Pull Back or Lean Forward?

The most recent issue of Foreign Affairs hosts an excellent debate between two visions for a future U.S. grand strategy  (thanks to Foreign Affairs for making both articles freely available for a limited period). On the one hand, Barry Posen makes a strong case that the U.S. should create a leaner security posture that would allow it to invest more resources at home. On the other hand, Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and Bill Wohlforth argue that the cost of U.S. “deep engagement” are overstated while the benefits are many. Stephen Walt chimes in with some strong arguments in favor of the retrenchment position. Brooks et al. have a more detailed version of the argument in a forthcoming article in International Security.

You should read the pieces for yourself: they are short, well-argued, and important even to those for whom foreign policy may be a secondary consideration (and while you are at it, also read Dan Drezner’s attempt to reboot Republican foreign policy). Neither of these are polar positions. Posen is no isolationist who wants to withdraw from every commitment. Brooks et al are not raving interventionists. This makes this to some degree about what the optimal level of engagement is rather than a debate about binaries. The merits of the specific policy proposals are thus very important. Most controversial is probably Posen’s proposal to radically reduce security commitments to NATO and  Japan in order to stop providing “welfare to the rich.” The grand ideas may matter too. Walt, for instance, argues that the failed military adventures in Iraq and Vietnam were logical consequences of the grand strategy of “deep engagement.” Brooks et al disagree, although they agree that both interventions did not serve the interests of the US or the world. Neither author has a watertight way to put boundaries on exactly how much engagement is too little or too much (or how we would recognize over or undercommitment ex ante). Then there is the problem of how you safely withdraw from security commitments (especially to Japan). To Brooks et al, deep engagement is the devil we know. To Posen status quo policies waste resources, antagonize states and peoples, and are unsustainable given economic and geopolitical trends. Brooks et al think Posen overly worries about imaginary threats of balancing. Lots of important stuff to think about.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.