I cannot respond fully to the mix of support, constructive criticism and acerbic witticism that greeted my essay in these pages. I see five main arguments in these responses. First, the United States cannot restrain itself; its behavior is natural and normal. Second, my general and specific guidance will find no support either in the U.S. public or policy elite. Third, the changed relationship with specific regions that I suggest will leave those regions worse off from a security point of view; the states there will be unable to manage; and that this will ultimately redound to the disadvantage of the United States. Fourth, there are plenty of good things the United States can do with its power, if it behaves with just a bit of moderation. Fifth, the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons in the wrong hands overshadows any political gains the United States might accrue from restraint, and indeed necessitates that it actively suppress the diffusion of the technology that permits the acquisition of nuclear weapons to any state with which it has disagreements.
I argued in my essay that the United States has indeed been unable to restrain itself. I note that the interaction of great U.S. power, the re-emergence of identity politics and the forces unleashed by globalization have produced not only a fractious world, but one that the United States is sorely tempted to administer. Is this response wise? Josef Joffe observes that “great powers seek order beyond their borders, and rightly so, because they have other vital interests.” By the time he, Walter Mead, Lilia Shevtsova and others are done listing all of America’s interests, it is pretty hard to separate the vital from the merely interesting.
This impulse to administer is not good for U.S. security. It weakens rather than improves the U.S. power position, because others have become capable enough to force us to spend our power lavishly and faster than we can accrue more of it. Though it may reduce the power of some, our military activism increases the propensity of others to build up their capabilities. Finally, the U.S. propensity to intervene in the affairs of others generates hostility. Costs are not commensurate with the benefits. Fukuyama, Harries, Wang, Geremek and Mohan seem to agree to some extent.
Would the U.S. public and elite support the policy of “restraint” I advance? My goal in the essay was to sketch the framework of an alternative...