and the use of national security powers for domestic political purposes.

America would be well-served by a dialogue on how to achieve foreign policy’s quintessential purpose: to make and keep our peace and shield our republic from foreign interference. Instead, our Establishment’s discussion of foreign policy is a cartoon-character debate between “involvement” and “isolationism,” between doing “more” and doing “less,” between what Barry Posen correctly calls “the establishment consensus on Liberal Hegemony, and Restraint.”

The books under review here are among the best of this Establishment conversation’s lot. Bret Stephens advocates nothing less than policing the world’s bad neighborhoods, in contrast with Barry R. Posen, who advocates withdrawing from troublesome situations. Posen no less than Stephens admits the possibility that this or that circumstance might make it necessary for America to fight, even while Stephens fails, just as Posen does, to discuss what forces, strategies, or commitments it might take for America to win such fights. In short, our Establishment’s discussion of foreign policy is a confrontation of attitudes and identities.

Posen calls “restraint” a “grand strategy” for America. His book carries endorsements by Columbia University’s Richard K. Betts and Boston University’s Andrew J. Bacevich. As a longtime foreign policy intellectual, and the current director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, Posen can be presumed to have chosen those words carefully. According to the dictionaries, “restraint” is merely the reduction, postponement or elimination of action. It is not an action; nor is it an end toward which action aims. “Strategy” is a reasonable calculation by which a set of means can be expected to achieve an end.

We may ask: what can be the “grand” end or purpose that such senior establishmentarians expect to achieve, not so much by any action but rather by reducing, postponing, or eliminating actions? What explains their choices?

The Posen thesis is that, by jettisoning “the establishment consensus on Liberal Hegemony” for “restraint,” the United States can master three important security challenges: “the maintenance of a balance of power in Eurasia, the management of nuclear proliferation, and the suppression of international terrorist organizations that choose the United States as a target.” Restraint of action can achieve what action cannot because the United States “is an easy country to defend” and because

other countries want security as much as we do. When we define our security expansively, we encourage some of them to compete more intensely.

Our troubles have come because “more capable states are more able to push back and hence more inclined to do so, as are individuals and nonstate actors.” In short, security has been ours to spoil, and we have been spoiling it. All we have to do is pull back, and all will be well.

Wide oceans and the world’s premier economy make the United States incomparably secure and powerful. America’s perennial geopolitical problem is to prevent any power from controlling the rims of the Atlantic and the Pacific opposite our coasts. Posen’s resolution of this problem evinces economic determinism at its crudest and blindest. “Economic vitality” equals “power.” Our economy is responsible for our nuclear forces as well as for the rest of our power. No other nation matches or is likely to match these assets.

By the same token, he writes,

because many [less] capable nations exist in Eurasia, and they have an interest in maintaining their autonomy, they tend to combine to prevent one of their number from achieving regional hegemony.

China? “There are few easily conquerable resources in range that would tip the global balance in its favor.” On the other side of Mackinder’s World Island, “a coalition of any two of the principal Western European powers—Germany, France, and Britain could easily balance Russia in terms of GDP and population.”

College freshmen, never mind their professors, should not have to be told that economic power is founded on human capital rather than material resources. Just as obvious is the fact that military power depends at least as much on political and moral factors as on economics. Posen writes that “if Europeans large and small choose to hang together, Russia can’t do much.” But they won’t so choose. The notion that today’s Western Europe can stand up to anybody for any cause whatever does not deserve a second thought. Nor should our view of U.S.-China relations focus on GDP rather than on what moves the hearts and minds of millions of Americans and billions of Chinese.

Posen’s reassurance about nuclear weapons is also made of ideological stuff. Yes, even states “with economies much smaller than the United States can now assemble nuclear forces of sufficient size and sophistication to damage terribly if not entirely destroy, the United States.” And. “There is no plausible combination of U.S. offensive and defensive systems that can alter this fact” (emphasis mine). But. “It does not matter much whether the United States faces a world of few or many nuclear powers: maintaining the ability to retaliate should deter any or all from attacking the United States.”

Posen does not ask: and if it does not deter?

He evades this question because addressing it would expose the doctrinaire nature of his argument. Posen uses the word “plausible” to give the impression that it is not possible either for America or for any other country to limit nuclear damage to itself by offensive and/or defensive means. Maintaining this proposition has been the very core of the MIT Security Studies program from its beginning. Indeed it has been the core of the Establishment position on U.S. national security since the 1950s—the foundation of the unilateral American policy of Mutual Assured Destruction that, by the mid 1980s, had placed the Soviet Union in a position to fight, survive, and win a nuclear war.

This proposition—that the very capacity of any country to deliver a single nuclear weapon on others will deter any other from delivering any number of such weapons on it—is known as “minimum deterrence”and sprang full grown from Bernard Brodie’s The Absolute Weapon in 1946. But it, and the consequent U.S. self-abnegation of counter-force missiles as well as of an anti-missile shield, has always been defended by bureaucratic force majeure rather than by facts. It  is indefensible nowadays. Posen, to his discredit, tries to slip it past the uninformed reader.

