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Transcript: Is A Grand Strategy of Restraint Politically Viable? with Michael Desch

Desch 444x718Below is a transcript of a lecture by Prof. Michael Desch, Chairman of the Political Science Department at Notre Dame University.  This lecture, entitled “Is a Grand Strategy of Restraint Politically Viable?” was delivered at IWP on May 27, 2015, and was sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation.  A video of this lecture can be found here.

John Lenczowski: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Institute.  My name is John Lenczowski. I am president of the Institute, and I teach here, as well. For those of you who are new to us, we specialize in teaching all of the different arts of statecraft and how they are integrated in national strategy, but we also have a very active public lecture series.

This one is particularly important for us. It’s a series we are grateful for the Charles Koch Foundation for supporting. It is going to be a series of lectures on grand strategy.  We are going to be looking at some of the different perspectives on America’s role in the world.

This is the inaugural lecture, and we are particularly very proud to have here, to kick this thing off, Professor Michael Desch. Professor Desch is now the Professor and Chairman of political science at the University of Notre Dame.  He is also the co-director of the International Security Program. Professor Desch has a very distinguished academic record as founder director of the Scowcroft Foundation of International Affairs, and the first holder of Robert Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision Making at the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, and prior to that, he was a professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at University of  Kentucky. He has served as Assistant Director and Senior Research Associate at the Olin Institute. He has also served on a Senate staff. He has served as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, as well as in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Department of State.

He is a prolific author who has written books on U.S. policy in Latin America, When the Third World Matters: Latin America and United States Grand Strategy. He is also an authority on civilian-military relations, having written a book on civilian control of the military and more recently his book entitled Power and Military Effectiveness: the Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism. I am particularly glad that Professor Desch has contributed not only to scholarly literature but to the opinion literature field of national security affairs. So I will without further ado, we’re honored to have you here. Welcome and the floor is yours.    

Michael Desch: Thank you very much. Thanks for coming out this evening, and I’m glad that John mentioned the opinion literature because this talk tonight is a little bit analytical, but it’s a lot polemical. I want you to think about it as one big op-ed piece. I have done some real scholarship in my day, but this is a little bit of a different animal. This is my first visit to The Institute of World Politics. It is a beautiful building. I do have a bone to pick with you though about these chairs — every time you see really comfortable chairs you get nervous. I don’t want to lull people into a haze, and if the chairs are too comfortable, it’ll facilitate that process. My palms are sweaty, I didn’t realize that I’m the inaugural speaker in this series, so now I’m trying to think about how I’ll spin this. It can only go uphill from here.

So I want to talk about tonight: “Is a grand strategy of restraint politically viable?” I had a great YouTube clip here that would’ve shown the intellectual travails of former Governor Jeb Bush on the issue of Iraq over the past couple of weeks. Poor Governor Bush was tagged with the ultimate insult in politics — that he was a flip-flopper, but I’m a little sympathetic to the governor. I do not think he was flip-flopping. Instead what we saw with Governor Bush was, in fact, a microcosm of a larger debate of foreign policy that is roiling particularly the Republican Party.

So my take is not that we were seeing Jeb the flip-flopper, but rather it was the internal existential struggle of primary Jeb versus general election Jeb. I’ll try to spin that out for you here. I want to give you a little sense of where I’m going to go, and this, by the way, is why this is a polemical rather than an analytical talk. I want to think that the prima facie case for a grand strategy of restraint for 2015-2016 is quite compelling. Now that’s an arguable proposition, and maybe we can duke it out in the Q&A. But I want to use that assumption that it is right as a starting point for the talk tonight because there are many people in the restraint camp, and in other grand strategy camps as well, who might concede the merits of a grand strategy of restraint, but say politically that it just can’t happen, it’s not viable.

