The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Restoration Doctrine

An American foreign policy doctrine for the nonpolar moment.

Published on December 9, 2011

Written by Sheldon Harnick and performed by the Kingston Trio and others, “The Merry Minuet” did a fair job of capturing the burgeoning uncertainties of the late 1950s: 

They’re rioting in Africa. They’re starving in Spain. There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain./The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles./Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much!/ But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud, for man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud./And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off…and we will all be blown away./They’re rioting in Africa. There’s strife in Iran. What nature doesn’t do to us…will be done by our fellow man.

More than half a century later, some of this unhappy list—hurricanes, droughts, African riots, Iranian strife, Franco-German tensions—holds up all too well. And it would not take much time or imagination to update the lyrics to add tsunamis and nuclear disasters in Japan, upheaval across much of the Middle East, sky-high oil prices, war in Afghanistan, persistent unemployment, mounting debt in the developed world, climate change, terrorism, an aggressive and WMD proliferation-prone North Korea, an ambitious Iran, and a rising China. 

For all this and more, though, the world is in relatively decent shape. Europe, the arena where much of the two world wars and the Cold War was waged during the previous century, is mostly stable and calm. The biggest problems there tend to be about budgets, not bombs, financing welfare, not war. Asia, too, is relatively stable despite a level of economic dynamism that has historically proved disruptive, some heavy-handed Chinese diplomacy and the absence of extensive regional arrangements comparable to those that exist in Europe. Latin America is mostly characterized by economic growth, open societies and peace; there are of course exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions. Africa resists generalization, but a good many countries there are enjoying considerable stability and growth; the few cases of civil conflict are awful, to be sure, but mostly local in their consequences. 

The greater Middle East is something of an outlier to this mostly positive picture. It has been by most measures the least successful region of the world, one characterized by frequent wars, seemingly insoluble conflicts, the spread of nuclear materials, terrorism, weak regional institutions and poor integration, and a near total absence of political legitimacy within many of its countries. It is much too soon to conclude that recent political developments in the region will change much or any of this either favorably or enduringly. 

More broadly, 21st-century international relations will be characterized by nonpolarity: a world dominated not by one, two or even several states but rather by dozens of states and other actors possessing and exercising military, economic, diplomatic and cultural power. This is not your father’s world dominated by the United States, Western Europe and Japan. Nor is it a world dominated by two superpowers, as it was during the Cold War, or by one, as it was for a brief moment in the aftermath of the Cold War. Power will increasingly be found in many hands in many places. The result will be a world where power diffuses, not concentrates. 

This world of increasingly distributed power has come about for several reasons: the ability of some “emerging economy” states to assemble the necessary prerequisites of significant economic growth; political difficulties in much of the developed world in maintaining fiscal stability and sustaining high levels of economic growth; high consumption of oil, which has channeled vast sums of wealth into the hands of a relatively small number of producing countries; technological innovations that have made it possible for individuals and small groups to gain access to information and communicate directly; and a technologically enabled globalization, which has made it possible for numerous non-state actors (from al-Qaeda to CNN to Goldman Sachs to Greenpeace) to amass power in one form or another and deploy it to exert meaningful influence. 

Every era is defined by its principal challenges and how (and how well) they are tackled. For the 20th century, it was great power competition: the attempts by Germany, Japan and then the Soviet Union to establish global primacy and the efforts (ultimately successful) of the United States and a shifting coalition of partners to stop them. The result was nothing less than two hot world wars and a Cold War that mercifully stayed that way. 

Today, the principal threat to world order—above all, to global peace and prosperity—is not a push for dominance by any great power. For one thing, today’s great powers are not all that great. Russia still has a mostly one-dimensional economy heavily dependent on oil, gas and minerals, and it is hobbled by corruption and a shrinking population. China is constrained by its enormous and aging population, large social needs and a top-heavy political system that is far less dynamic than its economy. If that political system cannot continue to deliver improved living standards for 800 million people who are still very poor by any measure, it will likely come under direct challenge. India, too, is burdened by its numbers and poverty along with inadequate infrastructure and often sclerotic government.

Europe, despite a GDP slightly larger than that of the United States, punches far below its weight given its pan-European parochialism, its pronounced anti-military culture, and the unresolved tensions between the pull of nationalism and the commitment to building a collective union; for all these reasons its whole is much less than the sum of its parts. Japan is constrained by an aging society, an anachronistic political process and the burden of its history. Brazil and several other countries are on the verge of becoming global forces but are not quite there.

