For decades, American foreign policy has been adrift, despite the United States being the most secure world power in human history.
A series of rash foreign policy decisions has tragically caught us in drawn-out conflicts increasingly disconnected from our core security interests.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. has deployed troops in at least 41 operations in 85 countries to support the Global War on Terror (GWOT), expanding far beyond the Afghanistan War’s original intent of decimating al-Qaida’s leadership, bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, and punishing the Taliban government for harboring these terrorists.
This overstretch has cost our country dearly.
Since 2001, America has spent over $8 trillion taxpayer dollars on wars abroad and their associated costs at home. And that number continues to grow.
Beyond the economic impact, the human toll has been harsh. The post-9/11 wars have cost the lives of over 7,000 American troops and left over 53,000 wounded. An estimated 30,000 post-9/11 veterans have committed suicide, and well over 1 million have some service-connected disabilities.
These wars have also damaged America’s global reputation, squandered the immense power we held after the end of the Cold War, and left us distracted and unprepared for more important priorities to the benefit of our rivals—doing little to make us more secure in the long-run.
Americans want a better approach to foreign policy
Most Americans sense there is something wrong with our foreign policy and want a change.
Polling from Concerned Veterans for America and YouGov in recent years has found:
- Only 15% of the American public support sending more military and financial aid to Ukraine than wealthy European countries, with almost twice as many people (34%) wanting to send less assistance.
- 42% of respondents would like to see less American military involvement abroad. Only 7% would support more engagement.
- 52% would oppose the president sending more troops to the Middle East while only 17% would support the move.
- 47% would oppose the president making promises of aid in the event of an attack to Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Only 16% support these security guarantees.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty of years of well-intentioned, but failed nation-building efforts signaled a shift away from the past priorities of the Global War on Terror. Critics of our past mistakes abroad argue we need a better grand strategy—the overarching model guiding our foreign policy—to avoid such failures in the future.
This alternative approach is the international relations philosophy of realism, and its complimentary policy approach, restraint.
What is realism?
At its core, realism argues that effective foreign policymakers must recognize and understand the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be. Realists believe in a series of fundamental facts and shared assumptions about how the world operates and the constraints these facts and assumptions impose on wishful thinking.
Realists argue that states are the most important actors on the international stage, and that the most powerful states, called “great powers,” are the most important due to their strength and increased freedom of action. Realists believe states typically behave rationally and are by and large fundamentally interested in preserving their security. Realists believe that states seek to increase their power because doing so makes them more secure.
Realists also argue that the way states act stems from the international system being “anarchic,” meaning there is no overarching world government to resolve disputes; states can’t call 911.
This reality of the international system means that in order to survive, states must help themselves by maintaining a strong national defense and paying attention to the balance of power.
Often, rational efforts by some states to better defend themselves and improve their security can appear threatening to other states uncertain about their intentions. This uncertainty can spark action-reaction cycles of arms-races that may spiral to war.
Realists warn about the dangers of this process, called the “security dilemma,” which can lead to destructive conflict between great powers—as almost happened between the United States and Soviet Union during several Cold War crises. Today, many fear U.S. and Chinese efforts to secure themselves against each other could provoke a similar security dilemma.
Realists also believe that most states will feel more secure if, like the United States, they can be their regional “hegemon,” or dominant power. Typically though, weaker states balance against other more powerful, aggressive nations they consider threatening to protect themselves.
One historical example of weaker nations balancing against an aggressive, would-be regional hegemon is the seven European coalitions that formed to fight against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France between 1792 and 1815.
France shook Continental Europe during this period with its expansionist war aims, large reserves of manpower, patriotic troops, skillful generals, and military innovations. The French state frequently seized territory and replaced the rulers of neighbors with puppet rulers subservient to its interests.
Fearing for their own security, other states such as Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain allied together to resist and ultimately defeat French expansionism. France was individually more powerful overall than the countries arrayed against it and frequently defeated its foes. Nevertheless, the balancing coalitions against it ultimately defeated France, deposing Napoleon twice, in 1814 and 1815.
Realism applied to the United States
Realists recognize that projecting force abroad is challenging, and therefore war, especially by choice, is highly risky. In the example above, Napoleon found out the limitations of projecting force the hard way after he decided to invade the vast Russian interior over a trade dispute in 1812. This choice led to Napoleon’s overextension, the loss of most of his large army in the harsh Russian winter, and his eventual defeat at the hands of the balancing coalition against him in 1814.
Realists argue states seeking hegemony over others by force, or who launch frequent, unnecessary wars, often overextend themselves to their ruin. By contrast, states that are overstretched or declining relative to their neighbors often seek to retrench and consolidate their resources to prioritize protecting key interests. Historically, states with the foresight to do so have been more successful at stabilizing or recovering their position than states that stayed overextended.
