What Would ‘Restraint’ Really Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy?

What Would ‘Restraint’ Really Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy?
Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles from the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Battalion on rail cars ahead of the Atlantic Resolve military exercise outside Vilnius, Lithuania, Oct. 21, 2019 (AP photo by Mindaugas Kulbis).

After decades of American global engagement, the concept of “restraint” is having its moment, and understandably so. Thirty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Americans are weary of foreign misadventures, whether undertaken by neoconservatives or liberal interventionists, and they want more attention and resources devoted to challenges at home. The national security establishment may still endorse U.S. primacy, backed by a global network of alliances, the forward deployment of American troops, “onshore balancing” in Europe and Asia, and democracy promotion around the world. The public is more circumspect, preferring a restrained internationalism.

Political leaders have begun to take notice. Donald Trump won the Republican primary and ultimately the U.S. presidency in 2016 partly because he was more attuned to the public mood than his GOP competitors and Hillary Clinton. In this election cycle, progressive candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made ending “endless wars” a centerpiece of their populist appeal, and no mainstream Democratic candidate is running as a hawk.

Policy intellectuals are beginning to follow suit. In imperial Washington, calls for restraint have long been a fringe preoccupation, notably of the libertarian Cato Institute. Next month, Cato gets some company, when the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft opens its doors. Funded by strange bedfellows—the Charles Koch Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations—the institute is named for John Quincy Adams, who as secretary of state in 1821 famously declared that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Nearly two centuries later, the Quincy Institute will provide left- and right-wing critics with a beachhead to attack the American “empire” and the military-industrial complex upon which it rests.

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