As a result, the biggest external threat confronting the United States is not a great power competitor. Rather it is the spread of nuclear materials and weapons, the possibility of pandemic disease, the uncertainties of climate change and a breakdown in the functioning of the world’s financial and trade systems. In short, it is the dark side of globalization that constitutes many of the sources of disorder in the world. 

Outlook is just as important as an explanation of contemporary international relations as any constraint. The world’s most powerful countries may not always agree with the United States, but rarely do they see it as implacably hostile or as an impediment to their core objectives. Each is to a significant extent preoccupied with its own domestic economic, social and political challenges. Each has a stake in cooperating to at least some degree on dealing with shared regional and global challenges. None has the power to overthrow the existing international order. And to repeat, since it is a point of maximal importance, none views the United States as pursuing a foreign policy inimical to its national interests. China and the other major and rising powers of the world seek less to overthrow the existing international order than to join it or something very close to it. They are more interested in integration, even if on somewhat revised terms, than in revolution. U.S. relations with the principal new powers of this era, both large and mid-range (such as Brazil, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa and arguably several others), are for the most part good—or at least good enough. 

The 21st century, only a decade old, is different from the ones that preceded it in other ways as well. We are in the early stages of what might be termed the post-Atlantic era of international relations. This is partly an ironic result of Europe’s success. The Continent that was the locale of so much history during the past century is largely whole, free and calm. France, Germany and Great Britain, three of the principal protagonists of early 20th-century history, are fully and seemingly permanently reconciled. The 21st century is far more likely to kick up dust in the Asia-Pacific region, the Greater Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

One final facet of the contemporary world merits mention. As already noted, no traditional strong state poses an existential threat to the United States for the foreseeable future. What may be a bigger problem, though, are medium-sized hostile states: Iran and North Korea come to mind, as in a somewhat different but still troubling way does Pakistan. These states, which have or, in the case of Iran, could soon have weapons of mass destruction, can create outsized problems. So too can weak states. Weak states are the most unable, unwilling or both to police their own territory to ensure that it is not used by terrorists, drug cartels or pirates. Weak states can dilute international efforts to battle disease, and weak states are most likely to suffer humanitarian crises with which they cannot cope. Weak states also attract the attention of hostile medium-sized states and non-state actors, which is what makes Somalia and Yemen so dangerous when seen in the context of Islamist terrorist groups, and what makes a weak state like Lebanon so problematic when seen in the context of Iranian pretensions to regional hegemony. 

If this is what the world of the 21st century looks like, then what should define and guide American foreign policy? It is not a new question; to the contrary, it has been with us for a generation, ever since the end of the Cold War and the demise of Containment, the doctrine that made the case for resisting the spread of Soviet power and influence. Containment could not survive its own success. Having guided the unraveling of both the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union itself, it is at best of limited relevance to the post-Cold War world. Absent the emergence of an overarching threat, what is needed is a doctrine that helps the United States determine what it would favor as much as what it would resist. 

Four ideas have dominated this post-Cold War debate: democracy promotion, humanitarianism, counterterrorism and integration. All have been tried, and all have been found wanting. Multilateralism, sometimes put forward as a doctrine, is in reality nothing more than a methodology for implementing foreign policy and so does not even qualify for consideration.

Democracy promotion is the perennial choice of many across the political spectrum. For a century, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have to varying degrees embraced the spread of democracy as a foreign policy objective. It is consistent with American values and a necessary precondition of the democratic peace, the idea that mature democracies treat not only their own citizens better but their neighbors as well. It was central to the foreign policy of George W. Bush, both rhetorically (his second inaugural stated that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one”) and actually (the Iraq War was launched in part to create a democratic Iraq that would serve as an irresistable model for the rest of the region and beyond). Democracy promotion was also an important facet of the foreign policies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and it occupies a conspicuous if inconsistent space in the foreign policy of Barack Obama.

There are, however, several problems with a foreign policy that places a high priority on spreading democracy. One is the reality that it can be exceedingly difficult to pull off; there are no cookbooks, no recipes, to use. As we are seeing in the Middle East, it is one thing to oust an authoritarian regime and something else entirely (and far more difficult) to replace it with anything demonstrably and enduringly better. Phrases like “democratic revolution” and “Arab Spring” are widely employed, but it is anything but certain that what is unfolding will produce revolutionary change or lead to genuine, let alone liberal democracy in even a single Arab country. Iraq and Afghanistan are both cautionary tales here as well, in that the costs of occupation and nation-building are too great for them to be a template for what the United States might do elsewhere. There is also the inherent complication of needing to work with non-democracies to achieve other pressing foreign policy goals. Overactive democracy promotion would get in the way of cooperation on other matters ranging from counterterrorism and conflict resolution to counterproliferation, trade promotion and economic development. Relations with China are only the most obvious example of such complications.

