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Barry Posen discusses “Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy”

On September 24, 2015, The Institute of World Politics welcomed Dr. Barry R. Posen for a lecture about his new book titled Restraint: A New Foundation of U.S. Grand Strategy.  This lecture was part of a series on U.S. Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Dr. Posen began his remarks by detailing some of the basic premises and definitions he uses in the book to explain his idea of grand strategy: Security, the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; safety, something, he noted, we often gamble in the interest of the nation’s security; and finally, power position, the power needed to pursue all of the above. He emphasized grand strategy as a theory that links means and ends together in a priority-based system; these priorities are needed because, in the end, it all comes down to a question of what can be funded or not.

Dr. Posen then brought up the point that he does not perceive much of a difference between Republican and Democratic foreign policy when it comes to grand strategy. He claimed that both of them embrace what John Ikenberry refers to as liberal hegemony; the spreading of American liberal values of democracy, free markets and so forth, based on the U.S.’s hugely favorable power position after the Cold War. He went on to explain how the U.S.’s position influences decision making, calling special attention to the fact that, since the Cold War, there has been a heavy reliance on the military option, war, for conflict resolution. This situation is compounded by the fact that the U.S.’s nuclear capabilities provide a distinct element of security, especially where non-nuclear states are concerned. Yet, he noted that there is not enough thought as to the effects of the wars in which the U.S. involves itself militarily: the questions of whether or not getting involved is actually beneficial, whether involvement in one place undercuts another effort, or whether involvement is outright counter-productive, are not entertained to the degree they ought to be, said Posen.

He continued by explaining why this idea of restraint in grand strategy makes sense, putting emphasis on the already strong power position, high security, powerful economy and the fact that a significant amount of the U.S.’s total trade is within its own hemisphere. Getting overly involved in wars that might be outright counter-productive is a waste of resources that could be better spent elsewhere. He also argued the same for the large amounts of military defense that is lent to various European countries and Japan, which contributes to what he calls the free rider problem; i.e., other countries relying on the U.S. for defense and offense while they re-allocate their defense funding to other areas.  Dr. Posen argued that considering the wealth of European countries, there is no rational reason why they couldn’t do a better job themselves. One way he proposes to achieve this is a gradual withdrawal from their military infrastructure to incentivize them to re-focus on their defense. He also recommends the appointment of a European SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) going forward.

There is also the matter of what Dr. Posen dubs reckless driving. This concept also relates directly to the U.S.’s tendency to take the defense of its allies into its own hands and makes these very countries reckless in their political attitudes. He exemplified this idea with the Georgia incident and the Japan-China conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Furthermore, he called attention to the U.S.’s decreasing lead on the global stage as various other countries, China and India in particular, make enormous strides towards becoming part of the world’s leading countries. The head start the U.S. has enjoyed was a result of a very good base on which to build after the Cold War ended, something most other countries did not have at the time. By now they do, and they are reaping the benefits. This alone makes them worth keeping an eye on.

The U.S.’s propensity for getting involved in wars and conflicts also has other effects beyond the loss of life and economy, noted Dr. Posen. The U.S.’s constant presence in conflict zones gives its enemies plenty of opportunity to hone their skills against our soldiers. Over time, this works in their favor as they acquire new strategies and tactics to deploy against U.S. troops. This continuous involvement, especially in areas the U.S. is attempting to re-structure to modern democratic standards, plays into another negative cycle in that it strengthens the identity politics used to demonize the U.S. and strengthens the image of the U.S. as the enemy.

As Dr. Posen mentioned earlier, many other developing countries are making enormous strides forward. So much so that projections have the U.S. losing its primacy on the world stage, and resources becoming scarcer at home within a foreseeable future. Dr. Posen stressed that these are just projections, but at the very least one can assume from them that the U.S. will lose its lead in the years to come. With this in mind and a projected scarcity of resources at home as well as the increasing consequences of U.S. actions abroad, he argued in favor of a reduced forward presence and a second look at current defense agreements. The defense agreement with Japan is of particular interest, as currently the U.S. bears primary responsibility for the defense of Japan while the Japanese promise to help. This should not be the case, according to Dr. Posen, but instead the other way around, with Japan being primarily responsible for its own defense.

In conclusion, Dr. Posen argued that we should be mindful of the progress of developing nations such as China, as they are likely to catch up to the U.S. in terms of international power in the near future. As such, the U.S. should look to its own interests first and foremost.