Given these historical patterns, realists believe that American foreign policy—particularly its military engagement—should be narrowly focused on securing vital U.S. interests. These core interests are:
- America’s territorial integrity
- The conditions of our economic prosperity that underlie our strength abroad—such as access to and freedom to navigate international waters and airspace
- Maintenance of our democratic system at home.
A realist would argue that if a conflict doesn’t secure at least one of these core interests it should not be entered into. This is why many realist international relations scholars opposed the Iraq War before it began—dozens took out a 2002 ad in the New York Times arguing that the war was not necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from becoming a regional hegemon and would not advance U.S. interests.
Realists also recognize the United States is fortunate as the most secure great power in human history. America’s geography provides physical security, with two oceans on either side and friendly, weak neighbors to its north and south. These circumstances mean the United States can safely protect its vital national interests without having to adopt an aggressive, militarized foreign policy abroad.
In practice, to best protect these interests, realists argue that the United States should prioritize preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in the two regions of the world with the greatest economic resources outside of North America—Europe and Asia.
A regional hegemon that emerged in either region, as both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan once tried to do could gain the resources to potentially threaten the U.S. In contrast, despite our significant attention to the Middle East the last two decades, the area only accounts for 4% of global GDP, and is increasingly less strategically important to the United States as we produce more of our energy domestically.
Realists believe U.S. engagements around the world should serve clear strategic goals, be cognizant of our limited military resources, and prioritize our vital national interests.
To effectively execute a realist foreign policy, restraint is the best and most effective approach.
What is restraint?
Restraint is the idea that the United States should be wary of fighting wars or joining entangling alliances that are not in our core national interests. Restraint argues we should only commit to military action as a last resort in response to clear threats to these core interests.
Advocates of restraint believe that the United States’ security advantages allow it to provide for a strong national defense without security dilemmas and unnecessary wars that sacrifice American blood and treasure.
Restraint is a viable approach to foreign policy because the United States is so comparatively secure. The United States is protected on all sides—to our north and south, we are bordered by friendly and comparatively weak neighbors. To our east and west, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans separate us from the continents of Europe and Asia. Domestically, ours is the largest economy. Our military is the strongest on the planet and our arsenal of nuclear weapons provides formidable defensive deterrence. Our economy, which underwrites our military strength, remains the world’s largest. It is driven by profitable businesses, vibrant universities, and ample energy resources.
America is perhaps the most secure great power in history.
But it isn’t guaranteed that this remains the case forever.
We can best secure these advantages by embracing our democratic values at home that undergird them rather than trying to impose those values abroad by force.
What realism and restraint is not
Of course, as with any policy, there are misconceptions about what realism and restraint are, and what they would look like in practice. Those in the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. are especially prone to misinterpreting the goals and strategies of realism and restraint.
Realism and restraint are foreign policy approaches seeking to secure American interests while keeping us out of unnecessary conflicts and entanglements. They are not:
- Isolationism: Realists and restrainers want to actively engage in trade and diplomacy. They don’t seek to separate the United States from the rest of the world.
Whether negotiating trade agreements, promoting America’s liberal democratic values by example and through public diplomacy, or keeping lines of communication open with rivals to reduce the risk of accidental war, supporters of realism and restraint believe that the United States should be actively involved in the rest of the world. Realism and restraint simply place a higher value on trade and diplomacy, while wanting to reserve military action and confrontation as a last resort.
- Pacifism: Realists and restrainers are not naïve; they acknowledge the need for self-defense because the world is a dangerous place.
Maintaining a strong, well-trained military equipped to defend our core national interests is vital. Realists and restrainers know war can sometimes be necessary, but that it should never be entered into lightly.
For example, a foreign policy of realism and restraint would not have kept us from responding to the Sept. 11 attacks by punishing al-Qaida and the Taliban. But it would have favored a Gulf War-style punitive expedition followed by withdrawal, without decades of failed nation-building efforts long after we had accomplished our original retributive goals.
The continuing relevance of a grand strategy of realism and restraint
The U.S. faces considerable foreign policy challenges that will be important to manage effectively, despite our remarkable security and relatively weaker adversaries than those of the Cold War.
Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, the lingering U.S. presence in the Middle East, and the ongoing challenges of America’s relationship with China are all examples of foreign policy challenges that require clear thinking about what the top U.S. security priorities are and how best to defend them.
A grand strategy of realism and restraint offers a coherent framework that can clarify the many choices that the United States’ great power gives it abroad. By prioritizing protecting our core security interests, this strategic approach acknowledges the constraints America faces and the risks of security dilemmas and overextension.
For decades, Americans have paid a heavy price for foreign policies that have mired the United States in endless wars disconnected from our vital interests. As we tackle the challenges of the present, such as how to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine—the wisdom of realism and restraint can guide us to reduce risks moving forward.
Realism and restraint should be a consideration in our alliances with other countries. Learn more about what the U.S. should consider when forming alliances.