Home The Washington Diplomat January 2008 MIT Professor Sparks Debate By Advocating U.S. Restraint

MIT Professor Sparks Debate By Advocating U.S. Restraint


One of the country’s top foreign policy scholars is convinced that the United States would be far better off if it just did less—learning the art of restraint and extricating itself from unnecessary and oftentimes messy global entanglements. Barry R. Posen, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading security analyst, recently ignited a sharp debate within the U.S. foreign policy establishment when he forcefully argued for a far more modest foreign policy agenda for the United States.

In a widely discussed article in the American Interest called “The Case for Restraint,” Posen said that since the end of the Cold War, the United States has simply been trying to do too much—and that in its frantic multitasking, the nation has aroused great opposition and anger across the world.

In an interview, Posen explained to The Washington Diplomat why he is convinced that the United States should be more humble in its aspirations and more cautious in its actions. And the American public, he hopes, is ready to reassess their country’s role in the world and consider alternative, more scaled-back, international strategies.

“We’ve been seduced by our own power. We should step back a little bit and think of ourselves in an offshore balancing position. We should spend a little more time husbanding our power. We should spend a little more time seeing if we can get other countries to solve their own problems. We should have the virtue of patience,” Posen said, adding, “Projects tend to grow. The more you try to do, the more you have to do to defend what you’ve done.”

According to Posen, the United States has pursued a grand global strategy for more than a decade and a half since the end of the Cold War—as the country turned good intentions and overwhelming military power into an activist agenda that tried to transform both the international politics and domestic politics of other states in ways that were advantageous to us.

The only problem, Posen says, is that it’s not working: “We’ve been doing this experiment for more than 15 years and the evidence is in. Our experiment has failed. Transformation is unachievable and the costs are high,” he declared.

So what is the solution? Although he does not champion a policy of isolationism, he does advocate for more selective, strategic engagement. Posen argues the country should embrace a very different global strategy that entails narrowing its security interests; using its military power cautiously and reticently; pursuing its enemies quietly but persistently; sharing responsibilities and costs with other nations; enacting more modest ambitions for political transformation within and among countries; and becoming more aloof politically and militarily from traditional allies.

In fact, Posen contends that the United States should rethink many of its relationships around the world—severing some of the massive assistance packages it doles out to key allies. He suggests a 10-year plan to fundamentally revamp NATO into a more traditional political alliance, and he boldly calls for the United States to reduce its direct financial assistance to Israel to zero over 10 years, as well as sharply reduce aid to Egypt and reconsider its security relationship with Japan so that it develops a new role in Asia.

Posen’s arguments have generated strong reactions, with some critics saying he is pushing for a dramatic U.S. withdrawal from world affairs. But Posen counters that he supports American restraint rather than withdrawal, and he remains convinced that the nation should pull back and operate more modestly on the global stage.

“I start from the premise that the U.S. is very powerful. One of the things the U.S. has to do is husband its power. Power is what carries you through when unfortunate things happen.”

One of the country’s leading foreign policy intellectuals, Posen is the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and also director of its Securities Studies Program. In addition, he has taught at Princeton University and sits on the executive committee of Seminar XXI, an educational program for senior military officers, government officials and business executives in the national security community. Posen has written two books—“Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks” and “The Sources of Military Doctrine”—and he was a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

His current research interests are European Union defense policy, innovation in the U.S. Army and U.S. foreign policy. For years, Posen has focused on how nations develop and implement so-called “grand strategies,” which he defines as a nation’s theory about how to produce national security. This security includes the preservation of a state’s physical safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity and power position. “A grand strategy outlines and prioritizes threats and develops political and military remedies for them,” he said.

Posen believes that despite high-decibel exchanges between Democrats and Republicans on national security policy, the two parties have a basic consensus on the direction of U.S. foreign policy. That consensus, he said, supports a grand strategy of international activism, with deep involvement in, and troop deployments around, the world.

For instance, both Democrats and Republicans agree that the threat to U.S. safety from Islamic terrorism is serious and that rogue states and failed states are major problems because they can offer assistance to terrorists. Furthermore, this consensus also holds that the threat of nuclear terrorism from non-state actors is so great that the United States must be willing to take extraordinary measures to keep suspicious states that might be in league with such actors from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Even the deeply contentious U.S.-led war in Iraq has produced only tactical differences between Democrats and Republicans, Posen said, pointing out that Democrats who bitterly opposed Bush over the war have often done so on relatively narrow grounds. For instance, they blast the administration for the poor quality of U.S. intelligence related to Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and question if this was the result of honest error or manipulation. They also criticize the administration for bungling the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaign.

