Let’s Talk about America’s Strategic Choices


Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment in our new series, “Course Correction,” which features adapted articles from the Cato Institute’s recently released book, Our Foreign Policy Choices: Rethinking America’s Global Role. The articles in this series challenge the existing bipartisan foreign policy consensus and offer a different path.


Foreign policy has certainly featured heavily in this election season, but there has been little true debate on the future direction of America’s global role. Though Hillary Clinton advocates increased global commitment, polls show that only a minority of Americans (27 percent) believe that the United States does too little globally, while 41 percent of Americans think the United States does too much around the world. Donald Trump may have benefited from this popular dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign policy, but his own wild pronouncements are lacking in substance or even basic common sense. This election is unlikely to provide the robust debate on America’s foreign policy choices so urgently needed.

Worse yet, that lack of debate is not new: Policymakers and political candidates typically embrace the status quo in foreign policy. Among these elites, there is solid bipartisan support for extensive alliance commitments, frequent military intervention, and higher defense spending. Debates tend to focus on which specific actions the United States should take, only rarely asking whether the United States should be involved, militarily or otherwise, in various global crises.

Certainly, there is also bipartisan opposition to this consensus: They may differ on domestic issues, but there are more similarities than differences between the restrained foreign policy approaches of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, this opposition is weaker politically than either the internationalist consensus, or the uglier nativist impulses that have propelled Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Even President Barack Obama, elected in large part thanks to his repudiation of the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy, has failed to alter the underlying bipartisan consensus. Many inside the Beltway believe that America remains the “indispensable nation” whose leadership is required in perpetuity.

Yet as the president has discovered, America’s “unipolar moment” is waning. As he told Jeffrey Goldberg in April 2016: “Almost every great world power has succumbed” to overextension. He continued, “What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.”

U.S. influence in the world remains preeminent, but with a rising China, a reassertive Russia, and emerging regional rivalries, that preeminence is no longer unchallenged. America cannot simply rely on the business-as-usual foreign policies that have sustained it in recent years. Instead, the country must look to alternative approaches to foreign policy, many of which are better suited to dealing with the complexities of the 21st century.

Today, we launch a series of articles challenging that bipartisan foreign policy consensus and presenting alternative proposals based upon a grand strategy of restraint, which emphasizes that America’s global influence is strongest when spread by peaceful — rather than military — means. In contrast to our current grand strategy (known as primacy or liberal hegemony), which demands a massive, forward-deployed military, a strategy of restraint focuses on avoiding distant conflicts that do not threaten American interests, thereby conserving American power and security. Restraint argues that the U.S. military should be used rarely and only for clearly defined reasons.

Over the next six weeks, articles in this series — adapted from the recent Cato Institute publication Our Foreign Policy Choices: Rethinking America’s Global Role — will explore the problems with our current grand strategy and the prospects for a more restrained foreign policy. The series will propose in broad strokes how a more restrained foreign policy could be implemented in areas such as U.S.-China relations, America’s global alliances, and our approach to fighting terrorism. In some cases, our authors advocate a continuation of current policies or relatively minor course corrections, whereas in others they suggest more radical reformulations of U.S. foreign policy. Each article provides an alternate way to view today’s foreign policy problems, expanding the scope of the long-overdue debate on America’s foreign policy future.

The United States is the richest, most secure, and most powerful country in the world; the range of possible choices available to policymakers is extremely broad. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can avoid choosing or that those choices will be easy. In the long term, the lack of debate on foreign policy will damage American interests by precluding serious consideration of our options. It will blind us to the changes taking place in the world today and will prevent us from capitalizing on new opportunities to advance U.S. security and prosperity.


Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, Emma Ashford is a research fellow in defense and foreign policy studies, and Travis Evans is the external relations manager for defense and foreign policy studies, at the Cato Institute. They co-edited Our Foreign Policy Choices: Rethinking America’s Global Role.

Image: White House