Humanitarianism is another contender for America’s post-Cold War doctrine, and it is one that animated much of the foreign policy of the Clinton Administration, especially in places like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. More recently, it led to American support for and participation in the intervention in Libya (whereupon it morphed from a limited humanitarian intervention into a regime-change-by-proxy operation). The international community has enshrined the “responsibility to protect” as an obligation all states must fulfill on behalf of threatened peoples everywhere. The appeal of humanitarianism is obvious: to save innocent lives. Alas, there is no shortage of situations calling out for such intervention.

But therein precisely lies part of the problem with humanitarianism: It makes almost unlimited demands on American resources at a time when they are strained. Moreover, addressing the root causes of humanitarian crises can require long-term capacities for nation- and state-building, which is an even more demanding and expensive proposition, and which can arise in places where vital U.S. interests are conspicuously absent. Humanitarianism also provides no guidance on what the United States should be prepared to do in a host of other situations in which vital U.S. interests may be at stake, or where political, economic or strategic problems arise rather than humanitarian ones.

Counterterrorism understandably gained currency in the aftermath of 9/11. Like humanitarianism, it is more defined by what it is against than by what it is for. Like humanitarianism, it too can be carried out on a tactical level (dealing with a particular manifestation of the problem) or strategically (dealing with the root causes). But counterterrorism is also much too narrow in scope to provide useful guidance for dealing with many of the challenges and opportunities posed by globalization and this era of international relations. At the end of the day, terrorism is but one challenge among many. Dealing with it is a necessary component of American foreign policy, but it cannot be the whole of it, nor can it provide a conceptual framework for that whole.

Integration has been the fourth and final contender for the status of U.S. doctrine. Unlike containment, which was about limiting the reach of selected countries, integration is about bringing them in. Integration aims to develop rules and institutions to govern international relations so as to persuade other powers that strengthening these rules is in their own vital interests. As is the case with democracy promotion, integration represents a “positive” approach to foreign policy in that it emphasizes a set of objectives to be created rather than frustrated. 

However, at its core integration is fundamentally different from democracy promotion. Democracy promotion seeks to change the internal nature of other countries, both out of principle and out of the belief that democracies behave better beyond their borders. Integration, by contrast, focuses not on the internal character of states but mostly on what states do beyond their borders. It is a foreign policy that seeks to influence mostly the foreign policies of others and so aligns with “realist” conceptions of international politics. Indeed, integration is premised on the idea that international cooperation is possible between democracies and governments that sit on top of relatively closed political and economic structures, because systemic incentives can outweigh ideological and other more parochial motivations. The U.S. ability to regulate competition and avoid conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War is one example of this thesis at work, as is today’s U.S.-China relationship. So, too, are Israel’s peace arrangements with authoritarian Egypt and Jordan. 

Integration was the implicit underpinning of President George H.W. Bush’s call for a “New World Order”, an objective for a more cooperative era of relations articulated in the wake of both the Cold War and the successful international collaboration that ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait. Elements of integration could also be observed in both the Clinton era (NAFTA comes to mind) and, to a lesser extent, the George W. Bush era (global counterterrorism arrangements). Integration has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the initial years of the Obama Administration. We can see it in the effort to engage broadly with China, to “reset” relations with Russia, to create a global mechanism to slow climate change, to establish a framework for expanded ties with Brazil, to advocate for India gaining a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and to act in Libya under a broadly multilateral aegis and UN imprimatur. 

But the bottom line is that integration, however desirable, is more an aspiration than an immediate reality. World trade talks are stalled. Global climate change talks are in even worse shape. Agreement on what to do to denuclearize North Korea, prevent Iran’s nuclearization, or deal with global economic challenges (despite the birth of the G-20) is sharply limited. The fact is that the benefits of inclusion in a global commons cannot be expected to outweigh parochial aspirations in many respects. 

There is more than a little irony in my pointing this out, since I developed and introduced the idea of integration a decade ago when I was Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Why is the idea not gaining more traction? The simple answer, as already suggested, is that most governments are more sensitive to immediate domestic political and economic pressures and interests than they are to medium- and long-term considerations, be they strategic or economic. This goes a long way toward explaining the lack of push behind a new world trade pact. There are also flat-out disagreements. For example, there is no consensus on the limits of sovereignty or on the appropriate times to use military force. Finally, there are differing priorities and differing resource constraints. Integration, still perhaps the most appealing foreign policy compass for the long-term, is an idea whose time has not yet come. 