He posits—without evidence—that nukes in the hands of mullahs are just like nukes in any other set of hands because “the same things that scare us about [nukes] usually scare any states-person.” Moreover, we can take it on his word that any and all states must design their nuclear weapons with primary concern for “secure and reliable retaliatory capability . . . capable of surviving a first strike” rather than for delivering one. With that calming dose of mirror-imaging, as well as bows to diversity-as-sameness and gender equality, we can sleep on our nuclear stockpile and nuclear operational doctrine, obsolescent though these may be.

The discussion of terrorism in Restraint begins with: “An omnipresent United States makes it too easy for others to blame the United States for their problems.” Then, after noting that “the Western World is inherently vulnerable to small, violent groups” and that finding the right mix of offensive and defensive means of dealing with them, given our vulnerabilities, is “quite difficult,” he reveals the solution:

Diplomacy is central to creating the political conditions that permit the organization of intelligence cooperation—“intelligence liaison”, with the foreign police forces and intelligence agencies that are best equipped to gather intelligence in their own countries.

That diplomacy would “need to compromise more,” he admits. Such a “grand strategy of restraint,” along with disaster relief, “would contribute directly to the goal of counterterrorism.”

Thus does Posen restate the main lines of U.S. policy. Washington’s approach to terrorism, even after 9/11, has been based, as is his, on the assumption that terrorists are mere “rogues” and that all governments—including those of the Palestinian Authority, Syria, and Iraq, never mind Saudi Arabia—are natural partners in a common cause against them. This neglects first that terrorism is the standard modus operandi of governments in Muslim lands, and, most important, that most of these governments have patronized terrorists and incitement of violence against the West in general and the U.S. in particular. “Intelligence liaison” has been and continues to be our CIA’s main, and often only, source of human intelligence on terrorism. It has served us very badly.

Granted, it is these governments that are the only agencies in the world capable of knowing and policing their societies. The U.S. government can crush terrorism only by inducing them to do it. Here’s the rub: “diplomacy” in the key of “restraint” has proved to be precisely the wrong way to induce these governments to act in our interest. Holding the Muslim world’s ruling classes responsible with their lives for any violence or incitement that came from the areas of their sovereignty or influence—that is the only thing that would turn these potentates into part of the solution rather than being, as they are now, among the problem’s principal parts. Posen does not see this. Neither does the U.S. government. Hence for the Establishment foreign policy intellectuals, diplomacy consists of asking Muslim potentates to be nice. They can’t imagine why they and America are treated with contempt.

They have earned it. Throughout the Cold War, the left wing of the Establishment’s foreign policy shifted slowly but surely away from treating the Soviet Union as America’s and the world’s problem to ascribing those problems to what it considered America’s anti-Progressive bias. Although the Left-Establishment never went quite so far as to agree with William Appleman Williams that America was on the wrong side of the Cold War, its mission has for a long time been been diminishing American power—see as an example its crusade to keep America vulnerable to missile and air attack. After the advocacy of restraint became an end in itself, restraining America came to be what the Establishment’s left wing is all about.

All of which makes Barry Posen’ book an academic parody of the proverbial Alfred E. Neumann dictum from Mad magazine: “What, me worry?”

Bret Stephens worries. He does not want America to retreat. He sees that nations big and small around the world are ever less congenial to Americans. Moreover, as conflicts from Ukraine to the South China Sea, from Africa to the Indian Ocean, bode ill for the United States as well as for the local contenders, the U.S. government shows a decreasing capacity to defend the American people’s interests. Occasionally, Stephens notes, it has tried to do too much internationally. Now, it is doing too little. Stephens seeks a proper balance.

Through his “Global View” column in the Wall Street Journal, Stephens has become arguably the leading exponent of the foreign policy Establishment’s right flank. That flank, always the smaller, also evolved during the Cold War. Until the mid 1970s, it was composed almost exclusively of conservatives in the stamp of Ohio Republican Senator Robert A. Taft (see his 1951 book A Foreign Policy for Americans), Professor Robert Strauz-Hupé, William F. Buckley Jr., and Barry Goldwater. They added anticommunism to the traditional emphasis on pursuing the national interest. Though skeptical of international organizations, especially the United Nations, they made room for the network of alliances by which America contained the Soviet and Chinese empires. They strongly advocated every dimension of U.S. military power and rejoiced in expanding America’s influence. They were uneasy with such Wilsonian “internationalists” as John Foster Dulles, who was President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.

The right flank’s numbers increased when, as a result of the Vietnam War, the foreign policy Establishment’s liberal internationalist majority broke up. As its left wing moved gradually to oppose U.S. resistance to growing communist power, more traditional liberal internationalists—such as Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the magazine editors Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz—increasingly appreciated America’s virtues, and America itself. Some described themselves as having been “mugged by reality.” The label “neoconservative” fit. They joined or supported the Reagan administration. Through the Bush generation, and through ties to the media, they almost exclusively compose the right flank of the foreign policy Establishment.

