How about some international restraint on Ukraine?

By Francis P. Sempa, AM THINKER

Robert D. Kaplan is one of America’s most important foreign policy thinkers.  He currently holds the Robert Strausz-Hupe Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  His recent essay in The National Interest, titled “Realism is More Than Restraint,” defines realism in broader terms than have previous writers.  Citing Henry Kissinger and George Kennan, Kaplan writes that realism reconciles “what is considered just with what is considered possible,” while embodying a “particularism” that “comprehends the sheer variety of the world.”  And he argues that international restraint is a component of realism, but, given the world’s interconnectedness, it must be coupled with particularized “international engagement.”

Kaplan is reacting to a strain of foreign policy thought that has grown in reaction to the “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the never-ending global war on terror, humanitarian interventions in non-strategic areas of the world, the extravagant expansion of NATO, and increased tensions in the South China Sea.  Restraint and offshore balancing, he contends, are too limited in scope to constitute foreign policy realism.  “Restraint is good in and of itself, and is synonymous with prudence,” Kaplan writes, while “[o]ff-shore balancing boasts the good of establishing priorities and a hierarchy of needs.”  But the world is “more interconnected than ever before,” so the United States cannot just look out for itself.

Great statesmen — and he mentions Kissinger; George Shultz; and surprisingly, James Baker III and Richard Holbrooke — focused both on geopolitics and human agency — the “narrower geopolitics that only sets the context of events” and “the human element that ultimately decides them.”  Global history and world events are shaped by geography and human decisions.  True realism embraces both factors in what Kaplan describes as a “shrinking, increasingly fluid, and crowded world-geography that cannot be neatly or mechanically divided according to greater and lesser interests.”

But the essence of statesmanship is to align our interests and resources (as Walter Lippmann argued); to avoid over-commitment; to distinguish vital from peripheral interests; to, in George Washington’s words, “choose peace or war, as our interests guided by justice shall counsel”; to be, in John Quincy Adams’s words, “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” but “the champion and vindicator only of [our] own.”

Washington and Adams counseled international restraint, and their approaches to foreign policy during their times could be considered off-shore balancing.  Indeed, U.S. foreign policymakers until the emergence of the Cold War and the rise and growth of the national security state — what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” — largely practiced international restraint and offshore balancing.  A devastated European continent after World War II required American assistance and presence until the European states rebuilt their infrastructure and economies from the ashes of war.  But by the time that happened, the Soviet threat was so great that geopolitical realism necessitated a continuing U.S. military presence in Europe.

When the Cold War ended, however, for reasons of institutional inertia and international hubris the temporary NATO alliance outlived its mission.  The Soviet threat was gone, but American troops remained, and NATO expanded.  After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, we avenged our dead but then abandoned restraint by launching a global crusade to spread democracy.  Instead of becoming what Jean Kirkpatrick called a “normal” country again, America enjoyed its “unipolar moment” and attempted to construct and nurture a “new world order.”

None of this was dictated by geopolitics.  Instead, against the prudent and timeless advice of John Quincy Adams, America went abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and “enlist[ed] under other banners than her own … involv[ed] herself beyond the power of extraction, in … the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition,” and “the fundamental maxims of her policy … insensibly change[d] from liberty to force.”

Even Kaplan seems to recognize this.  Toward the end of his essay, he applauds the restrainers and offshore balancers as “a useful force for moderation” who “encourage us to better think through our decisions.”  Kissinger and Shultz were, as Kaplan notes, great statesmen during the Cold War; Baker and Holbrooke during the post–Cold War period were not.  And none of them matched the greatness and timelessness of John Quincy Adams

July 30, 2022 | Comments »

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