I n principle, America’s leaders could live without a foreign policy doctrine, either because it is too hard to come up with one that fits the world or because a doctrine may be more of a luxury than a necessity. Some have suggested that we should indeed live without one. However, while no framework can be expected to provide guidance to every foreign policy choice, a doctrine serves many useful purposes. It can provide overall policy direction and help establish priorities. It can help shape, size and steer the allocation of resources. And a doctrine can send useful signals to allies, adversaries, the public and Congress.

The good news is that there is a doctrine that fits the circumstances of the United States at this moment in history. It is one that judges the world to be relatively unthreatening (again, compared to what we experienced in the previous century), and it makes the most of this situation. The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic as opposed to international challenges in favor of the former. There are several reasons for doing so: to address critical domestic needs, but also to rebuild the foundation of this country’s strength so that it is in a better position in the future to stave off potential strategic challengers or to be better prepared for them should they emerge all the same. My term for such a foreign policy is “Restoration”: an American foreign policy based on restoring this country’s strength and replenishing its economic, human and physical resources. 

Before anyone even thinks it, let alone says it, let me preempt: Restoration is not isolationism. Isolationism is the willful turning away from the world even when a rigorous assessment of U.S. interests (and what could be done to promote them) argues for acting boldly on their behalf. Isolationism makes no sense in the 21st century; the United States cannot wall itself off from global threats such as terrorism, proliferation, protectionism, pandemic disease, climate change or a loss of access to financial, energy and mineral resources. Nor should we deny ourselves the possibility of actually making the world more peaceful and open. Embracing isolationism (in fact, even if not in name) would accelerate the emergence of a more disorderly and dangerous world, and thus also a less prosperous and free one.

No, Restoration is something very different than isolationism. It does not mean having little or no foreign policy. To the contrary, the United States would continue to carry out an active foreign policy: creating or adapting international arrangements to manage the challenges and threats inherent in globalization; negotiating bilateral, regional and global trade, energy and climate pacts; invigorating alliances and partnerships; and dealing with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a dangerous Iran and a failing Pakistan. 

Restoration, however, would differ in important ways from the current, default policy of the post-Cold War period. One way to describe those differences is to point out that the United States would carry out foreign policy based less on the optimistic view of what America might accomplish if everything were to break its way, and more on a realistic view of how to position ourselves in case things do not. One might call it a less discretionary, less upbeat (at least in terms of its assumptions) approach to the world. Above all, there would be less resort to military force. 

Are we not already doing this, it might be asked? President Obama appeared to cast his support for a doctrine of Restoration in his June 22 remarks announcing the beginning of troop reductions in Afghanistan. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home”, he famously said. The decision to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by the end of 2012 is arguably consistent with this theme, as was the policy of limiting U.S. military involvement in Libya and allowing NATO allies to assume a significant share of the burden. But there are elements of President Obama’s foreign policy that are inconsistent with a doctrine of Restoration: the 2009 buildup and change of strategic orientation in Afghanistan, the glacial pace of the drawdown there, along with the fundamental decision to intervene militarily in Libya. The President’s unwillingness to embrace the comprehensive deficit-reduction plan put forward by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a commission he himself empowered, is another policy at odds with Restoration. 

Specifically, under a Restoration doctrine, there would be fewer wars of choice in America’s future. Wars of choice are defined as armed interventions in which either the interests at stake are less than vital or where viable alternative policies are available. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq War and the recent Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be—potentially, at least—wars of necessity involving vital interests, wars for which all alternatives to the use of military force have been exhausted. 

Modern wars of necessity include the Korean War, the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Afghanistan after 9/11. Interestingly, Afghanistan evolved from a war of necessity into a costly and futile war of choice early in 2009 when the Obama Administration sharply increased force levels and elected to target the resurgent Taliban and not just al-Qaeda. Similarly, the Korean War began as a war of necessity (following the North Korean invasion) but morphed into a war of choice when the United States drove north of the 38th parallel in an effort to reunify the country rather than settle for liberating South Korea (which it ultimately did after a loss of 30,000 additional American lives).

Going forward, the adoption of a doctrine of Restoration would lead to the rapid drawdown (not to be confused with the complete withdrawal) of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—a pace considerably faster than that articulated by President Obama in June. Force levels and policies envisioned for the end of 2014 should be reached by mid-2012. U.S. interests do not warrant an investment anywhere approaching the scale of current policy (more than $2 billion a week) even if the effort were to succeed, which is unlikely given the weakness of Afghanistan’s central government and the existence of a Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. The goal should be to reduce U.S. spending on the Afghan war by some $75–100 billion per year, something that could be achieved by reducing troop levels by three-quarters (below 25,000) and by ending combat operations against the Taliban. U.S. policy instead would focus on counterterrorism operations, training and advising. 