The argument here is that primacy, the main alternative to a grand strategy of restraint, is basically bipartisan these days, spanning the gamut from liberal imperialists in the Democratic party like the Clintons, I and II, to neo-conservatives like George W. Bush most dramatically. But most of the Republican aspirants have signed onto some version of primacy, at least in the primary period. Indeed, I believe that the Republican Party has in some respects become the mirror image of the post-Vietnam Democratic Party. It’s become ideologically extreme and rigid, particularly on foreign policy issues. Indeed, there are some people in the party — I’m not going to name names — but the senator from South Carolina comes to mind, who would rather maintain ideological purity than win elections.

Now the argument that I want to make to you tonight is that despite all this, restraint is politically feasible. And in fact, I think that debate about foreign policy in the 2016 campaign is going to be more exciting within the Republican Party than it will be within the Democratic Party, or even in-between the two of them.

So a quick roadmap: I want to go back to the analytical piece and talk about what is grand strategy and lay out some of the alternatives for you. Secondly, I will allude to what I think are merits of a grand strategy of restraint and then shamelessly shill for an article that develops that idea at greater length in a recent issue of the Notre Dame Magazine. The heart of what I want to get to is to talk about the politics of grand strategy, particularly within the Republican party, and try to make the argument, the counterintuitive argument, that restraint could be a winner. And then I want to talk about the famous Lenin question: “What is to be done?”, because I do not think restraint can be a winning position without a concerted strategy to make it happen.

What do I mean by grand strategy?

Let’s just be clear about this. When I talk about grand strategy, I talk about the interface between a state’s foreign policy and how it uses its military instrument. Basically, how you would use your military force to support your preferred foreign policy objectives. I say, and most people who talk about grand strategy, sort of talk about four ideal typical grand strategic positions. They’re sort of analytical constructs, they don’t exhaust the waterfront, but I think it gives you basically the lay of the land for positions that people would take, in at least our political debate.

The first grand strategic option is called primacy, and my shorthand is that primacy is all about running the world unilaterally. Think of the famous 1992 Defense Policy Guidance, the abortive Defense Policy Guidance that came out of the Department of Defense during the waning days of the George H.W. Bush Administration. The DPG for a grand strategy that would prevent the emergence of a peer competitor. Really, the classic example of a grand strategy of primacy was the grand strategy of the Bush Administration.

The second option for a grand strategic option is collective security. My shorthand for collective security is it’s all about running the world, but doing it multilaterally. The classic example of this was the Clinton strategy of the early post-Cold War period. The strategy of engagement and enlargement in which the United States was the indispensable nation in a larger collective effort to bring the benefits of democracy and free markets to the rest of the world.

A third grand strategy, and the one which we are long familiar with, or at least those of us with grey hair who lived through the Cold War, is selective engagement. This is basically the grand strategy of containment. With selective engagement, the idea is that you defend in a forward manner certain key areas of the world multilaterally, or in concert with your allies.

Then, finally, restraint, and restraint in my view is a unilateral approach to grand strategy that involves offshore balancing rather than direct commitment on the ground, and also it relies quite heavily on the normal dynamics of international politics as force multipliers, ensuring the protection of American national interests.  I’ll say a little more about this in a second.

First, I want to give you my theory of American grand strategy, and there are really two elements of it.

Grand strategy is in part driven by the situation that a great power finds itself in the world, including the number of great powers it faces, the presence of critical military technologies, geography or geographical considerations, and things like that. But in the American case, grand strategy is shaped by our dominant ideology, our ideology of liberalism, or, as some people have referred to it, our liberal tradition.

If you want my thumbnail sketch of American grand strategy, at least over the past fifty years, I would argue that when the United States has faced an international environment in which it has been countered by another great power, it has tended to behave quite prudently and in a restrained fashion. This was containment and selective engagement during the Cold War.

The problem for us is that when we are not facing a peer competitor, our ideology takes over. Indeed, liberalism, I have argued previously, has tended to lead us to see threats where none exist, and also has led us to try and remake the world in our own image. Again, I am giving you a thumbnail of an argument that I have spun out in an article in International Security in 2008.

