Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

It's Not Too Late for Restrained U.S. Foreign Policy

| Mar. 14, 2024

The calls for renewed U.S. global leadership are getting louder. They're as mistaken as they ever were.

During the Cold War, proposals that the United States adopt a more modest or restrained foreign policy never attracted much support within the foreign-policy establishment. To be sure, prominent realists such as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Kenneth Waltz, Walter Lippmann, and others were sharply critical of America's worst foreign-policy excesses—most notably in Vietnam—and each favored a more modest and less militarized foreign policy. Libertarians seeking to shrink the federal government also sought to reduce U.S. overseas commitments, but the bipartisan desire to vanquish Soviet communism kept such proposals at the margins of foreign-policy discourse. Calls for restraint or retrenchment were equally unwelcome during the subsequent "unipolar moment," when American elites believed the tides of history were flowing their way and sought to bring the entire world into a peaceful and prosperous liberal order, under the benevolent arm of America's unmatched power.

As the failures that accompanied this period of hubris piled up, however, the case for a more realistic and sensible foreign policy became harder to ignore. The publication of MIT professor Barry Posen's Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy in 2014 was an important milestone, along with related works by other scholars (including yours truly). The election of Donald Trump in 2016 played a role, too: Although Trump's actions as president were a far cry from the restrainers' recommendations, his rhetorical attacks on many of the central orthodoxies shaping U.S. foreign policy and evident disdain for the foreign-policy establishment created space for a more open discussion of these issues. The founding of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in 2019, along with related initiatives at Defense Priorities, the Stimson Center's Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program, and the Carnegie Endowment’s program on American Statecraft were additional signs that the restraint movement was gaining momentum. (Full disclosure: I've been a nonresident fellow at Quincy since its founding and joined its board of directors last year.)

Among the signs that the restraint movement was achieving liftoff were the attacks it began to receive from critics who remained staunchly committed to an expansive view of U.S. global leadership or a desire to preserve the fraying liberal order. These attacks typically misrepresented what restrainers were recommending—often by falsely portraying them as "isolationists"—and the tendentious nature of some of these critiques suggested that mainstream figures were starting to worry that the ideas advanced by restrainers might gain a substantial following and eventually lead to significant changes in America's approach to the rest of the world.

That was then; this is now. The idea of restraint had undeniable appeal in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but great-power rivalry tops the agenda today. China's power is still rising despite its economic woes, and its desire to alter the status quo in Asia is undiminished. Russia has invaded Ukraine and holds the upper hand there now, though its gains have come at a very high cost. Cooperation among China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and a few other countries has increased, and efforts to rebuild European defense capabilities are moving more slowly than many had hoped. A brutal bloodletting is underway in Gaza, and the risk that the war will spread remains unacceptably high. Civil wars and jihadi movements continue to shatter lives in Sudan, Libya, Ethiopia, and several other African countries, while Russia and China continue to court governments there with some success. The hubris of the 1990s may be gone, but so is the belief that conflict among major powers is unthinkable.

Given all these developments, does a foreign policy based on realism and restraint still make sense? Is it time for Americans to dig deep, pick up the mantle of global leadership once again, and get busy heading off a "geopolitical hard landing"? Has the time for restraint come and gone?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“It's Not Too Late for Restrained U.S. Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt