The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Case for Restraint

America has been trying to do too much with too little. It’s time to do less and succeed more.

Published on November 1, 2007

Since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment has gradually converged on a grand strategy for the United States. Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts now disagree little about the threats the United States faces and the remedies it should pursue. Despite the present consensus and the very great power of the United States, which mutes the consequences of even Iraq-scale blunders, a reconsideration of U.S. grand strategy seems inevitable as the costs of the current consensus mount—which they will. The current consensus strategy is unsustainable.

If we understand properly the current foreign policy consensus and review the four key forces affecting U.S. grand strategy, the contours of an alternative strategy will emerge. The alternative, a grand strategy of “restraint”, recommends policies dramatically different from those to which we have grown accustomed not just since the end of the Cold War, but since its beginning.11. Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press and Harvey M. Sapolsky, “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation”, International Security (Spring 1997). The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other.

The Consensus

A state’s grand strategy is its foreign policy elite’s theory about how to produce national security. Security has traditionally encompassed the preservation of a nation’s physical safety, the country’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, and its power position—the last being the necessary means to the first three. States have traditionally been willing to risk the safety of their people to protect sovereignty, territorial integrity and power position. A grand strategy enumerates and prioritizes threats and adduces political and military remedies for them. A grand strategy also explains why some threats attain a certain priority, and why and how the remedies proposed could work.

Democratic and Republican strategists alike hold that the most imminent threats today are threats to U.S. safety. Terrorism, basically Islamist in origin, is the key problem. It is caused by something that is wrong with Arab society in particular, but also the societies of other Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. “Rogue” states—with interests and forms of government different from our own, a willingness to use force and, in the worst case, an inclination to acquire nuclear weapons—are a closely related threat because they may assist terrorists. “Failed” states, and the identity politics that travels with them, are also a serious threat: They produce or nurture terrorists, and they produce human rights violations, refugees and crime. Declining U.S. global influence relative to the rise of one or more peer competitors sometimes is recognized as an overarching threat, but this is construed to be a more distant problem.

Based on this threat analysis, the consensus therefore supports a U.S. grand strategy of international activism. The United States must remain the strongest military power in the world by a wide margin. It should be willing to use force—even preventively, if need be—on a range of issues. The United States should directly manage regional security relationships in any corner of the world that matters strategically, which seems increasingly to be every corner of the world. The risk that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of violent non-state actors is so great that the United States should be willing to take extraordinary measures to keep suspicious countries possibly or even potentially in league with such actors from acquiring these weapons. Beyond uses of force, the United States should endeavor to change other societies so that they look more like ours. A world of democracies would be the safest for us, and we should be willing to pay considerable costs to produce such a world.

The key conceptual difference between the two political parties lies in attitudes toward international institutions: Democrats like and trust them; Republicans do not. Republicans accuse Democrats of a willingness to sacrifice U.S. sovereignty to these organizations. This is not the case. Democrats think that the great power of the United States will permit it to write the rules and dominate the outcomes in international institutions, thus producing a net gain in U.S. influence. Democrats accuse Republicans of not understanding this, especially of failing to appreciate the value of international legitimacy.

The Iraq war, meanwhile, has mainly produced only tactical arguments between the two parties. The most sustained critiques of the Bush Administration have centered on two issues: The poor quality of the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, and whether this was a result of honest error or political manipulation; and the Administration’s bungling of the occupation and reconstruction efforts, and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaign. Though some Democratic Party leaders believe the war was launched on false pretenses, its current presidential frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has not repudiated her original support for the war. Though some Democratic Senators and Congressmen voted against the 2002 resolution permitting the use of force against Iraq, few party leaders argue forthrightly that Iraq could have and should have been contained and deterred rather than invaded, even had the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs been correct. Advocates of a policy of containment and deterrence toward a potentially nuclear Iran are even harder to find.

Nor do Democrats assert that nation-, state- and democracy-building in Iraq were always fools’ errands; instead, they argue that it could and should have been done better. Even now, policy analysts connected to the Democratic Party offer implausible and internally contradictory schemes to get the United States out of Iraq while keeping the United States in Iraq.22. See James N. Miller and Shawn W. Brimley, Phased Transition: A Responsible Way Forward and Out of Iraq, Center for a New American Security, June 2007. Under this plan, 60,000 or more U.S. soldiers would still be in Iraq in January 2009, and the last ones would not leave until the end of 2012. We do not have a debate on the deep foundations of grand strategy in the U.S. mainstream today. Instead, we loudly dispute only those matters that lie close to the surface.

Four Facts

Since the Cold War ended, the United States has been affected by four important facts: the great concentration of capability in the United States relative to other consequential powers, a condition often shorthanded as “unipolarity”; the re-emergence of identity politics, especially amalgams of religion and ethno-nationalism, as the key ideational foundations of modern domestic and, to a lesser extent, international political conflict; the diffusion of power—especially military power—to nominally weak states and to non-state actors alike; and, finally, globalization.

These four facts each have discrete effects on the international environment, but they also interact. The consequences of their interaction have been costly to the United States and will likely continue to be so. Put simply, the great power of the United States has proved a constant temptation to action for policymakers, even as the other three factors have combined to increase the costs of U.S. action.

Unipolarity. By almost every reasonable measure the United States emerged from the Cold War as one of the most powerful states in history. Its population exceeded that of any other great or middle power except China and India, and has continued to grow. Its GDP was (and remains) two or three times that of its closest economic competitor. Even after post-Cold War reductions, U.S. military spending exceeded the combined defense budgets of most of the other large powers in the world; today it exceeds the defense spending of the rest of the entire world combined. U.S. military technology sets the world standard; its strategic nuclear and conventional forces are peerless. The United States had (and retains) command of the global commons—the sea, the air and space—and U.S. technical capabilities for intelligence collection far eclipse those of any other state. (Indeed, the U.S. intelligence budget alone has roughly equaled the entire defense budgets of Britain or France, two of the world’s most capable military powers, and the only ones other than the United States with any global reach.)

The United States also enjoyed (and still enjoys) a favorable geographical position—with weak and friendly neighbors to the north and south, oceans to the east and west. The Cold War network of global alliances, coupled with massive investments in strategic lift, gave the U.S. military the ability to put large forces almost anywhere there is a coastline. In 1991, five U.S. divisions reached Saudi Arabia in four months, and nearly ten in six months.

Additionally, the collapse of Soviet power, and the all-but-rhetorical abandonment of communist principles of economic, social and political organization in China, left Western elites, especially in the United States, with a feeling of ideological triumph. Democracy and capitalism had won the great ideological struggle of the 20th century, and it was easy to suppose that all that was left were mopping-up operations. Other nation-states would easily find their way to our way: History, if it wasn’t “over”, was certainly on our side.

These enormous strengths masked certain weaknesses, however. U.S. active ground forces have been relatively small since conscription was abandoned at the end of the Vietnam War. The all-volunteer ground forces of the United States shrunk quickly from their end-of-Cold War peak of nearly a million, reaching 470,000 in the Army and a bit under 170,000 in the Marines in 2001. By comparison, the United States had 440,000 soldiers and marines in Vietnam in 1969, out of a total personnel strength of nearly two million.

Even with the 92,000-soldier increase now pledged by Republicans and Democrats alike, U.S. ground forces will remain small. It is difficult to maintain more than a third of a professional ground force in combat at any one time without suffering acute retention, recruitment and training problems. The United States now has roughly half of its forces deployed, and this is widely understood to be unsustainable. The demands of the Iraq war have essentially swallowed the Army and Marines over the past five years, and other possible U.S. adversaries dwarf Iraq in population—Iran is nearly three times as populous, Pakistan nearly six times.

The U.S. national security establishment, to include the intelligence agencies and the State Department, also remains short of individuals who understand other countries and their cultures. It lacks sufficient numbers of analysts, diplomats, advisors and intelligence agents for the array of global engagement opportunities it has taken up. It also seems to lack the domestic political capacity to generate sufficient non-military material resources to support its foreign policy. Whether foreign economic assistance is money well spent or not, the United States has a difficult time generating these funds. In a more general sense, the American public has been trained by its politicians to be chary of taxes. So the U.S. government has financed much of its security effort since September 11, 2001 with borrowed money. Even obvious security-related taxes, such as a tax on gasoline to discourage consumption and thus help wean the United States off imported oil, find no political sponsors.

Identity Politics. Aside from Saddam Hussein’s attempted smash-and-grab robbery of Kuwait, the most troublesome conflicts of the post-Cold War world have been internal and have centered on identity politics. For the U.S. military this included Desert Storm’s unhappy postscript in the Kurdish and Shi‘a rebellions in northern and southern Iraq, respectively, and civil wars in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The United States eschewed military intervention to stop the Rwanda genocide, but those in the Clinton Administration who made this decision all regret it deeply, and most critics of this policy believe with unwarranted certainty that such an intervention would have been easy and successful.

The U.S. approach to all of these conflicts bore certain similarities rooted in U.S. liberalism, which exalts in the rational calculating individual and thus underestimates the power of group loyalty. The United States was usually surprised by one or more of the following: the outbreak of conflict itself, the extent of group ambitions, the ferocity of the violence, the intensity of group loyalties, and the cost and duration of any U.S. military intervention. This myopia crossed party lines: Most Republican security strategists have been as confounded by the bloody, stubborn and resilient identity politics of Iraq as the Clinton Administration was in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.

But why? Academic disputes aside, there is enough of an historical pattern of association between identity politics and violence that U.S. policymakers should know to take nationalism and religion seriously, both as immediate causes of violence and as key ingredients sustaining military capability and armed resistance—particularly in periods of political and economic insecurity.

The Diffusion of Power. The diffusion of power, especially of military capacity, is the third important trend of the last twenty years. Though the United States faces few if any plausible competitors in the open oceans or space, or even in the air at medium and high altitudes, states and groups have learned how to tilt with the Americans using the advantages of their home turf. Ruthless, committed and skilled Somalis, Iraqis, Afghans and miscellaneous al-Qaeda fighters have fought U.S. forces directly; they seldom “win”, but they do make the Americans pay. Somali, Iraqi and al-Qaeda air-defense gunners have shot down dozens of U.S. helicopters, mainly with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Serb SAM operators using mainly 1970s technology shot down few U.S. aircraft, but so complicated U.S. air operations that most Serb ground forces in Kosovo survived the 1999 air campaign.

At the same time, the ability to manufacture such relatively low-tech weapons has spread. Simple long-range artillery rockets and more complex anti-ship missiles manufactured in Iran turned up in the hands of Hizballah in the summer 2006 war with Israel. According to the U.S. government, components of “Explosively Formed Penetrators” (EFPs), off-route, anti-armored-vehicle mines discovered in Iraq were manufactured and supplied by Iran—which surely has more sophisticated versions of the same weapons on the other side of the border. Iran is also one of the world’s largest producers of new warheads for the ubiquitous Soviet-designed RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. More ominously, Iranian arms exporters now offer night-vision devices for sale. If they work, a presumed U.S. area of great tactical superiority in infantry combat will soon wane.

More important than the proliferation of moderately sophisticated conventional weapons is the apparent spread of military expertise. The combination of good-enough conventional weapons, large numbers of committed young men, proven tactics and competent training, cleverly adapted to urban, suburban and rural environments that favor infantry, has inflicted meaningful combat costs on high-technology U.S. ground forces. Costs get even higher if the United States or other Western forces intend to settle into other countries to reform their politics, and are thus forced into long counterinsurgency campaigns.

Globalization. Globalization is the final trend complicating U.S. foreign and security policy. I define globalization as the spread of capitalism across the globe along with the intensification of international trade and the diffusion of manufacturing, investment and finance. Globalization is enabled by the crumbling of old political barriers and by the continuing improvements in all modes of transportation for goods and people. The IT revolution, too, has made low-cost, high-bandwidth communications possible on a global scale.

Globalization has largely been embraced by U.S. business and political elites as a good thing. Certainly it offers economic opportunity to many formerly excluded from most of the benefits of modernity, and it seems to explain the vast abatement in acute poverty over the past dozen years. But all this opportunity and change come with a cost, and not for the first time.

The intensification of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century mobilized large numbers of people for politics by disrupting their traditional ways of life, drawing them into cities, subjecting them to the new insecurities of industrial capitalism, and exposing them to regular, intense political communication. Globalization is now having similar effects in many heretofore unperturbed parts of the world. Those socially mobilized for politics in the late 19th century became vulnerable to the appeals of nationalists, communists and fascists, all of whom offered simple and powerful ideologies of solidarity and inclusion in times of economic and political uncertainty. Estimates of population growth and urbanization over the next several decades suggest that the developing world will see a steady supply of urbanized citizens at the lower end of the income scale. Most will experience acute economic and personal insecurity at the same time that modern technology opens them to intense mass communications, and simultaneously permits small independent groups to communicate directly with large numbers of people. These individuals will seek political protection and participation, and will be vulnerable to political mobilization on the basis of identity politics. The governments of many developing countries are bound to have a hard time keeping up with these demands, so that political entrepreneurs will find fertile ground for appeals based on the resurrection of supposedly traditional values.

Globalization adds some new complications to these old processes. The intensity of international trade and investment makes it easy for political entrepreneurs to blame foreigners for local problems. The enhanced ability to communicate and travel makes it possible for like-minded groups in different countries to find each other, and to organize and cooperate.

To the generic problems posed by globalization must be added the peculiar tinder of the Arab world. There pan-Arab and Islamic identities overlap in 22 countries with a combined population of more than 200 million. Population growth and urbanization proceed apace but economic growth lags, and the political organization of these countries leaves vast numbers bereft of any sense of control over their destinies. The oil wealth of some Arab countries, compared with the poverty of others, fuels resentment. Oil and gas also bring the interests and presence of the great powers to the region, especially the United States. The emergence of an economically and militarily successful Westernized Jewish liberal democracy—Israel—in their midst serves both as a focus of identity politics and a reminder of the extent of Arab political failure in the postwar independence era. Macro-level economic and technological forces and specifically regional characteristics thus combine to create fertile ground in the Arab world for extremists hostile to existing international political and economic systems.

These four facts have interacted to draw the United States into costly national security policies that produce new problems faster than they can solve old ones. The great concentration of power in the United States skews the American security-policy debate toward activism. If the global distribution of power were more equal, U.S. policymakers would have to be more cautious about the projects they choose. The existence of a peer competitor would inject into the U.S. policy debate a persistent question: Will this project help or hurt our ability to deter or contain X? Moreover, it is tempting to imagine that with this much power, the United States could organize a safe world, once and for all—where the United States would remain the acknowledged military and ideological leader.

Whatever else it may achieve, U.S. activism is bound to discomfit other states. The great preponderance of U.S. power makes direct opposition to the United States difficult and dangerous, but other states are doing what they can to put themselves in a better position. Some fear U.S. freedom of action, worry about the possibility of being drawn into policies inimical to their interests, and so wish to distance themselves from the United States—even as they free-ride within the broader U.S. security umbrella. The European Union has gradually strengthened its military capabilities so that it can get along without the United States if it must. Others fear that U.S. policies will harm their interests indirectly, and look for ways to concert their power, as Russia and China have done in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Still others expect U.S. attentions to be directed straight at them, and so they seek to improve their abilities to deter U.S. military action or fight the United States directly if they must. North Korea and Iran pursue nuclear weapons for those purposes. Iran also has developed a conventional capability to inflict costs on U.S. forces in the Gulf and has been implicated in inflicting such costs in Iraq. To the extent that the United States continues its current activist policy path, these reactions will continue and will slowly increase the costs of future U.S. activism. They will also reduce the propensity of others to share these costs.

Anti-WTO protestors in the Philippines blame Uncle Sam, September 2003. [credit: Associated Press]

American activism also interacts with globalization to provoke negative reactions to the United States. Insofar as the U.S. economy is the largest and most dynamic in the world, the forces associated with globalization—trade, global supply chains, investment, travel and communications—are often associated with the United States by those experiencing the downside consequences. Not only does an activist foreign and security policy make the United States the most obvious unkind face of globalization, political entrepreneurs in the developing world will find it expedient to attribute the difficulties experienced by their target populations to the actions of the United States. When U.S. activism turns to direct military intervention in the affairs of other countries, local political leaders can rely on the most elemental of forces: nationalism.

Increased opportunities for travel and communications have enabled transnational groups, particularly al-Qaeda, to organize against the United States. They can mobilize people politically without one-to-one contact. Given populations of hundreds of millions, these organizations do not need a high conversion rate to sustain themselves. They need only produce sympathy on a large enough scale to provide an environment from which relatively modest material and human resources can be collected.

Al-Qaeda and other similar, but less ambitious, groups have also professionalized the training of their soldiers and terrorist operatives. They learn from one another, adapt to local circumstances, and profit from the more general availability of weaponry. The ease of international travel and trade allows human and material resources to be shifted rapidly from place to place. This turns U.S. interventions into opportunities for transnational anti-system groups like al-Qaeda to assist local resistance movements and to harness the power of nationalism and politicized religion to their more diffuse but still distinctly anti-American agenda.

The activist U.S. grand strategy currently preferred by the national security establishment in both parties thus has a classically tragic quality about it. Enabled by its great power, and fearful of the negative energies and possibilities engendered by globalization, the United States has tried to get its arms around the problem: It has essentially sought more control. But the very act of seeking more control injects negative energy into global politics as quickly as it finds enemies to vanquish. It prompts states to balance against U.S. power however they can, and it prompts peoples to imagine that the United States is the source of all their troubles.

Iraq should therefore be seen not as a singular debacle, but as a harbinger of costs to come. There is enough capacity and motivation out in the world to increase significantly the costs of any U.S. effort to manage global politics directly. Public support for this policy may wane before profligacy so diminishes U.S. power that it becomes unsustainable. But it would be unwise to count on it.

A Strategy of Restraint

If more activism has not produced better policy, what is to be done? The United States should try doing less: It should pursue a grand strategy of restraint. Less is not nothing, however, meaning in essence that the United States should conceive ways to shape rather than to control international politics.

We can well afford to think this way because extant threats to the United States are not threats to U.S. sovereignty. The country is in no danger of conquest or intimidation from those more powerful. U.S. territorial integrity is secure. The power position of the United States is excellent; any power position that allows a country to even think about running the world ought to provide ample capability for defense. Protecting this power position is an important goal, but direct action is the wrong way to go about it. If regional powers grow strong enough to threaten their neighbors—and perhaps ultimately threaten the United States—local actors will wish to balance that power. The United States should preserve an ability to help out if necessary, but it should be stingy in this regard. Others should get organized and dig into their own pockets before the United States shows up to help. U.S. command of the sea, air and space enables such assistance, but, coupled with a favorable geographic position, it also permits the United States to wait. This capability should cast a stabilizing shadow in any case.

