Events in Ukraine have heightened scrutiny of America’s foreign policy after the Cold War and sharpened opinion on what that policy should be today, not always with illuminating results. A recent New York Times op-ed provided an account of past and current U.S. foreign policy that parts company with reality. In “Hawks Are Standing in the Way of a New Republican Party,” Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin advocate a potentially disastrous course for America and conclude with a pernicious warning about domestic “monsters” that lurk not abroad but within our polity.
As a description of Cold War policy, their language is far more polemical than analytical, though the “restraint” they call for is a hallmark of many academic realists today. Its sub-text is neo-isolationist and redolent of the arguments of the America First advocates in the 1930s. Blaming America for antagonizing Russia and China and for not being “respectful of enduring civilizational differences,” not only omits the deliberate strategies, histories, and worldviews of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and their respective regimes and cronies, but also treats them as passive actors. In effect, it denies agency to America’s great power adversaries and implies that their hostility will miraculously disappear once we adopt an approach of “cultural nonaggression abroad.”
The authors, who are not conspicuous for foreign policy expertise or accomplishments but who are proponents of a “national conservatism,” advocate a foreign policy outlook evocative of the “blame America first” impulse so commonly attributed to the Left. But their outlook also reflects an underlying assumption that Hans Morgenthau long ago identified, and which more recently former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster has cited as “strategic narcissism.” As Morgenthau observed, this is the tendency to perceive world events as depending primarily on what the United States does or doesn’t do and the belief that others think about foreign affairs much the same as we do.
This leaves little room for appreciating the behavioral weight of Putin’s KGB background and nostalgia for the old Soviet empire, whose collapse he described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. Nor does it allow for understanding Xi and his Communist Party Politburo colleagues who seek to restore the regional and civilizational primacy of a once great China. It certainly doesn’t appreciate the role of Iran’s antediluvian supreme leader, who views the world through the lenses of a Shiite eschatology while chanting “Death to America, Death to Israel” and advocating the extermination of the Jewish state.
In calling for “restraint” in U.S. foreign policy, Ahmari et al. invoke the words of then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821, that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But it is far from obvious that a caution—uttered more than two centuries ago in an America that was far smaller, wary of provoking powerful European monarchies, and without the heft, capabilities, and responsibility that time has brought—provides relevant-enough guidance for the world of today.
In a similar vein to the authors, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (a Washington think tank) similarly urges foreign policy retrenchment and demands withdrawal from foreign commitments in the belief that this will make the United States safer and more secure. Co-founder Stephen Wertheim blames the United States for the failure to “live in harmony with the world” and has claimed that a new strategy of restraint would “democratize” the global economy. That China, Russia, and Iran might have other priorities than living in harmony with America seems not to have crossed his mind. It is noteworthy that major donors from the right and left of the political spectrum have funded the Quincy Institute. Early support for the group in 2019 included substantial donations from the Open Society Foundation of George Soros and the Koch Foundation of Charles Koch.
The call for “restraint” has long been a pursuit of realist authors in the academic world. The approach is exemplified in Barry Posen’s 2014 book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. In addition to calling for a major withdrawal from America’s commitments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Posen proposed a cutback of some one-third of U.S. forces and defense spending. The argument was based in part on his 2003 essay, “Command of the Commons,” in which he argued that the U.S. military and technological preponderance on land, sea, air, and space allowed it to curtail its foreign deployments without serious strategic risk. He and other realists have assumed that the United States can rely on “offshore balancing,” and that should greater foreign threats emerge, regional states would counter it, or if absolutely necessary the United States could then act against the threat. The argument is not only neo-isolationist in its implications, but outdated: In view of massive Chinese and Russian military modernization and technological advances, the American lead in all these spheres is now seriously challenged. Not surprisingly, at least a few realists have finally begun to reexamine their assumptions, especially vis-à-vis China.
In their call for restraint, both the Times authors’ caricature of U.S. foreign policy and their penchant for not doing their homework is evident in their reference to George W. Bush and his Second Inaugural Address, which they characterize as a “crusader project” with its “fantasy of eliminating ‘tyranny’ everywhere.” From the reference, it is not entirely evident that they have read the full text of Bush’s address. To be sure, Bush proclaimed the ultimate goal of ending tyranny, but he carefully qualified it as “the concentrated work of generations,” adding that “this is not primarily the task of arms,” that “freedom must be chosen by citizens,” and that “America will not impose our style of governance on the unwilling.”
The authors’ description of U.S. foreign policy as “violently expansionist” is far more a matter of sloganeering than analysis. It simply ignores the deliberate retrenchment rhetoric, policies, and actions of the Obama and Trump administrations, as evidenced by Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his “red line” against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria as well as by his determination to withdraw from Iraq, and by Trump’s determination to end America’s “forever wars.”
Their description exaggerates “expansionist” policies during and after the Cold War and overlooks the more often prudent course of action taken by U.S. leaders, as in decisions not to forcefully break the Soviets’ blockade of Berlin in 1947–48 or to tear down the Berlin Wall in August 1961, even though both events represented Soviet violations of formal agreements. In addition, despite calls to act otherwise, America did not intervene when the Russians crushed the Berlin uprising in 1953, the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, or the Prague Spring in 1968. As for the Clinton administration, it refused to act during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and in the case of Bosnia, it waited two years while more than 100,000 people were killed before it at last led a NATO intervention in 1995. Today, especially on the minds of Putin, Xi, and the Ayatollahs, Biden’s calamitous August 2021 departure from Afghanistan signaled not “violently expansionist foreign policy,” but conspicuous withdrawal and retreat.
Even the well-worn argument that NATO enlargement has needlessly provoked Russia and that, without it, American relations with Russia would be far more relaxed ignores cause and context. It should not be forgotten that Eastern European countries were adamant about seeking NATO membership, which is not surprising given their bitter experiences with imperial and Soviet Russia. Moreover, as a study by a leading foreign policy scholar, William C. Wohlforth, and a Russian counterpart, Andrey Sushentsov, has found, Putin’s antipathy is grounded not so much in the enlargement of NATO, but in the very existence of NATO itself. They are skeptical that the deterioration in America’s relations with Russia could have been avoided. In any case, it is not difficult to imagine that in the absence of membership, former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic countries would be experiencing the kind of menace now facing Ukraine.
Finally, any serious consideration of American foreign policy cannot avoid the threats currently posed by Russia and especially China. Putin and Xi have not only established a close military, economic, and political alignment between the two countries, but in their recent joint declaration at the Beijing Olympics, have proclaimed their own crusade against the existing international order and the indispensable role of the United States for its maintenance. Whatever the reluctance of national conservatives, restrainers, offshore balancers, and various neo-isolationists of Right and Left to acknowledge this, there can be no doubt that we have entered an era of great-power competition with China and its Russian ally. It would thus be timely to recall the admonition of the late Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” In this case it has become a cold war, but a war nonetheless.
Hence the question of how such a great-power competition might eventually end. Here, a study of historical cases by James Lacey cited by Colin Dueck of George Mason University in the National Interest provides sobering insight. Such conflicts tend to conclude with one of four outcomes: One power wins peacefully; one side prevails violently; both cooperate against a great third power; or a new great power arises and both existing great powers lose. Should China prevail, the consequences not only for world order but for the United States itself would be grim. In our era of great-power rivalry, it is thus vital that America shape its foreign policy without illusions about retrenchment and strategies of cultural nonaggression abroad.
Robert J. Lieber is emeritus professor of government & international affairs at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book, Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World (September 2022).
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