December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

Retain American Power, Do Not Restrain It

December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

Retain American Power, Do Not Restrain It

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. 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.”1

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.2 His work, not surprisingly, resonated with realists-cum-isolationists such as John Mearsheimer3 and Stephen Walt,4 not to mention a gaggle of libertarians who found a new bottle for their old laissez-faire wine.5 There is even a restrainers’ think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft,6 erroneously named for former President John Quincy Adams owing to a fundamental misreading of his thinking and its applicability to 21st-century superpower affairs.7

Isolationist ideas clearly appeal to Trump. But they have also taken hold on the left. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ wing of the Democratic Party ensured that a call for the end of “forever wars” found its way into the Democrats’ platform.8 President-elect Joe Biden’s long record in the U.S. Senate as a foreign-policy internationalist – as well as his choice of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris from the Democratic Party’s moderate wing as his running mate – offers hope for greater U.S. engagement with traditional allies. Yet it remains uncertain whether the Biden administration will push back decisively against the country’s most determined adversaries. And as vice president, Biden had a seat at the table when then-President Obama adopted his own elements of isolationism,9 including his withdrawal of troops from Iraq, his unwillingness to enforce his own “red line” against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and his tepid response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.

The common theme among restrainers: The United States has no business intervening in other nations’ affairs. Or, as Lieutenant General (Ret.) H.R. McMaster, a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Army, chairman of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power, and former national security advisor to Trump, noted, isolationists hold the “romantic view that restraint abroad is almost always an unmitigated good.”10

In some ways, the restraint movement echoes the isolationism championed in the 1930s and 1940s by Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. Like that earlier isolationism, the restraint movement draws the wrong lessons and inferences from U.S. wars. In the 1930s, isolationists invoked World War I, in which almost 120,000 Americans perished, as a reason to avoid challenging German and Japanese fascism. The thought was that if Americans just stayed out of World War II, the totalitarians would leave the United States alone.

Today’s restrainers similarly seek to capitalize on the suffering and difficulties associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the broader fight against terrorism, when they argue for the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces from these and other conflicts.11 Restrainers, however, often conflate the initial decision to intervene at all with how a conflict is subsequently managed or how eventually to withdraw. These are different policy decisions. Indeed, one can be critical of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and how the war was managed – while also believing that Washington should retain a modest U.S. military presence to help prevent a return of the Islamic State and to counter the influence of Iran.

Restrainers have also attempted to leverage the Great Recession and the current economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to incite populist passions.12 They do this by falsely suggesting that defense spending is the primary source of the federal deficit and debt.13 Defense spending is near post-World War II lows in terms of percentage of U.S. gross domestic product and percentage of federal spending.

Restrainers consistently paint existing and potential conflicts and U.S. military deployments with the same brush, warning of another “forever war.”14 However, not every conflict leads to an interminable quagmire. Even the so-called War on Terror, despite its headaches, so far has helped prevent another major foreign terrorist attack on the United States, which many had predicted to be inevitable after 9/11.

The term “forever war” is itself curious. History, unfortunately, is a forever war – the chronicle of states’ struggles with their enemies. To be sure, one can write a truly wondrous history of human achievement. But sadly, as the Spanish writer George Santayana observed, “only the dead have seen the end of war.”15

Restrainers operate under the mistaken assertion that the world would be a safer or better place if U.S. influence would simply recede.16 The 20th century tells another story. As the historian Robert Kagan argued in his 2012 book The World America Made, the U.S.-led world order has heralded a global rise in liberalism and human rights, better education and health, greater wealth, and more access to information.17

Equally puzzling is the notion that the world’s problems and conflicts are of little consequence to the United States.18 What happens abroad inevitably affects Americans at home. Al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks despite America’s best efforts to steer clear of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda was and is based. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor despite Washington’s best efforts to stay out of the fray. Isolationists initially blocked then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt from providing greater support to an embattled Britain, and millions of lives were lost from not confronting German leader Adolf Hitler sooner.19

The best way to protect American interests is to engage internationally and maintain a well-designed, forward-deployed military presence alongside allies and partners. As Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell have noted, U.S. deployments of varying magnitude along what they call the “unquiet frontier” that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the South China Sea counter the rise of revisionist powers such as China, Russia, and Iran.20 Support for U.S. allies, coupled with a U.S. military presence in forward bases, helps deter gathering threats.21

A U.S. Navy sailor assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 5 fast-ropes from an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter during HYDROCRAB at Santa Rita, Guam, on August 19, 2019. HYDRACRAB is a quadrilateral exercise conducted by forces from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Helen Brown)

When Washington plays an outsized role in shaping and maintaining the international rules-based order, Americans and people around the world are safer and more prosperous. That is what the United States has done, for the most part, since World War II. And that leadership role has helped ensure that global conflicts such as the Cold War did not erupt into devastating military confrontations.