So let’s talk about grand strategy in action.

I’ll give you my take on the twentieth and first decade of the twenty-first century and how these different grand strategies have worked, or more often, how they have not worked for the United States.

Collective security was epitomized in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the League of Nations, and the institutionalization of a multilateral security community in Europe after WWI failed pretty much abjectly. This was in part due to domestic politics in the United States; it wasn’t politically popular. But it seems to me that even had there been a significant support for the League of Nations in the United States, and a greater commitment to the League, it is not clear that it would have resolved the problems in Europe that ultimately set the stage for the Second World War.

Another manifestation of collective security in my view was in the Clinton administration in the period between 1992 and 2000. A period of soft primacy, but one that still fell into the basic framework of collective security. This leads me to impugn collective security based on that experience.

Now primacy. We have an experience of the United States pursuing primacy, and that’s basically the Bush administration from 9/11 on. And what does the track record look like here? It seems to me it is pretty abysmal. Would anyone argue that Afghanistan has been a success? Now the operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 qualifies as a necessary use of American military force. I know that has been controversial, given some of the intelligence that has come out of the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan, but you I think you can still make a good argument that the United States needed to respond against the Taliban after 9/11. But what’s really been a failure in Afghanistan has been the larger project of nation building, which I don’t think, and which most people would concede, has been ineffectual to date.

Libya, a project under the current administration, which is also a manifestation of primacy, has pretty much turned out to be a mess. Will Ruger is in the back, and he will say something about my previous enthusiasm for the Libya operation, and I’ll take my lumps when the time comes. But it seems to me that Iraq is the poster child for the failure of primacy, and I don’t think that there is any, really convincing way to argue that the policies begun by the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 have been by any means successful. I think I’ll be even more radical by saying that we are worse off with Saddam Hussein gone from Iraq than we were with him there. I warned you this would be a polemical talk, so just something to keep you awake. And then finally, thank God that the current president did not stick to his red lines in Syria, because that could have been a mess, as well.

Now on to selective engagement, two cheers for selective engagement! I was a selective engager during the Cold War, and I think it was the right strategy for the United States. We were facing a military peer competitor. While I don’t think this competitor was quite as powerful or as threatening as we thought at the time, I think it was necessary to contain the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China during the Cold War. Being particularly focused on the key areas of the world such as Western Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf made eminent good sense. My argument is that selective engagement and containment were an artifact of a particular geopolitical configuration that has long since passed, which leads me to think that now is the time for restraint.

Now I’ll go through this pretty quickly, because I want to get to the politics of restraint, but I do want to throw out a bunch of reasons to think restraint is the right grand strategy for today.

The idea that the United States can preserve the fortuitous position it had after the collapse of the Soviet Union I think is naïve. Unipolarity, a situation where there is only one great power is like brigadoon: it comes around once every hundred years, but it doesn’t stay. In fact, it was largely an artifact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. So the natural dynamics of international politics work against unipolarity. Swimming against that tide, I think, is a mistake. Second, and with a bit more controversy, I think primacy is not necessary or essential to U.S. national security, and this is why, in my view, the ‘92 National Defense Policy guidance was so wrong headed.

First of all, the dominant trend in international politics for the states to balance against a preponderance of power is more important than ideology. It is more than commitment to world order goals; this is sort of the universal constant, the physics of international politics. Secondly, and reinforcing the balancing dynamics of international politics, balancing against threats, the one “ism” in international politics today that really matters today is nationalism. The idea that people are committed to having their own autonomous nation states. The combination of these two things is the animating feature and the electrical current that drives the international system.

