Restraint and the Future of American Power

Restraint and the Future of American Power
Soldiers of the First Armored Division at the U.S. Army Airfield in Wiesbaden, Germany, May 13, 2011 (AP photo by Michael Probst).
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This week, the story I followed most closely wasn’t a breaking news item or global development, but an important debate taking place in Washington these days over whether or not restraint should serve as the guiding framework for U.S. foreign policy.

The concept of restraint grew out of the academic school of international relations known as realism, which focuses on national interests and power dynamics as the drivers of international affairs—and the foundation on which a sound foreign policy should be based. It has historically faced off against idealism, which embraces an international order governed by norms and places values like democracy and human rights at the center of America’s foreign policy.

Long overshadowed—first by liberal internationalists and then by neoconservatives—in the Washington foreign policy establishment, advocates of restraint began to attract more attention in the aftermath of the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Bogged down in a war of choice, the U.S. seemed to be squandering its wealth and power, at a time when a rising China, resurgent Russia and a host of emerging middle powers signaled America’s inexorable relative decline.

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