Does America Really Need To Be the Leader of the Free World?

President Barack Obama looks out over the water after arriving aboard Marine One at the Brenton Point landing zone in Newport, R.I., Aug. 29, 2014.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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President Barack Obama looks out over the water after arriving aboard Marine One at the Brenton Point landing zone in Newport, R.I., Aug. 29, 2014.

An MIT professor and a war veteran discuss whether the U.S. should respond to every crisis that pops up across the globe. By Scott Beauchamp

Even before I returned home from serving as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, which included two combat tours in Iraq between 2006 and 2009, I was searching for ways to contextualize my experience.

My questions weren’t ponderous or existential; they were pointed and, I believed, answerable. One was why units like mine were assuming responsibilities far beyond their traditional roles of eliminating the enemy in close-quarters combat. We assisted in the investigation of crimes. We helped rebuild infrastructure. We handed out water and gasoline and worked to reconstruct civil society in a country we knew little about.

I began to wonder, moreover, why my perception of the conflict seemed so far removed from that of nearly every elected U.S. leader. Why did so many in Congress, including vocal liberals, vote for a war that I—a soldier who was actually carrying it out on the ground—was dubious of? There appeared to be a wider spectrum of opinion on the efficacy of what we were doing among soldiers in Iraq than among politicians in Washington. The disputes that did arise in D.C., especially in the early days of the invasion, seemed like exercises in the narcissism of small differences. Why did all the civilians agree with one another?

I don’t think the United States quite set out to achieve this level of dominance. I think we were just trying to defend ourselves and our friends against the Soviet Union. But we did that so successfully that we drove them out of business.

I’ve been out of the Army for years now, but these questions persist. Why does Obama, for instance, fundamentally sound like congressional hawks when it comes to confronting ISIS? A number of writers and thinkers have been wrestling with similar questions, and Barry Posen, a political-science professor at MIT, is one of them. His latest bookRestraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, gives a name to the general consensus among the American foreign-policy establishment that I sensed as a soldier, calling it “liberal hegemony.” The term encompasses two philosophies that arose after the fall of the Soviet Union. The first is the neoconservative philosophy of “primacy”— overwhelming military force projected around the world to enforce America’s will. The second is “cooperative security,” embraced mainly by Democrats, which only differs from primacy in that it seeks approval from international organizations like the United Nations and NATO when exerting military force. In both cases, the question is how to use force, not if it should be used in the first place.

Posen’s response is the philosophy of “restraint”—a scaling down of the expectations and demands that decades of liberal hegemonic thought has placed on the United States. I spoke with Posen by phone about his theory and how he would apply it to actors like China, Russia, and the Islamic State. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.


Scott Beauchamp: Your latest book is called Restraint and the title refers to the “grand strategy of restraint.” What exactly is a grand strategy?

Barry Posen: Pretty much any great power has to operate according to some set of propositions about the threats it faces, the tools it’s going to use to address those threats. Some countries write those down and you can go and read them. They seem quite authoritative. In some countries, it may be a consensus of the elite. It’s not a cookbook that prescribes every action in every situation. It’s basically a set of concepts that outlines threats, discusses political and military remedies, talks a little bit about why those remedies might work, assigns some priorities to threats and to remedies, and it has to be conscious of scarcity. There’s usually some limited amount of resources the state has to spend on its purposes.

My summary statement, which can seem a little airy sometimes, is that a grand strategy is a state’s theory about how to cause security for itself.

Beauchamp: What sort of grand strategy does the U.S. currently have?

Posen: The grand strategy of the United States has evolved since the Cold War ended. It’s not like someone sat down the day after and wrote up something and everyone agreed, but I think through a series of fits and starts, including a series of iterations of actual published statements of U.S. national-security policy that came out of President Clinton’s office, and later out of President Bush’s, we—the elite, the national-security establishment—basically moved to a strategy that I call liberal hegemony.

Beauchamp: What does that mean?

Posen: It means that, in part because of happenstance, the United States found itself not only the most capable state in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but maybe one of the most capable states globally in world history.

I don’t think the United States quite set out to achieve this level of dominance. I think we were just trying to defend ourselves and our friends against the Soviet Union. But we did that so successfully that we drove them out of business. There was no other competitor at the time. So this gave birth to what some people call the “unipolar moment,” where the United States is the world power. And America’s security establishment decided that not only was this a lucky happenstance that provided some new possibilities for the United States, but it’s a situation that could and should be preserved—that we should be trying to remain the preeminent power by quite a wide margin and that you could do this through strategy, through using our capabilities, through various other things that we might do. We could lock in this position and we could write the rules of international politics. And those rules would be essentially liberal. That’s why I call it liberal hegemony.

Read more at The Atlantic.

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