Today the most imminent U.S. security problem has to do not with conquest or intimidation but safety. Here, at least, the consensus view is correct. The main discrete threat is al-Qaeda, but if the foregoing analysis is right, there are deeper forces feeding that organization than its interpretation of religious texts. These forces could give rise to other violent organizations. In other words, al-Qaeda is not the problem, but a particularly threatening example of a condition of global disorder and disaffection capable of giving rise to numerous such groups, Islamist and otherwise. This condition is the problem, which American power and actions over the years have done a good deal, albeit inadvertently, to cause, but cannot now easily or by themselves redress.

This threat should not be minimized, but neither should it be exaggerated. Al-Qaeda is ruthless, persistent and creative. It and other groups yet to form will retain the ability to kill tens and hundreds if not occasionally thousands with materials already at hand. This will not bring down the United States, however, and it would be wise to stop suggesting to these groups that it can. If such groups get their hands on a nuclear weapon and use it, our costs obviously go much higher, but even then the United States would still go on. Its soldiers and agents will hunt down the perpetrators and whoever helped them, no matter how long it takes. Public repetition of this promise may assist in deterrence, and a single effective execution after the fact may contribute to the deterrence of subsequent attacks. That is obvious, but still unsettling. Discomfort with punishment after the fact leads policymakers to consider preventive war against new nuclear weapons states for fear that they will give nuclear weapons to terrorists, or simply lose them. But a rich and capable country that asks its citizens to commit hundreds of billions of dollars annually to defense ought to be able to come up with a better answer than an open-ended series of costly preventive wars.

Two strategies have been suggested to take on al-Qaeda. The Bush Administration has pursued the first: an expansive strategy of direct offensive action. Its priorities, however, have been bizarre. It appropriately first went after al-Qaeda and its immediate friends in Afghanistan, but before finishing the job quickly turned to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, dubious future allies of al-Qaeda. By the U.S. intelligence community’s own admission, the respite allowed al-Qaeda to recover.

Moreover, the United States has squandered one relatively constant factor that should work in its favor. Al-Qaeda’s very nature condemns it to theatrical terrorist attacks against innocent people, and such attacks have a way of alienating potential supporters. By overstressing offensive action in Iraq, and in particular by occupying an Arab country, the United States has added credence to the al-Qaeda story in the Arab world, and done a terrible job of telling its own.

After September 11, I suggested a second strategy—more defensive than offensive and more precisely directed at al-Qaeda.33. Posen, “The Struggle Against Terrorism, Grand Strategy, Strategy, and Tactics”, International Security (Winter 2001–02). We should seek to draw as many other states as possible into the effort, while avoiding adding new facts to the jihadi narrative. The United States needs to reduce, not increase, its presence within the abode of Islam. The U.S. military should abandon permanent and semi-permanent land bases in Arab countries, and generally lower the profile of its military and security cooperation with Arab states. The fight against al-Qaeda should continue, but it should be conducted in the world of intelligence. Cooperation with foreign intelligence and police agencies comes first, but the U.S. intelligence community may need to engage in direct action from time to time. To the extent that the United States has interests in the Arab world that can only be pursued with old-fashioned military power, such as the possible need to defend Arab states from Iranian expansionism, the United States should rely on its massive power-projection capabilities. The U.S. military should be “over the horizon.”

Politically, the United States needs projects in the developing world that are consistent with U.S. values and that permit the United States to look like the “good guy.” Three steps commend themselves. First, the United States should build on the experience of Operation Unified Assistance, which provided prompt relief to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. The remarkable power-projection capability of the U.S. military provides an inherent capability to get into many major natural disaster areas “first with the most.” Assistance rendered by the U.S. military in the early desperate days after the disaster brought fairly dramatic political results, not least in Indonesia. Disasters happen, and the United States can gain significant political respect for helping victims dig out of them. And in contrast to peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations, which for many have the same purpose, natural-disaster relief has a natural exit strategy.

