Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy

IMG_2546Over three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Barry R. Posen present his latest book Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy (Cornell UP, 2012).  Grand strategy for Posen is a state’s theory of how it provides security for itself. The book is a sustained challenge to what he sees as the dominant grand strategy of the US since the end of the Cold War: Liberal Hegemony. It is a convergence of two of four “sets of ideas competing for the affection of the US foreign policy establishment” (p. 6) in 1990: Cooperative Security (dominant within the Democratic Party), Primacy (largely within the GOP),  Selective Engagement and Isolationism. The latter two are the basis for the alternative to Liberal Hegemony he presents in the book which he names Restraint.

Posen is a former student of the late Kenneth Waltz and is a scholar of military planning and force structure. This shows in

(1) his conceptual foundations (p. 20):

      1. the anarchical condition of international politics
      2. the propensity of modern people to identify with groups larger than themselves
      3. the enormous, destructive power of nuclear weapons
      4. the propensity of war, once underway, to create a system of action resistant to human control

(2) his positivist methodological commitments. His theories are “causal arguments, which have been repeatedly tested, formally and informally.”

(3) the great deal of attention he devotes to the force structure the US needs for transition to the normative vision of offshore balancing he outlines.

I read the book with an eye to how he explains the August War and Russia’s (subsequent to the book going to print) intervention in Ukraine. Predictably, he sees Russian behavior as ‘external balancing’ of the United States:

Russia has also done what it can to limit the extent of US penetration of their former republics in Central Asia [this forgets the 2001-02 period of course]. More generally, Russia has become assertive and is trying with some success to build a sphere of influence on its periphery. And it has used force in one case, Georgia, to make the point that it believes it has a droit de regard in these regions. United States strategists see Russian behavior of this kind as aggressive. The possibility that prior Western activities are prompting a Russian balancing response is seldom conceded. NATO “enlargement” is conveniently forgotten; Russia should not mind that the alliance that crushed its Soviet parent has been picking up the chips on Europe’s poker table and moving its frontier inexorably in Russia’s direction…Balance of power theorists would have expected Russia to push back as soon as it had the power; it has a little power, and it is pushing back (p. 30-31).

This is a very nice distillation of the dominant perspective among some US political realists (Walt, Mearsheimer). It is compelling, logical and, I would argue, wrong. Why? Well, the book I’m working on will have the detailed critique but suffice it to say that it relies on a determinism about ‘balance of power’ politics that tends to short-cut if not ignore the fact that geopolitics is cultural and ideological. Geography and spheres of influence are inextricably tied to geopolitical culture and do not stand alone as objective facts about distance and space. There is nothing inevitably about ‘great power politics’ though certain tendencies can be identified. How geopolitical cultures are (re)defined by regimes and leaders matters crucially in explaining specific conjunctural outcomes, such as the August War or the Crimean intervention. Why did they occur when they did? Why did they occur given that it could easily be argued they were both counterproductive to Russia achieving stable friendly relations with states on its borders? As Robert Cooper suggested recently, Russia has created a condon insanitaire not a cordon sanataire on its rimlands, states where the ethnic majority community are now actively hostile to Russia rather than potentially persuadable by Russian soft power.

Posen’s book is a compelling one, and I expect I’ll use it in future graduate teaching on American Foreign Policy. There is, of course, no such thing as pure political realism. It is always entangled within other commitments and normative values. Posen’s are ultimately nationalistic and, to a milder extent, libertarian. He cares about the US, first and foremost, and about the ways in which the US’s commitments to Liberal Hegemony cost the country and empowers somewhat reckless behavior by allies (Georgia under Saakashvili appears as Exhibit A for what he terms ‘reckless driving’). Less US hegemony, he argues, is also good for the world in that it allows the inevitable shifts in the balance of power to work themselves out in a largely peaceful way. Posen’s libertarian commitments aren’t front and center in his book – there is little on the costs to the quality of liberty at home of Liberal Hegemony — but it is clear that his passions are with anti-establishment activists for a smaller state to supposedly let market capitalism work better. Other version of political realism (e.g. the work of Charles Kupchan) don’t require subscription to libertarian ideals.

In sum, this is a book that should be widely read and debated. It offers a well crafted challenge to the default liberal internationalism that most in the GOP and Democratic Party share.

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About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching Euro-Atlantic/Eurasia geopolitics and post-Soviet de facto states.
This entry was posted in August War, Cato Institute, Current affairs, Five Day War, Libertarian, Saakashvili, Washington D.C.. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy

  1. Mauro Vaiani says:

    Thank you for this review! Very, very interesting to think about American “restraint”. It is very near to my research on American overstretch. I will read and quote Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy.

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