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Restraint: The first of a series of lectures on grand strategy

On May 27th, The Institute of World Politics welcomed the first speaker in a series of public lectures regarding American grand strategy. The lecture series is supported by the Charles Koch Foundation and seeks to engage audiences in debate on the varying views regarding America’s role in the world.

The speaker providing the inaugural lecture was Professor Michael Desch, and he titled his lecture, “Is a Grand Strategy of Restraint Politically Viable?” Prof. Desch defines restraint as “a unilateral approach to grand strategy that involves off-shore balancing rather than direct commitment on the ground, and it also relies quite heavily on the normal dynamics of international politics as a force multiplier ensuring the protection of American national interests.”

Professor Desch provided examples of recent instances in which the United States has employed other strategies to varying degrees of success. He cited the “selective engagement” method (that of containment, as in the American Cold War strategy), the “collective security” method (that of multilateral security solutions, as in the early Clinton administration), and “primacy” (one of unilateral control of international affairs as attempted in the George W. Bush administration).

While he applauded some of the approaches (such as the selective engagement of the Cold War), he took issue with the employment of primacy as a strategy. Citing the aggravating experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, he states that primacy tends to lead the United States to overstretch in a reach for ideological goals. Ultimately, this approach becomes counterproductive.

He then informed the audience of his observations of international relations which counteract primacy:  “The natural dynamics of international politics work against unipolarity. Don’t swim against it.”

In support of this idea, Dr. Desch noted that the ebb and flow of history have provided brief periods of primacy for a major power at regular intervals, but always, other nations move to check the preponderance of that nation in due time.  He submitted that this balancing of forces is so prevalent in international relations that nations find it “more important to balance against preponderant powers than to cling to ideologies. This is the universal constant of international relations, the physics.” The United States experienced its day as a unilateral power following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but to expect that this primacy is going to last “is naïve.” Dr. Desch explained that he sees a current policy of primacy as “neither necessary nor essential.”

Armed with this understanding of international relations, Dr. Desch noted that he finds it necessary and proper to adapt our outlook to one of restraint. He believes that, as the countervailing forces of the world adjust to American dominance, it is most efficient to devise a strategy of limited military engagement and extensive cooperation with other nations. He said that it is worth our effort to harness this knowledge of the natural reaction to primacy in order to construct a safer and more agreeable position in the world.

This is a concept that is beginning to strike a chord with the American public. Dr. Desch cited numerous polls in which citizens communicated their weariness with foreign adventures. In analyzing the current political landscape, he believes that the upswings in Republican and Independent support for restraint is fashioning favorable ground for the adoption of such a strategy. He looks forward to the 2016 elections, in which he predicts a flurry of “robust debate” on the issue. Based on these favorable forecasts, Dr. Desch said that restraint has now become a politically viable approach to assume for a presidential candidate.

Dr. Desch sports an accomplished resume with deep experience in academia and a background as a practitioner as well. He is currently the Chairman of the Political Science Department at Notre Dame University and is also a Co-Director of the International Security Program. He is the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and was the first holder of the Robert Gates Chair of Intelligence and International Security Decision Making at the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. He was also a Professor at and Director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. Prior to his impressive work in academia, Dr. Desch served on staff in the Senate, as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, and as an analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Department of State. He is widely published and is a leading voice in the discussion on civilian-military relations.