For neoconservatives, the focus of U.S. foreign policy was and remains fuzzy. Yes, America’s peace and its interests are policy’s proper aim. But so are the peace and progress of mankind. Yes, a peaceful world that shares America’s values makes life easier for America. It needs to be asked: are the globe’s peace and progress the means to our peace and interest, or are they the incidental by product of it?

Stephens’ book keeps the focus fuzzy. While acknowledging that George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” promising “democracy for everyone from Karachi to Casablanca—was too hot,” he argues that the agenda of Posen and his like is “too cold.” It sounds like moderation, except when one notices that the book’s central argument is that we the American people should appoint ourselves as the world’s policemen.

To what end? “. . . if the world’s leading liberal democratic nation doesn’t assume the role as world policeman, the world’s rogues will try to fill the breach, often in league with one another. In short, if we do not police the globe, others will. If we do not impose our order, another order will be imposed.” Stephens leaves no doubt: order among nations is U.S. foreign policy’s primordial interest. Making it and keeping it is its primordial task. Yes, America faces multiple challenges. Some of them—China’s and Russia’s bids for primacy on either side of the Eurasian continent—are very big.

But America in Retreat is not about how to meet the big challenges. The author compares these challenges to the ones that major criminals posed to America’s cities a generation ago. He argues that they can be defeated as the wave of murders and robberies in America’s cities was defeated. Criminality flourished in places where minor crimes and disorders (vandalism, graffiti, non-payment of subway fares, and petty extortion) had been tolerated. By suppressing these minor crimes, cops on the beat discouraged the major criminals. Crime dropped.

By analogy, Stephens advocates a foreign policy that would “sharply punish violations of geopolitical norms.” By enforcing order through “mission-specific punitive police actions” in the world’s bad neighborhoods, Washington would signal to such as Moscow and Beijing that its “red lines” are for real.

Stephens believes that, like “broken windows policing” at home, this is a low-cost, high yield strategy for establishing and maintaining the Pax Americana. For example, he points out that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a good idea because it showed what happens to those who defy America. In fact, spending eight years, 4,000 lives, and a trillion dollars trying to turn Iraq into a democracy demonstrated bad judgment and impotence. The first Gulf War discouraged the great as well as the small from messing with America. The second Gulf War encouraged them to do so.

Yet Stephens’ interest extends beyond the interests of the United States. He writes that since the Americans cannot put out all geopolitical fires, the attention should go to places where the fires threaten the whole neighborhood and to cases “on the borders of existing free societies.”

Note, however, that relevance to freedom or to regional stability is not the same as relevance to U.S. interests. To see a connection between such police actions and U.S. interests, one would have to believe in the indirect effects of the “broken windows” theory.

The book’s fundamental assumption—that there exists a set of “geopolitical norms,” which some nation or coalition of nations establishes and enforces—may be widely shared. (See Henry Kissinger’ latest book, World Order.) But it is unfounded. In fact, such manifestations of order as historians discern, happen as individual nations each pursue their own objectives. Stephens wants us to enforce “geopolitical norms.” But whose? Only persons brought up in a latter-day Western academic environment can believe all, or even a significant part, of mankind can agree about such norms. The Chinese, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Russians, even the French are likely to have their own expectations about who is to prevail over whom, why, and how in any given circumstance. There is no reason why foreigners should see Stephens’ global cop as doing anything but advancing America’s peculiar proclivities.

In a Wall Street Journal article summarizing his book, Stephens thus expresses satisfaction that the American people are rediscovering the virtues of world order:

If our red lines are exposed as mere bluffs, more of them will be crossed. If our commitments to our allies aren’t serious, those allies might ignore or abandon us. If our threats are empty, our enemies will be emboldened and we will have more of them.

True. But this truth has to do with America’s own behavior with regard to America’s own interests, not with any world order. If any sort of international order were to result from our government’s seriousness about our own interests, so much the better. That is what the American people see, more clearly than does Stephens.

He advocates increasing our military power. But his focus on world order diffracts his understanding of this sine qua non of international seriousness. He wants 313 ships instead of 290, and the military to get 5.5 percent of GDP instead of 3.5 percent. But to do precisely what? To achieve precisely what? Nobody has ever been killed or deterred by a fraction of the Gross Domestic Product.

The American people have zero defenses against ballistic missiles from China and Russia. China is well on the way to being able to exclude U.S. forces from the Western Pacific rim. Our system for procuring military goods and services is dysfunctional to the point of corruption. Our military personnel system threatens to turn the U.S. armed forces into a welfare system with a few guns. One wonders why, given such obvious needs, Stephens prefers to advocate a general-purpose global police force rather than specify which military missions we must accomplish and explore how our forces can accomplish them.

In sum, these books express the views of the Establishment factions that share a monopoly of access to policymakers, legislators, and the media. Be it noted that neither faction has much grip on public opinion. Average Americans regard foreign affairs from a simple perspective: they want to have as little trouble as possible with foreigners. When troubles do arise, their near-universal sentiment tracks with how Ronald Reagan used to describe our aim in the Cold War: “We win, they lose.”

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