Under a Restoration doctrine, the United States would avoid any new humanitarian interventions except in those for which the threat is large and clear, the potential victims have requested help, there is substantial international support and participation, there is a high likelihood of success at a limited cost, and there are no viable alternatives. Libya, which was on the cusp of a possible (but uncertain) humanitarian disaster near Benghazi, met some but not all of these tests. 

In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, the United States would only use or support the use of armed force in a preventive mode if it determined that an effective strike (that is, one that destroyed much of Iran’s relevant capacity) could be carried out, that doing so would not undermine the chance for meaningful political change inside Iran, that the costs of likely retaliation and responses on the part of Iran were sustainable, that the chances of deterring a nuclear Iran were low, and that the proliferation aspirations of others were incapable of being managed though alternative policies. These conditions do not represent opposition to the use of force; if all of them are met, the United States should act accordingly.

Adopting Restoration would mean that funds allocated to defense, foreign assistance, diplomacy, intelligence, counterterrorism and homeland security would not be immune from scrutiny and, where merited or because of overall fiscal considerations, from cuts. If the supplemental costs of Afghanistan and Iraq are included, defense spending comes to $700 billion per year—more than China, Russia, Japan, India and the rest of NATO combined. This number could safely be reduced to less than $600 billion per year now that U.S. forces have left Iraq (and also if force levels in Afghanistan were to be reduced more quickly, as advocated here). The core defense budget, now approximately $550 billion, could also be cut by eliminating selective weapons systems and reducing Army and Marine end strength. As a rule, we should place emphasis on research and development more than on the near-term fielding of expensive systems designed for conventional combat. We should also place emphasis on developing and deploying naval and air capabilities, given the near certainty that Asia and the Pacific region will be the critical theater of 21st-century geopolitics.

The foregoing notwithstanding, Restoration is not just about doing less or acting more discriminately abroad; to the contrary, it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable and leaves the United States vulnerable either to market forces that could force an unwanted increase in interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns. In the 21st century, geoeconomic vulnerabilities may weigh as heavily as classical geostrategic ones, and we must not be caught off balance because of either.

To be sure, reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But it cannot and should not be the only piece. Not only is that spending category too small in scale to make a decisive difference, but a good deal of existing or potential domestic spending is desirable to the extent that it constitutes a critical investment in America’s human and physical future and hence its future competitiveness. Here I would mention: the urgent and nearly cost-free need for immigration reform to enable far greater numbers of highly educated persons to enter and remain in the United States; targeted spending on improving public education at the K-12 and community college and university levels; modernization of this country’s transportation and energy infrastructures; and the need to increase American energy efficiency and decrease not only oil use but also dependence on and vulnerability to Middle Eastern suppliers.

Beyond the domain of discretionary spending, budget cuts, or reduced rates of spending increases, should focus on entitlements and, as noted before, defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing “tax expenditures” such as deductions on health care plans and mortgages. The goal should be to reduce this country’s deficit by some $250–300 billion per year until the budget is balanced, save for interest payments on the debt. Restoration would also benefit from the adoption of tax and regulatory policies that would encourage American corporations to spend and invest more at home.

Adopting and living according to a doctrine of Restoration for a decade would help the United States shore up the economic foundations of its power for decades to come. Cutting back on national security spending and wars of choice alone could not accomplish this, but it would constitute an important first step toward regaining fiscal balance. This should reassure allies and send a signal to potential foes. It would also allow the United States to deal with near-term threats or challenges should they arise and put the United States back in a position to lead by example. One of the most important foreign policy strengths this country possesses is the demonstrated success of its economy and political system. Both are now tarnished, which makes others much less likely to adopt open economic and political models and more likely to opt for more statist alternatives.

Restoration more than any other approach to American national security takes into account this era’s domestic and international realities. That said, there would still be elements of the other contending doctrines within: democracy promotion, counterterrorism, humanitarianism and integration. Indeed, one of the many virtues of a doctrine of Restoration is that it improves prospects for one day implementing a doctrine of integration—the approach that will, in the end, make the most sense for dealing with truly global challenges. But the United States will only regain the ability to lead, both by example and action, by first putting its own house in order. That is the true measure of the statecraft America needs now. 

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.