Strategic Sufficiency vs. Restraint

Matt Stone takes a Stephen Walt idea and runs with it, coming up with what he calls “strategic sufficiency”:

[O]nce we agree on an operationalprinciple or principles . . . wemust do exactly the minimum necessary to achieve a strategicallysufficient outcome; any outlay beyond the minimum necessary will onlyrob resources from other theaters where those resources could beemployed with a better marginal return on investment. This is an economist’s way of thinking about foreign policy: resourcesare scarce; therefore maximize the return on any resources we employ.”Resources” can be thought of as troops on the ground, brains in theWhite House, the President’s time, the amount of airplay a particularissue receives in officials’ rhetoric, and so on.

As Stone acknowledges, the devil is in the details of exactly how to quantify something — politics — that remains an art. That’s the “mojo” element of Middle Power Mojo ®, another foreign policy resource I’ve referred to often here.

There’s another tricky element to this calculus as well, introduced by what Walt’s original post refers to as the U.S. claim to being the “indispensable power.” As a French diplomat I interviewed last summer formulated it with regard to multipolarity, the U.S. is now “necessary but no longer sufficient” in resolving any international crisis. The destabilizating impact of recent U.S. unilateral use of power that Walt mentions comes as much from realizing that change too late as from the idea that we have to “charge nearly everywhere.”

That adds a second layer to Stone’s equation, namely gauging our partners’ resolve on any particular issue. For Stone’s minimally sufficient influence to continue to fulfill the “necessary” threshhold, it must take into account the consensus needed to achieve the “sufficient” threshhold that we can no longer satisfy alone. That will sometimes require more, and sometimes less, of a U.S. investment.

Perhaps most significantly, Stone’s formulation revolves around the idea that our foreign policy resources are scarce, an idea that seems to be making its way in from the periphery to the heart of our foreign policy debate. It’s a thankful corrective to the almost willful blindness of the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy. That our global position hassuffered from but ultimately withstood the profligacy of the past eightyears is a testament to U.S. resilience.

But for all its reckless folly, the Bush administration in many ways simply accelerated the inevitable. Certainly there are more prudent ways to prepare for an impending layoff than to head off to Vegas with the family savings — or perhaps more accurately, with the family’s credit card. But the nature of power is such that recognizing its limits almost always requires a painful collision with those limits. In the absence of any effective system of checks and balances in a unipolar order, that means that the limits of U.S. power could only be drawn by exceeding them.

In essence, that’s what Bush did. And what Stone is suggesting — and rightly so, in my opinion — is that in redrawing those limits, we must now make the important distinction between what many,myself included, have been referring to as foreign policy “restraint” — which can imply isolationism — and economy. To turn the formula on its head, both will be necessary, and neither sufficient, to restore our influence.