If that is the case, then it has two implications. One is that primacy is not likely to last, because other countries are going to have a tendency, no matter what they think about our ideology or economic system, to balance against us in some way. That is the bad news. The good news is that if they are balancing against us, they are also going to balance against the Chinese, the Iranians, or pick your favorite malefactor. The third thing is nuclear weapons, particularly Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), has a powerful impact in terms of reinforcing the status quo amongst states in the international system. This is reinforced by the phenomenon of geography particularly. If, like the United States, you are fortunate to have two big moats on either side and two weak countries north and south of you, you are likely to be very secure.

Primacy is not sustainable; it is not necessary. And here is where it gets fun: it is also pernicious. It is pernicious in two senses. The first is what Lord Acton said: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I think there is an international politics analogy to that, and, in fact, we’ve seen it in the United States over the past twenty years. If you have absolute power, you are likely to overreach, which I think we’ve done.

Secondly, a situation of hegemony, or unipolarity, creates what economists call a moral hazard problem for other states in the international system. One manifestation of this is American hegemony. This isn’t new, it is something we talked a lot about in the Cold War in terms of burden sharing in NATO, and that is the free riding problem. When you have one big power that is committed to one common enterprise, the smaller powers have less incentive to contribute their fair share to that common enterprise. Of course, in the NATO context, it was wickedly difficult for anybody except maybe for the Germans to come anywhere close to providing the resources that they should have provided in terms of NATO forces.

However, there is another related moral hazard problem that my friend at MIT, Barry Posen, calls the “reckless driver” problem: the prospect that U.S. hegemony combined with a strong alliance situation can lead states to behave in a fashion that is not good for them, and not good for other people. Two examples that I would point to would be Israel in the occupied territories and Ukraine vis-à-vis the Russian speakers in the West. These are both cases where support from the United States, or perceived support from the United States, has led countries to behave in ways that are otherwise sub-optimal. I know both of these are controversial, and we will want to argue about it in the Q&A, but I would simply say that it is very hard for me to see a happy ending for Israel if it maintains the control of the occupied territories over the next ten to fifteen years given the demographic trends there. Now I’m not saying having a Palestinian state next to it would be sweetness and light, but certainly the problems of that pale to the problems of having a single state with a Palestinian majority, which is where demographics are leading things to go. But in any case, I develop these arguments, hopefully with a bit more satisfying detail, in a piece I had in the Notre Dame Magazine.

I’ll run through my argument in ten minutes, and then we will open it up for discussion. An obvious question you may have now is: “If restraint is so good, why haven’t we adopted it? Why isn’t it something that everyone is hopping on board to embrace?”

I think, in terms of political landscape, the Democratic Party is basically hopeless on the restraint issue. I think the Democratic Party has been, at least since the Reagan era, trying to compensate for the image that they are all George McGovern Democrats or Jimmy Carter warmed over. So Hillary Clinton, once she is finally crowned Democratic nominee, I expect to be more hawkish than not, and I think that is a function of ancient history in American politics.

It is actually within the Republican Party where the foreign policy debates are going to be more interesting. The neo-conservative primacist approach to foreign policy is pretty well entrenched in the GOP, at least among the base and in the people you see identified as Republican foreign policy thinkers and likely staffers for Republican campaigns or administrations.

The argument here is, in part, a standard one in American politics: the primary process has a tendency on both sides to pull candidates to the ideological extreme. The problem is that when they get the nomination, it is the Mitt Romney problem. They have to sort of backpedal and go back to the middle to get the median voter. So those are all real things, but I think there are some reasons for hope if you are a restrainer and that’s what I want to spin out here.

Now we are going to have a quiz. I am a college professor, and every time I see a room of attentive faces, I always want to give a pop quiz! So I have two quotes here by the same individual. They are not made up. Read those quotes. I want somebody under 25 to tell me who this was, anyone under 25 in the room? This first quote was from Governor George W. Bush in October of 2000 in the second debate in St. Louis with Vice President Al Gore: “I don’t think our troops should be used for nation building. Our nation stands alone in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble.” This is really ancient history, because when we think of the Bush era, we think of George W. Bush as “Mission Accomplished,” but that was not the foreign policy platform that Governor Bush ran on in 2000 and won with in 2000. So let me blow through some of the hopeful trends and then open it up for discussion.

