The failure of the 20-year U.S. effort in Afghanistan has set off a needed debate about the purposes of U.S. foreign policy. One school argues that the United States risks overextension, that it needs to turn inward and focus on problems at home, and, therefore, that U.S. foreign policy must be more restrained in what it sets out to achieve and more realistic about the obstacles along the way. A piece by Emma Ashford in Foreign Affairs is an excellent example by a rising leader of the realist-and-restraint school.
There’s a lot to be said for what can be called operational realism and restraint: power has limits, things may and usually do go wrong, ends and means need to be in rough balance, wishing for the best does not make it so. Grand objectives make for good speeches, but incremental results are often the only ones possible. I took these and similar lessons to heart over my 40 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, exemplified just this sort of operational realism, a good model for policymakers.
But realism and restraint don’t always work well when elevated to strategic doctrine. They can risk degenerating into abandonment of principles, acceptance of spheres-of-influence as permanent, and exaltation of short-term power politics. Adherents of doctrinal realism and restraint often cite as inspiration John Quincy Adams’ famous remark that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Stirring words from a great American. But are they a good guide to strategy?
During the Cold War, operational realists were right about a lot. Being really mad at Fidel Castro wouldn’t make him go away and the failed U.S. attempt to topple him in the Bay of Pigs attack in 1961 is a good example of profound unrealism. Encouraging Hungarians to take up arms against their Soviet oppressors – as Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian service did in 1956 — was questionable if the United States had no intention of aiding them when they did; at that moment, the United States should have shown greater restraint. When the United States sought to apply anti-Communist containment in crude fashion in Vietnam, heedless of obstacles and Vietnam’s history, it showed neither realism nor restraint and brought on a defeat more costly in American lives than Afghanistan.
Facing frustration in Vietnam, the generation of U.S. policymakers at the time applied a corrective of realism and restraint to their Cold War strategy. Among the results was the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. As an operational adjustment to containment policy, détente, reflecting the virtues of realism and restraint, achieved a lot. It lowered the threat of nuclear war and opened up the USSR and Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe to outside contacts — just a bit, but critically.
Détente vs. Containment in Grand Strategy
But as a grand strategy to replace containment, détente fell short. Its most ardent adherents during the Nixon administration started to see it as an end in itself. They tacitly accepted the Iron Curtain as permanent; were skeptical about U.S. support for human rights inside the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc; and thought that U.S. support for dissidents and pro-democracy movements, e.g., in Poland, were destabilizing and unrealistic, and that the United States should stay away from them. These were flawed assumption, as it turns out, but I heard them a lot as a junior officer at the State Department in the 1970s. And some of those who expressed them used to quote John Quincy Adams about not seeking monsters to destroy.
Those who wanted to elevate détente to strategic doctrine forsook the wisdom of another school of U.S. strategic thinking: that American interests and values could advance together. This vision colored what the U.S. government sought to achieve in World War II and afterwards. U.S. war aims, rooted in values, were outlined in the Atlantic Charter signed in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an early sketch of a liberal, world order. Harry Truman and the founders of U.S. strategy after 1945 tried to apply the Atlantic Charter to the post-World War II world that lay before them, including to all of Europe. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was having none of it. The part of Europe his armies controlled he would communize and keep. Truman objected. And the Cold War was on.
U.S. Cold War strategy was rooted in an assessment that if Soviet communism could be contained, democracy would in the end prove the more viable system. That strategy didn’t work everywhere every time. It failed in Vietnam, Iran, and elsewhere during the Cold War. It was marred by hypocrisy and inconsistency. But it worked well enough in the end: Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan pulled back from détente as an end in itself and returned to a more values-driven strategy, adding to dialogue with Moscow pressure on the USSR and support for democratic dissidents in the Soviet Bloc. In 1989, this strategy, which had been regarded by many as hopelessly unrealistic, succeeded. Democratic dissidents in Poland and elsewhere in Soviet-occupied Europe toppled communism in the name of democratic values and sought to join the U.S.-led liberal international order.
Now, after the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, many in the United States are returning to arguments about realism and restraint. As before, they have a lot of good points at the operational level of policy: about overreach and lack of realism about far-flung countries that Americans don’t really understand. Such cautionary points would have served the United States well after 2001, as it was looking at options after toppling the Taliban. Realism also would have encouraged the United States to face up to the bad news: to anticipate the collapse of the Afghan government following the U.S. military withdrawal and to prepare accordingly.
The Risks of Realism and Restraint
But as grand strategy, a doctrine of realism and restraint, like the more cynical side of détente, risks blessing Great Power deals over the heads and at the expense of others. There were those in the Trump administration, for example, who argued that realism requires the United States to abandon Ukraine to the Kremlin in return for Moscow’s help with China. Those arguments and others like them still retain currency in some circles in the Biden administration as well. But what’s realistic about abandoning friends like Ukraine, who are defending themselves, to gain favor with tyrants like Putin?
Operational realism is good sense. Pushed too far, it is something else. In May 1940, with the French and British armies routed in France, British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax advanced the “realist” view that Britain had lost the war with Germany and had better make terms with Berlin to prevent an invasion of the U.K. itself. Halifax might well have gotten what he wanted: the Germans to guarantee the British Empire and the British Isles from German invasion in return for British recognition of German conquest of the European continent. Churchill had other ideas.
No, not every call for restraint is Lord Halifax seeking to do a deal with Hitler.
But I’m struck by how many advocates of realism as strategy are willing to rationalize realpolitik in a crude and cynical form, as if the choice the United States faces is between crusading idealism that ignores reality and withdrawal from any vision of international order that favors freedom.
At its best, U.S. grand strategy since 1945 has identified national interest and the advance of higher ideals. The United States sought to advance its values not out of charity, but because the United States would prosper best when others did as well. An open, liberal, rules-based international order that favors freedom is a national interest. The question now is whether the American public will continue to support it or turn inward.
The United States should apply realism and restraint by all means, but in the service of a vision that has served the United States and the world well when the U.S. got it right. The post-Afghanistan debate is heating up. That debate is needed. But it should be informed by history’s lessons and enduring American values.