Second, instead of focusing on the export of democracy, which we lack sufficient cause-effect knowledge to accomplish in any case, let us recommend practices that will allow others to find their own way to democracy—or at least to more benign forms of government. The United States should therefore make itself a voice for the rule of law, for press freedom and for the rights of collective bargaining, not just or mainly for democracy.

Third, the United States should be willing to assist in humanitarian interventions, but under reasonable guidelines. The most important guideline is to avoid overselling the prospective results to the American people. When the United States is about to engage in armed philanthropy, it should not disguise the effort as the pursuit of a security interest. If the latter is required to sell the policy, then the policy is already in trouble. Once characterized as a security interest, the U.S. Congress and the public expect that the United States will lead the fight; that decisive military means will be employed; and that victory will be achieved—all of which raises U.S. military and political costs. Instead, the United States should only engage in armed philanthropy in coalitions, operating under some kind of regional or international political mandate. The United States should not insist on leadership; indeed, it should avoid it whenever possible. On the whole, too, the United States should offer logistical rather than direct combat assets.

The United States must also develop a more measured view of the risks of nuclear proliferation. Without the promiscuous use of preventive war, it will not be possible to stop all possible new nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear weapons are no longer mysterious, but neither are they easy to get. It is costly and technically difficult to produce fissionable material in quantities sufficient for nuclear weapons, and only a few countries can do it. It has taken a good bit of time for those smaller states who wished to develop nuclear weapons to get them. Though an imperfect regime, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency do provide obstacles to the development of nuclear weapons, and some early warning that mischief is afoot. Good intelligence work can provide more warning, and well-crafted intelligence operations could presumably slow the diffusion of nuclear know-how, and even the progress of national nuclear programs, if need be.

It is worthwhile to keep proliferation relatively costly and slow because other states require time to adapt to such events, and extra time would be useful to explain to new nuclear powers the rules of the game they are entering. U.S. policymakers feel compelled to trumpet that all options, including force, are on the table when dealing with “rogue” state proliferators. True enough: The United States is a great military power and on vital security matters its forces can never be off the table. But preventive war must never become either a casual or a default policy choice. It has serious and probably enduring political costs, which the United States need not incur. Deterrence is still a better strategy.

The United States is a great nuclear power and should remain so. Against possible new nuclear powers such as North Korea or Iran, U.S. capabilities are superior in every way. In contrast to the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, where neither country would have survived a nuclear exchange, it is clear which nation would survive such an exchange between the United States and North Korea or Iran. Indeed, these states should be made to worry that they will be vulnerable to preemptive nuclear attacks by the United States in the unhappy event that they attempt to make nuclear threats over important issues. Similarly, new nuclear states ought not to be encouraged through loose talk to believe that they can give nuclear weapons to others to use on the United States and somehow free themselves of the risks of U.S. retaliation. Clear deterrent statements and strong nuclear forces are preferable to preventive war, because deterrence is both a more credible and more sustainable policy.

Encourage Responsibility

Finally, U.S. security guarantees and security assistance tend to relieve others of the need to do more to ensure their own security, and they often ironically enable others to pursue policies that are unhelpful to the United States. The United States should stop offering such guarantees and assistance. A U.S. strategy of restraint must include a coherent, integrated and patient effort to encourage its long-time wards to look after themselves. If others do more, this will not only save U.S. resources, it will increase the political salience of other countries in the often bitter discourse over globalization. If other consequential powers benefit as much from globalization as does the United States, they should share ownership of its political costs. If others need to pay more for their security, they will think harder about their choices.

Virtually all existing U.S. international relationships need to be rethought in this light. Policy changes must be implemented as a package to produce the desired effect, but it would not be prudent to launch these policies overnight. A governing rule should be not to shift positions so rapidly or decisively that altered regional politics open windows of vulnerability or opportunity that either tempt or compel military action. Three examples will serve to suggest the magnitude of the changes I have in mind: NATO, Israel and Japan.