First of all, trend number one that is hopeful is that support is growing for a less activist foreign policy. All the data I have here I have stolen shamelessly from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a regular series of public opinion surveys on foreign policy type issues. They gave me the data since I’m on the advisory board for this, so I’m not really stealing it. But if you ask going back to 1947 (and they have data going back to 1947) about whether the respondents think that the United States should be taking an active role in international affairs, the internationalists’ consensus of the Cold War period is generally declining. It is still a majority position, but the trend is still declining.

Secondly, Americans have war weariness. Iraq and Afghanistan are not popular, and they are not popular across the political spectrum. Sure, Republicans are more wedded to the idea that Iraq was a great success, but even the 60% of those who identify as Republicans think that Iraq was a debacle. There is also a declining sense of threat. Now John Mueller, who knows more about public opinion than I will ever know, told me that the resurgence of ISIS (especially in Iraq) has caused an uptick in public concern over terrorism recently. But the secular trend since 2001 has been for the public to put terrorism more in context, which means it has been regarded as less perilous as it might otherwise be. What you are seeing also among people that are being surveyed is that the United States should be focusing exclusively on direct threats to national security rather than other countries’ national security. We should be pursuing policies that advance our interest, rather than promoting a particular vision of world order and also domestic problems. So that, I think, is compatible with restraint.

To be sure, Americans want the United States to maintain a military that is second to none. There is no doubt about that, but the question that that raises is: “How much is enough?” Now I have some data here. If you looked at military spending in U.S. dollars in 2013, you would see that the United States outspends the next likely peer competitors by a significant extent. Now, if you use the rule of thumb that you want a 3 to 1 advantage over a potential adversary, and if we thought our potential adversary was the People’s Republic of China, or Russia, what this tells me is that we are overspending (at least in the case of China) by at least 200 billion dollars and by Russia by a lot more.

Now, on the other hand, if we assume that if the bad guys, in order to conduct their nefarious activities, need a 3 to 1 advantage in terms of having a chance of prevailing where they are at, you need to understand that plays to our advantage. We should be able to conduct defensive military operations with a lot less than they have. Now, I’m not saying we need to cut defense spending to these levels. What I’m simply saying is we are spending a hell of a lot of money and a hell of a lot more than the most likely candidates for future conflicts with the United States.

So let’s talk about the politics of restraint. I think I will stop there, and just get into my what is to be done in the conclusion. Many people I suspect, including the graybeards in the audience, would say: “This professor from South Bend, Indiana is peddling restraint; he must be some guy who rolled down from the Institute of Policy Studies over there on Dupont Circle or the Union of Concerned Scientists or some sort of left wing organization.”

In fact, the first major argument for restraint in American history did come from the Left, and Senator George Mcgovern’s “Come Home America” argument in 1972. Today, if you watch Fox News, their view of President Obama is restrained, not restrained enough, but more restrained than [George W. Bush’s] foreign policy agenda in that [Bush] never met a red line that he would never let somebody cross. But, I actually think that if you look at the data, it is actually Republicans and Independents (I put myself in these categories rather than among the Democrats) that are increasingly wary of an activist foreign policy.

The Chicago Council’s 2014 survey broke down the question of staying out of world affairs by political affiliation, and what you see is the Independents who are most sympathetic to that, and then Republicans. It is the Democrats that remain committed to a residual position of an activist foreign policy. So, I want to stop here. I have a lot more Power Point slides, and you may provoke me during the Q&A to deploy some of them, but I think you have a sense of where I’m at, and I’d like your reaction to this. It is a polemical, not a analytical piece, and it’s something that a number of us are trying to think through. I’d welcome your questions, comments, speeches, maligning of my character, anything you want to do.