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July 22, 2011

America First
Posted by Jacob Stokes

America FirstAs the debate rages over whether President Obama has a grand strategy – Dan Drezner explored the issue in Foreign Affairs this issue; Fareed Zakaria also weighed in recently – a few other recent pieces begin to explore what American strategy going forward might look like.

In Democracy Journal last quarter, Anatol Lieven of New America reviewed Charlie Kupchan’s book “How Enemies Become Friends.” The piece, titled “Strength Through Restraint,” explained what Lieven see as the lessons of the book:

However, if liberals wish to formulate a practical strategy that is clearly distinguished from that of the neoconservatives (and the liberal hawks, who are neoconservatives in sheep’s clothing), then they need to learn the following lessons from Kupchan: That democracy around the world is a long-term goal, not a short-term tactic; that in the short-to-medium term, peace and international cooperation (especially on climate change) have to be prioritized, which means accommodation with authoritarian regimes; and that this accommodation will require a conscious, deliberate, and clear scaling back of American ambitions and strategic posture in certain areas of the world. 

This approach will be deeply uncomfortable for many Americans, including liberals. But the alternative is for the United States to exhaust itself in a hopeless attempt at maintaining global primacy, while at the same time destroying the possibility of peaceful cooperation with China and other powers. Such a future would be bad for the United States, bad for peace, and bad for the world. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim the need to accommodate authoritarian regimes; that’s a step too far. Instead, it seems we need to take a clear-eyed look at the cost and efficacy of military regime change-tactics and find creative, cost-effective ways to achieve American goals.

Anyway, Richard Haass has a new piece out in Time, arguing for, it not the same thing as Lieven suggests, a strategy that rhymes. He calls it a “restoration” strategy”:

The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former. Doing so would not only address critical domestic needs but also rebuild the foundation of this country's strength so it would be in a better position to stave off potential strategic challengers or be better prepared should they emerge all the same. 

My term for such a doctrine is restoration: a U.S. foreign policy based on restoring this country's strength and replenishing its resources—economic, human and physical. 

Restoration is not isolationism. Isolationism is the willful turning away from the world even when a rigorous assessment of U.S. interests argues for acting. Isolationism makes no sense in a world in which the U.S. cannot wall itself off from terrorism, proliferation, protectionism, pandemic disease, climate change or a loss of access to financial, energy and mineral resources. An embrace of isolationism would accelerate the emergence of a more disorderly and dangerous and less prosperous and free world. 

Restoration is very different. The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy—to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.

But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice—armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. 

Both of these narratives are derivative of what journalist Peter Beinart called a “solvency doctrine” back in 2009. He wrote, “No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red.” None of these plans or explanations is perfect, of course, but taken together, they seem to me good starting points for what a grand strategy for the U.S. should look like, namely a focus on tending to the sources of American power rather than on making more commitments that draw on it.

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