“Few Democrats argue that Iraq could and should have been contained and deterred rather than invaded. It’s even harder to find advocates of containment and deterrence toward Iran,” Posen said. “Democrats and Republicans have agreed that we should use our power in effect to create more power. They have agreed that our power gives us a chance to transform international politics. We have a rather ambitious, rather energetic and rather costly grand strategy.”

This grand activist strategy preferred by both parties “has a classically tragic quality about it,” Posen wrote in his American Interest essay. “Enabled by its great power, and fearful of the negative energies and possibilities engendered by globalization, the United States has tried to get its arms around the problem: It has essentially sought more control. But the very act of seeking more control injects negative energy into global politics as quickly as it finds enemies to vanish. It prompts states to balance against U.S. power however they can, and it prompts people to imagine that the United States is the source of all their troubles.”

By contrast, Posen says a grand strategy of restraint requires that the United States find ways to shape—rather than to control—international affairs. In broad terms, the United States should husband its power, reassess alliances, and stop offering subsidies to allies that are pursuing policies that aren’t consistent with U.S. interests. “My purpose is to get those who have been doing too little, to do more, and those who have been doing too much, to do less,” he noted.

According to Posen, the reasons why U.S. leaders have embarked on such an ambitious international agenda since the Cold War can be broken down into four factors: The first is unipolarity. Put simply, the United States emerged from the Cold War as one of the most powerful nations in history. U.S. defense spending exceeds the rest of world combined, and the nation has control of what Posen calls the global commons: the sea, the air and space.

Second, the United States operates in a world in which many pressing problems arise from internal discord driven by ethnic tensions. He cites the Kurdish and Shiite revolts in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the fighting in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Third, although there are no major global power competitors to the United States, a number of nations and groups have learned how to challenge American power. The combination of adequate conventional weapons, large numbers of committed young men, proven tactics, and competent training adapted to environments that favor infantry have all inflicted significant combat costs on U.S. ground forces around the world.

Finally, the intensity of international trade and investment—i.e. globalization—makes it easy for political entrepreneurs to blame foreigners for local problems. Similarly, the enhanced ability to communicate and travel makes it possible for like-minded groups in different countries to find each other, organize and cooperate.

The interaction of these forces has drawn the United States into costly national security policies that produce new problems faster than they can solve old ones, Posen argues, and the great concentration of power within the United States skews the security policy debate toward activism. But Posen believes that if the global distribution of power were more equal, the United States would have to be more cautious about the projects it chose. “The interaction of great U.S. power, the re-emergence of identity politics and the forces unleashed by globalization have produced not only a fractious world, but one the U.S. is sorely tempted to administer,” he said.

Posen does agree that safety is the U.S.’s most imminent security problem, but he cautions that although al Qaeda and other groups can attack the United States, they can’t destroy or conquer the nation. Moreover, given that it spends nearly 0 billion a year for defense programs, the United States should be able to come up with better answers to security questions than costly preventive wars.

One of those solutions is to bolster the U.S.’s image as a “good guy.” For instance, Posen believes the United States should undertake positive projects in the developing world such as the humanitarian aid it provided to Southeast Asia after the tsunami of December 2004. And although the United States should participate in some humanitarian interventions, he said these missions should have reasonable guidelines, be in alliance with international coalitions, and operate under a legitimate mandate.

Posen also advised that the United States reduce its presence within “the abode of Islam” by abandoning permanent or semi-permanent land bases in Arab countries and lowering the profile of its military and security cooperation with Arab states. In addition, the United States should focus less on the export of democracy and more on promoting the rule of law, press freedom, and the rights of collective bargaining.

On the timely issue of Iran, Posen believes the United States needs a more measured view of the risks of nuclear proliferation, arguing that the U.S. government needs to avoid preventive wars if at all possible and that clear deterrent statements and strong nuclear forces are preferable because they are a more credible and sustainable policy.

Notably, in an article titled “We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran” published in the New York Times in February 2006—long before the recent report that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program back in 2003—Posen argued that logistical realities would prevent a massive arms race in the Middle East even if Iran were to ever acquire nuclear weapons.

In addition, “to threaten, much less carry out, a nuclear attack on a nuclear power is to become a nuclear target. Anyone who attacks the United States with nuclear weapons will be attacked with many, many more nuclear weapons. Israel almost certainly has the same policy,” he wrote.

“U.S. policymakers feel compelled to trumpet that all options, including force, are on the table when dealing with ‘rogue’ state proliferators,” Posen later wrote in the American Interest. “But preventive war must never become either a casual or a default policy choice. It has serious and probably enduring political costs, which the United States need not incur. Deterrence is still a better strategy.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.