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Don’t Just Do Something – Stand There: Why America Should Adopt a Strategy of Strategic Restraint

On Friday night, our two candidates will hold a debate on foreign policy.  Most of the questions are fairly predictable; the responses, even more so.  And one other thing is certain: If our founding fathers were in the audience, they … Read More

By / September 23, 2008

On Friday night, our two candidates will hold a debate on foreign policy.  Most of the questions are fairly predictable; the responses, even more so.  And one other thing is certain: If our founding fathers were in the audience, they would be uniformly horrified at what they heard.  Both candidates will likely map out grand strategic visions that are radically different from that which served the nation quite well over its first 150 years.

A moment’s consideration of their views might be in order as the next administration considers how best to move the country forward out of the morass of Iraq.

On most matters, the United States worships Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and their compatriots as passionately as the Romans did Romulus and Remus, and it still seeks their wisdom on a wide variety of subjects, from constitutional questions to political theory to religion.  The hagiography, however, stops at the water’s edge.  The founding fathers had quite clear views about grand strategy, but for some reason their thoughts seem to be all but disregarded by most modern strategists.  When it comes to domestic policy, the word of the founders is gospel; in foreign policy, it is quaint.

In fact, grand strategy was one of the very few issues on which the founding fathers spoke with virtually one voice.  With varying degrees of enthusiasm (and for different reasons), these men felt that the United States ought not squander the blessings of geography.  They consistently and forcefully counseled their new nation to restrain itself.  Washington was the most prominent advocate, arguing in his Farewell Address that "nothing is more essential" for the new nation "than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded."  His "great rule" of strategy was that the United States ought to extend its commercial relations with foreign nations, but have with them "as little political connection as possible."

All of his colleagues, even those who were longstanding rivals on almost everything else, basically agreed with this sentiment.  Alexander Hamilton advised Washington that "America’s predisposition against involvement in Old World affairs" ought to be a "general principle of policy;" Thomas Jefferson was "for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment."  In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote that although "Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it.  It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions."  John Adams argued that "we should separate ourselves, as far as possible and for as long as possible, from all European politics and wars."  This recommendation was heeded by his son, President John Quincy Adams, who in 1821 issued his famous and eloquent warning against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. 

Today’s neoconservatives tell us that the founders didn’t really mean what they said, and that these men were actually pragmatists who did not counsel a course separate from the rest of the world.  Robert Kagan in particular, who is one of McCain’s major foreign policy advisors, does an admirable job of constructing and then knocking down the straw man of an isolationist United States.  It is however no great insight to argue that the United States always had a foreign policy, which is essentially what he does.  Policymakers have always carried out robust debates over the proper course of action, and intervened in the affairs of other countries whenever it seemed wise to do so.  The United States was never isolationist, and virtually no strategist today thinks it ought to be.

These modern re-interpretations of the history of U.S. foreign policy cannot wash away the obvious fact that for most of its existence, the United States defined threats, interests and opportunities quite narrowly, and maintained appropriately small militaries with which to address them.  The affairs of the Old World in particular held little more than a passing interest to U.S. strategists, who felt that the oceans provided adequate buffer for most of the ills of the world.  It was restraint, not isolationism, that dominated the grand strategy of this country for its first hundred and fifty years.  During that time, the nation experienced steady economic growth and was unmolested by outside forces, eventually rising to become the strongest of the world’s great powers.  Strategic restraint seemed to serve the young nation quite well.  It would likely do so again.

After the Second World War, a series of decisions were made to alter the traditional strategic approach, and the United States has followed an activist, internationalist path since.  Each post-war administration eschewed the advice of the founders, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century internationalism had become imbedded in the national strategic conventional wisdom.  The need for such activism is rarely even examined, much less seriously challenged.   

The wisest grand strategy spends the least in order to gain the most; it minimizes costs and maximizes benefits.  Activism is justified therefore only when there is clear necessity.  America ought not be heavily involved abroad merely because it can, but only when it must (or, to the idealist, when it should).  The default option for our leaders ought to be to not intervene in the affairs of others, and to lead by example, not by imposition. 

We would all be better off if the winner in November followed a strategy of strategic restraint.

One can hope that generalized discontent with the strategy of the current administration will lead to a re-examination of the proper role of the United States in the world.  The public may indeed be a bit more open to restraint, now that they have seen the consequences of its opposite.  Like an alcoholic, sometimes a nation must hit rock bottom before it sees the need to make drastic changes.  To the vast majority of the American people, Iraq looks like rock bottom.

One can hope the debate would start such a conversation. 

One can hope for a lot of things, I suppose.

Christopher Fettweis, author of Losing Hurts Twice As Bad, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned. 

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