The effort to preserve and expand NATO, a project aimed at ensuring U.S. power and influence in Eurasia, enabled the excessive draw-down of some European military capabilities, notably those of Germany and Italy, and deflected possible improvements in European and EU military capacities. This also has had the effect of allowing EU members to postpone decisions about how to integrate Turkey into Europe: They can merely consign this task to NATO and the United States. The United States should develop a ten-year plan to turn NATO into a more traditional political alliance. During this decade, U.S. forces should gradually withdraw from all military headquarters and commands in Europe, which could migrate to the EU if Europeans still find them useful.

U.S. military assistance to Israel makes the occupation of the territories relatively inexpensive for Israeli political leaders, and implicates the United States in the deed. This may not be “central” to U.S. problems in the Arab world, as so many insist, but it certainly does not help. The United States should therefore develop a ten-year plan to reduce U.S. government direct financial assistance to Israel to zero. Israel is now a prosperous country that happens to be surrounded by military powers lacking any capacity to conquer it. Two of these countries, Egypt and Jordan, have peace treaties with Israel, and the rest have no possible superpower patron to back them with new supplies of modern conventional offensive weapons. Israel has to decide on the merits, and within its own sovereign capacities, how much the occupied territories matter to its security, and how to allocate security spending accordingly.

Too close for comfort? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with President Bush in August [credit: Associated Press]

Israel is not an enemy of the United States and will not become one: friendly relations should continue. Israel should be permitted to purchase spare parts for existing U.S. military equipment and new military equipment to the extent necessary to ensure a regional military balance conducive to peace. To ensure that the reduction of military assistance to Israel is perceived as fair in American politics, and to ensure against the creation of any windows of vulnerability or opportunity, U.S. assistance to Egypt should be put on the same diet, with due allowance for Egypt’s comparative poverty. The United States should also practice restraint in all its arms sales to the region and encourage others to do the same. If other states attempt to disrupt the regional military balance, the United States can reconsider these decisions, and should make clear that it would not hesitate to do so.

The United States also needs to reconsider its security relationship with Japan. The current relationship allows Japan to avoid the domestic political debate necessary to determine a new role for itself in Asia. In particular, it allows Japan to avoid coming to terms with its own past and relieves it of the necessity to develop diplomatic strategies to make it more “alliance worthy” in Asia. The modalities of a change in the alliance with Japan are trickier than they are in Europe because Asia is a more unsettled place due to China’s rapid economic expansion and concomitant military improvements. Nevertheless, change is in order.

Since the end of the Cold War 16 years ago, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been running an experiment with U.S. grand strategy. The theory to be tested has been this: Very good intentions, plus very great power, plus action can transform both international politics and the domestic politics of other states in ways that are advantageous to the United States, and at costs it can afford. The evidence is in: The experiment has failed. Transformation is unachievable, and costs are high.

The United States needs now to test a different grand strategy: It should conceive its security interests narrowly, use its military power stingily, pursue its enemies quietly but persistently, share responsibilities and costs more equitably, watch and wait more patiently. Let’s do this for 16 years and see if the outcomes aren’t better.

Click to read comments from Francis Fukuyama, Josef Joffe, Walter Russell Mead, Niall Ferguson, Owen Harries, G. John Ikenberry, Lilia Shevtsova, Stephen D. Krasner, Wang Jisi, James Q. Wilson, Bronislaw Geremek, C. Raja Mohan, Ruth Wedgwood and Itamar Rabinovich.

1. Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press and Harvey M. Sapolsky, “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation”, International Security (Spring 1997). 2. See James N. Miller and Shawn W. Brimley, Phased Transition: A Responsible Way Forward and Out of Iraq, Center for a New American Security, June 2007. Under this plan, 60,000 or more U.S. soldiers would still be in Iraq in January 2009, and the last ones would not leave until the end of 2012. 3. Posen, “The Struggle Against Terrorism, Grand Strategy, Strategy, and Tactics”, International Security (Winter 2001–02).

Barry R. Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.