Realism and Retrenchment

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The Pentagon
The Pentagon. Photo:mindfrieze/flickr.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, historian Elizabeth Hoffman added her voice to those calling for sharp reductions in American military commitments abroad. In the current climate, her argument is a familiar one: the Pentagon-heavy grand strategy that the US has pursued for the last sixty years has become an unnecessary drain on its resources. It now diminishes America’s security rather than enhancing it. But like many others, Hoffman’s call was not limited to the more controversial commitments that have been incurred in the decade since 9/11.  With the Soviet Union long-defeated and fiscal disaster seemingly imminent, Hoffman’s call is more dramatic. “Everyone talks about getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” she writes, “but what about Germany and Japan?”

From Barry Posen, to Stephen Walt, to John Mearsheimer, this line of argument is gaining traction among foreign policy intellectuals and beginning to represent an emerging consensus among ‘realists.’ While realism is not a theory of foreign policy per se, the popularity of strategic retrenchment among American realists should not be surprising. After all, the international behavior of the United States, a hegemon prone to norms-promotion and military adventurism, represents a serious empirical difficulty for realism, one that tends to be explained as a theoretical anomaly. Realism also counsels careful attention to changes in the distribution of power and contends that states that fail to do so jeopardize their survival.

This is what makes a recent article by Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry and William Wohlforth in the winter issue of International Security so interesting. Remaining firmly within the realist tradition, the three authors make a systematic case against retrenchment. Though they do not believe that all of America’s overseas commitments should be sustained, they argue that its current strategy of ‘deep engagement’ with the rest of the world continues to serve its core interests and to enhance its security.

 “Deep Engagement”

For Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth the term “deep engagement” characterizes post-War American grand strategy better than alternatives such as ‘primacy’ or ‘international activism.’  In their view, American strategy has pursued three objectives overall:

“(1) managing the external environment to reduce near- and long-term threats to U.S. national security; (2) promoting a liberal economic order to expand the global economy and maximize domestic prosperity; and (3) creating, sustaining, and revising the global institutional order to secure necessary interstate cooperation on terms favorable to U.S. interests.”

For the authors, these objectives differ from a strategy of ‘primacy’ because the size and sophistication of the US economy would have ensured primacy even if nothing was spent on the military. Primacy, in other words, might entail objectives (2) and (3) but would be ambiguous about objective (1). They also differ from ‘activism,’ because the military is far from the only tool through which the external environment has been managed. Not only do alternatives like primacy and activism misrepresent the historical record, they miss the points at the center of today’s debate, which are whether existing security commitments should be maintained and whether so much of the military should remain overseas.

At the core of the authors’ argument is that deep engagement has substantial benefits. But these benefits are well-known. The most obvious are the leverage it gives the United States in regions where the military is present, to restrain partners and rivals alike, and the deterrent effect that it produces with respect to other states contemplating regional hegemony.  In addition to these benefits, the authors also discuss another that is less familiar, at least in the realist literature: the role of the security commitments associated with deep engagement that allows the US to shape the global economic order in its interests.

But more crucially, the authors also believe that the costs of deep engagement are either “overstated or wrong” – and therefore cannot outweigh its benefits, as a majority of other realists now seem to believe.  From a budgetary perspective, Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth argue that deep engagement is actually cheaper than the alternatives. When troops are stationed abroad rather than inside the United States, they point out, “host governments generally cover many infrastructure costs of U.S. forces and bases” that would instead have to be borne domestically.

The authors also believe that there is no basis to the claim that deep engagement generates ‘systemic pushback’ – or the idea (in Richard Betts’ words) that “attempts at running the world generate resistance.”  Whether in the form of other states balancing against it, or by drawing resources away from other purposes, such claims are simply not true.  “Multiple, comprehensive analyses,” they report, “find no evidence of external or internal balancing by major powers” against the United States.  And the most common empirical finding about the impact of military spending on growth is a positive relationship. Thus, far from undermining itself, global hegemony is, in other words, self-sustaining.

Don’t Come Home, America?

What this amounts to is a resounding ‘no’ to Hoffman’s timely question.  Where Hoffman and many others suggest a change of course, Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth have now made a powerful case for doubling down.  Despite the country’s fiscal and other problems, American troops should not leave forward positions in places like Germany and Japan.  In addition to being a wise deployment of scarce resources, America’s overseas commitments, they argue, are actually cheaper than abandoning them– both financially and strategically – and remain an essential component of a grand strategy that should endure.

While the debate over the future of American grand strategy will no doubt continue, these arguments represent a significant development.  It is now more difficult to say that realists speak with one voice on the question of retrenchment.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Ned Lebow on Drivers of War, Cultural Theory, and IR of Foxes and Hedgehogs

Navigating US-China Relations: Complicated by China’s “Unrelenting Strategy”

Securing America’s Borders: The Role of the Military


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