Admittedly, the U.S.-led international order certainly has not prevented all wars. There have been costly mistakes along the way. But responding to those mistakes by ignoring persistent threats and drawing down U.S. military posture for its own sake would be shortsighted and dangerous.

Those who welcome the retreat of U.S. power have yet to fully answer one important question: What happens after the United States goes home? When the British Empire unraveled after World War II, the United States stepped into the void, promoting an international system based on the rule of law. Who will follow the United States? The alternatives are frightening.

Russia is far less equipped to become a superpower but would be a particularly predatory, corrupt, and avaricious one under Russian President Vladimir Putin. China, for its part, actively seeks global leadership. The Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian hostility to democracy; weaponization of data;22 human rights abuses;23 support for rogue states such as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan;24 threats to Hong Kong and Taiwan;25 militarization of the South China Sea;26 and massive theft of intellectual property27 should all serve as warnings about a Chinese-led world order. And let us all dispense with the fiction that the European Union could be an alternative to the United States in defending democracies.

U.S. power, therefore, must be retained, not restrained.

Retaining U.S. power should take different forms depending on the region and country. A reflexive tendency to retain all U.S. military deployments would be as unwise as a reflexive tendency to withdraw them. Each must be measured methodically in terms of U.S. interests and threats to them. And this should be accomplished with the smallest U.S. force posture necessary.28

Restrainers are, of course, justified in their desire to avoid needless conflict. But the importance of U.S. willingness to confront challenges cannot be discounted. Weakness makes war more likely, not less. Diplomacy without military leverage leads to discussions about how much the United States is willing to retreat. This will only leave Americans more insecure.

In the end, not all conflict is avoidable, just as not all withdrawals are advisable. The United States must therefore wield its military judiciously and guard its wealth. The goal should be to fight battles only when core national interests demand it.

But in the 21st century, if Americans want to be safe at home, some of our bravest citizens must stand watch abroad. For that reason, restraint in the form of wholesale military withdrawal is the wrong prescription. With new threats gathering, Americans should want the retainers to win this debate.

A similar version of this chapter originally appeared in Foreign Policy on August 18, 2020.29


