The Dangerous Illusion of Restraining U.S. Power

The Dangerous Illusion of Restraining U.S. Power

Isolationists among both Democrats and Republicans want to withdraw from foreign entanglements. That would make the world much less safe.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced on July 29 that 11,900 U.S. military personnel will be leaving Germany, reducing the United States’ footprint there from 36,000 to 24,000 soldiers. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is weighing a similar drawdown from the 28,500 U.S. troops currently stationed in South Korea. And that may be just the beginning. According to Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany who briefly served as acting director of national intelligence this spring, the goal is to “bring [home] troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from South Korea, Japan, and from Germany.”

The call for the United States to show “restraint” by withdrawing from foreign entanglements and keeping the focus at home is growing in foreign-policy circles—and not just in the Trump administration. The current movement appears to have started in 2014, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Barry Posen published the seminal work on foreign-policy restraint. His work, not surprisingly, resonated with realists-cum-isolationists such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, not to mention a gaggle of libertarians who found a new bottle for their old laissez-faire wine. There is even a restrainers’ think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, erroneously named for former President John Quincy Adams owing to a fundamental misreading of his thinking and a failed attempt to apply cavalry-era strategizing to 21st-century superpower affairs.