Is the “Restraint Revolution” Really Happening?

By Egor Spirin

US troops patrol a Syrian road in November of 2020
Image Credit: Jensen Guillory/DVIDS

Recently, there has been increasing speculation by prominent pundits of international relations about the transformation of the U.S. foreign policy consensus into one of greater restraint. 

Richard Haass in Foreign Affairs argues that a new paradigm is evolving, one that “dismisses the core tenet of [internationalist] approach: that the United States has a vital stake in a broader global system, one that at times demands undertaking difficult military interventions or putting aside immediate national preferences in favor of principles and arrangements that bring long-term benefits.”

Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry recently attacked this so-called “Quincy coalition.”  They believe that Trump’s foreign policy, despite being a very hatchet job, was an attempt to implement the “recipes” of restraint supporters. Joshua Shifrinson and Stephen Wertheim depict Biden as a realist who rejects “liberal internationalist” dogma. 

The authors make the far-reaching conclusion that Biden can launch an entire revolution in American foreign policy. But can it honestly be said that a revolution is taking the place of the dominant status quo that guides American grand strategy and foreign policy in practice?

Observe the practical policies of the 45th and 46th presidents in terms of their consistency with the strategy of restraint. Of course, it would be totally incorrect to say that Trump and Biden have each changed absolutely nothing about American foreign policy. However, it seems that their approaches are mostly just a new wrapping of the old “primacy” and global presence, but with the rejection of the most odious solutions (such as a war in Afghanistan).

One of the most striking examples of the lack of transformation of American foreign policy is the strategy towards Russia. Contrary to speculation that Trump had a favorable attitude toward Russia, in practice his administration took a very tough stance on Russia. His policies were aimed at increasing pressure, which certainly contributed to an even greater cooling of bilateral relations. 

Sanctions, refusal to extend START III and withdrawal from the INF treaty are all inherent features of a policy that is clearly far from restraint. At the moment, there has been no significant change in policy toward Russia (with the exception of the extension of START III). Relations continue to deteriorate. 

There are more sanctions and expulsions of diplomats (which at one point ended in a de facto freeze of the normal functioning of embassies). Such an approach can hardly be characterized as realistic, much less restrained. 

As John Mearsheimer notes in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the United States is mainly responsible for the deterioration of relations (although in his view it is not in America’s interests). This is definitely not the type of policy the restrainers and realists support. 

The most evident proof that the Biden administration is not really ready to change its attitude towards Russia is the decision not to appoint Matthew Rojansky for the position of Russia director on the National Security Council.

Another example is the seemingly eternal question of the Middle East. Trump, who is portrayed as a restrainer by liberal interventionists, “increased the number of deployed U.S. troops by more than 30 percent in his first year while loosening the rules of engagement to intensify ongoing bombing campaigns across multiple countries.” This CATO analysis also found that “he doubled down on America’s traditional alliances, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, while reasserting U.S. hostility toward long‐​standing adversaries, like Syria and Iran.”

Not much has changed under Biden. In June, the US launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. America maintains its presence in the region, despite the fact that Iraq doesn’t want American troops to stay. On Syria, a very hawkish consensus remains in many respects. 

The U.S. also continues to provide aid to Israel, though prominent scholars like Stephen Walt have long argued that it is high time America ends the “Special Relationship” with Israel. The promised return to the JCPOA has yet to happen either. 

All this does not appear to be the implementation of a strategy of restraint promoted by, among others, the Quincy coalition, which is considered to gaining an increasing influence on modern American foreign policy

According to Patrick Porter, one of the most significant factors in maintaining continuity with respect to the primacy strategy is the continued dominance of the United States in aggregate military and economic capabilities. The size of the military budget can largely be considered a practical expression. 

Realists and restraint advocates have long called for a reduction in military spending. Though it started to rise again under Trump, Biden didn’t change the trajectory and requested $715 billion. This marks a slight increase between administrations.  

Of course, when discussing the current state of American foreign policy, one cannot ignore the issue of China. At this point, it is clear that a hawkish consensus is forming with regard to the PRC. An extremely tough approach to China can be fully described as the cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy. 

But has anything changed under Biden? Has he become more restrained?  The “restraint coalition” advocates for a policy that “fosters an inclusive, stable order in East Asia designed to manage shared, top-priority challenges such as climate change and pandemics, to promote broad prosperity, and to peacefully resolve disputes.” 

It doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. Military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait are not a product of such a restrained strategy. 

But what is most remarkable is the continuity of Trump’s trade tariffs. As Josh Lederman, Dan De Luce and Mike Memoli note, “Biden’s deputies have not said under what conditions they would lift the tariffs or whether the administration plans to double down on restrictions over intellectual property theft or forced technology transfers.” 

Foreign policy hawks (at least in regards to China) argue that this is not enough and that the U.S. should continue to pressure China. It may seem sound (even for some realists), though such a strategy doesn’t seem to be an implementation of a more restrained approach, at least because it leads to a classical security dilemma situation. 

Moreover, foreign policy has always been elite entertainment, and the establishment must be taken into account since “cadres decide everything.” 

Biden’s foreign policy team is full of “blobsters” and status quo representatives. Except for front liners such as Blinken and Sullivan, there are some hidden hawks such as Victoria Nuland (who seems to gain more influence with the nomination of James C. O’Brien to be Head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination), Samantha Power and Kurt Campbell. Biden’s picks do not really match with the names proposed by anti-war groups. 

In sum, there is still no real reason to talk about a “takeover” by the restraint coalition. Drezner makes a strong case for the idea that the so-called “Quincy coalition” and its dispersed parts are reminiscent of the neocons back in the Bush days. 

“No one at Quincy exercises any real influence over either the Biden administration or GOP members of Congress,” he writes, “their ideas just overlap on occasion.” 

Interventionists, of course, will inflate the threat to the liberal world order posed by restraint advocates in order to maintain a consolidated establishment in the face of a cumulative intellectual opponent. 

However, it is worth noting that the limits of permissible debate on American grand strategy are slightly changing (with at least the most discredited practices of liberal interventionism being abandoned). 

There is not quite a restraint revolution yet, but the winds of change are starting to blow. 

Egor Spirin is a guest contributor to the Realist Review. He is pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

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