  1. “Trump threatens a new troop withdrawal. It would endanger yet another U.S. relationship.” The Washington Post, July 22, 2020. (
  2. Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014). (
  3. “John Mearsheimer,” The University of Chicago, accessed November 10, 2020. (; YaleUniversity, “John J. Mearsheimer, ‘The Case for Restraint,’” YouTube, November 22, 2017. (
  4. “Stephen Walt,” Harvard Kennedy School, accessed November 10, 2020. (; Stephen Walt, “A Manifesto For Restrainers,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, December 4, 2019. (
  5. Cristopher A. Preble and A. Trevor Thrall, “65. Restoring Prudence and Restraint in U.S. Foreign Policy,” CATO Handbook for Policymakers, 8th Edition (Washington, DC: CATO Institute, 2017). (
  6. “About QI,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, accessed November 10, 2020. (
  7. Bradley Bowman, “Commentary: Trump Syria withdrawal decision immoral and short-sighted,” Military Times, October 8, 2019. (; Hal Brands, “John Quincy Adams Isn’t Who You Think He Is,” Bloomberg News, February 8, 2020. (
  8. Senator Bernie Sanders, “Ending America’s Endless War: We Must Stop Giving Terrorists Exactly What They Want,” Foreign Affairs, June 24, 2019. (; Democratic National Committee, “2020 Democratic Party Platform,” August 18, 2020, pages 72 and 75–76. (
  9. “Obama: Focus on Nation Building at Home,” Voice of America, May 4, 2012. (
  10. Lieutenant General (Ret.) H.R. McMaster, “The Retrenchment Syndrome: A Response to ‘Come Home, America?’” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020. (
  11. Stephen M. Walt, “The End of Hubris: And the New Age of American Restraint,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019. (; Stephen Wertheim, “The Price of Primacy: Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020. (
  12. Barney Frank, “How to Save the Global Economy: Cut Defense Spending,” Foreign Policy, January 3, 2012. (; Stephen Wertheim, “COVID-19 and the costs of military primacy,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, July 22, 2020. (; Mike DeBonis, “Citing financial cost of pandemic, House liberals demand cut in military spending,” The Washington Post, May 19, 2020. (; Stephen M. Walt, “Socialists and Libertarians Need an Alliance Against the Establishment,” Foreign Policy, September 24, 2018. (
  13. Bradley Bowman, “Don’t Use COVID As Excuse to Slash Defense Spending,” Breaking Defense, May 20, 2020. (
  14. Trita Parsi, “Trump Can Either Leave the Middle East or Have War With Iran,” Real Clear Defense, April 30, 2020. (
  15. George Santayana, “Tipperary,” Soliloquies in England and later soliloquies (New York City: Scribner’s Sons, 1922), page 101. (Available at: It is for this reason that former President Ronald Reagan advocated “peace through strength.” This view served the United States and its NATO allies well in Europe during the Cold War. Reagan, of course, was only borrowing from the Roman adage: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and his Prussian counterpart Carl von Clausewitz offered similar advice. Their common belief: Weakness and lack of resolve invite aggression.
  16. Stephen M. Walt, “There’s No Such Thing as Good Liberal Hegemony,” Foreign Policy, April 21, 2020. (; Stephen Wertheim, “The Price of Primacy: Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020. (; Paul R. Pillar, Andrew Bacevich, Annelle Sheline, and Trita Parsi, “A New U.S. Paradigm for the Middle East: Ending America’s Misguided Policy of Domination,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, July 17, 2020. (; Barry R. Posen, “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013. (
  17. Robert Kagan, The World America Made (New York City: Vintage, 2013).
  18. Stephen M. Walt, “Monsters of Our Own Imaginings,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2016. (; Stephen M. Walt, “Why Arming Kiev Is a Really, Really Bad Idea,” Foreign Policy, February 9, 2015. (; Stephen M. Walt, “Chill Out, America,” Foreign Policy, May 29, 2015. (; Doug Bandow, “Why Are Americans Still Targets in Afghanistan?” CATO Institute, July 16, 2020. (
  19. In fact, had the United States stayed engaged in Europe in the 1920s, Hitler’s rise might have been preventable.
  20. Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell, The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
  21. Trump’s decision to remove significant numbers of U.S. troops from Germany and his threat to do the same from South Korea may have been a negotiating tactic to extract greater cost-sharing from other NATO members and Seoul. But that approach is ill-advised. U.S. soldiers are not mercenaries available to the highest bidder. Nor is the U.S. military presence in these countries charity; U.S. troops are forward-deployed to deter adversaries and protect core U.S. national security interests. See: Ryan Browne and Zachary Cohen, “US to withdraw nearly 12,000 troops from Germany in move that will cost billions and take years,” CNN, July 29, 2020. (; David Maxwell, “Penny wise, pound foolish: The flawed logic of withdrawal from South Korea,” Military Times, July 19, 2020. (
  22. Zak Doffman, “Chinese Hackers ‘Weaponize’ Coronavirus Data For New Cyber Attack: Here’s What They Did,” Forbes, March 12, 2020. (; Charlie Campbell, “How China Is Using ‘Social Credit Scores’ to Reward and Punish Its Citizens,” Time, January 16, 2019. (
  23. John Sudworth, “China Uighurs: A model’s video gives a rare glimpse inside internment,” BBC (UK), August 4, 2020. (
  24. Brigadier General (Res.) Jacob Nagel and Mark Dubowitz, “With a Potential Iran-China Deal, Time for Israel to Reassess Its Policy,” Newsweek, July 26, 2020. (; “North Korea defies sanctions with China’s help, UN panel says,” Agence France-Presse, April 17, 2020. (; Sanjana Gogna and Nasima Khatoon, “The China-Pakistan Nuclear Nexus: How Can India Respond?” The Diplomat, March 27, 2020. (,its%2520nuclear%2520deterrent%2520against%2520India)
  25. Craig Singleton, “The Fallout From China’s Hong Kong Power Play,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 26, 2020. (; Bradley Bowman, “Hong Kong Today, Taiwan Next?” Newsweek, June 5, 2020. (
  26. “Chinese Power Projection Capabilities in the South China Sea,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, accessed November 12, 2020. (
  27. Eric Rosenbaum, “1 in 5 corporations say China has stolen their IP within the last year: CNBC CFO survey,” CNBC, March 1, 2019. (
  28. Thankfully, the military is not the only tool of national power at Washington’s disposal. Another is economic warfare. The economic tools created in the aftermath of 9/11 are targeted and surgical. Their strength derives from the dollar-denominated financial system constructed by the United States, a system under which the world still operates. Sanctions have allowed the United States to maintain important leverage over adversaries. These tools must be used judiciously, as should all instruments of national power. But restrainers often deride these economic tools, claiming they are a gateway to war rather than a means of suasion and avoiding war. They lambaste their use against U.S. enemies and adversaries such as Iran and Russia, even as some restrainers seem eager to use the same tools of economic warfare against U.S. allies such as Israel. See: Trita Parsi, “Dead-End Diplomacy: Washington’s Failed Sanctions on Iran,” Global Asia, Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2013. (; Trita Parsi, “Sanctions Make War More Likely,” The Daily Beast, July 13, 2017. (; Paul J. Saunders, “When Sanctions Lead to War,” The New York Times, August 21, 2014. (; Daniella Greenbaum Davis, “Ilhan Omar Just Came Out Against Sanctions. So Why Does She Back BDS?” Forward, October 24, 2019. (
  29. Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz, “The Dangerous Illusion of Restraining U.S. Power,” Foreign Policy, August 18, 2020. (


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