Security and Foreign Policy

A Trilogy of Decency: Posen, Mearsheimer, Walt and The U.S. Grand Strategy

Although the United States is a leader in many facets, there was a dearth in literature on U.S. grand strategy in foreign policy, until recently. Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla offers a review of Barry Posen's Restraint, as the first of three books offering comprehensive grand strategy to US foreign policy.

BY: JOSE A. ZORRILLA

Part 1: Barry R. Posen, Restraint:A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy

Do not listen to the riders of Decay. The US continues to enjoy excellent health. It stays the avant-garde of hi-tech and its findings and discoveries have again changed the world mores. We all work on computers, check the email, use apps, post on Instagram and watch Netflix. If its achievements in the field of economics and science are a wonder, it is no less admirable the continuity of its cultural output. We continue to read novels or go to the theater in American language very much the same as we abide by the American Museums of Art’s rules and tastes. 

Yet, when it comes to accomplishments there was a missing chapter. Grand Strategy in Foreign Policy. Make no mistake. We know in Europe that Foreign Policy is not for the faint of heart and nobody expects the US to act like a NGO. But the outcome of US strategies world over in the past twenty years has been below standard. As strange as it is in such a liberal and inquisitive country, the crop of books on an alternative grand strategy was strangely scarce. I would argue that the harbinger, was professor Barry R. Posen and his book Restraint published in 2015. Of course there were vocal critics in specialised fields and they found shelter in the periodicals on the subject as there were excellent books on the limits and future of a liberal order. But a head on approach to the Grand Strategy and its consequences was -in my honest opinion- missing and missed. 

Until recently, that is. Professor John Mearsheimer (Chicago), and Stephen Walt (Harvard) have published books on the subject. The Great Delusion and The Hell of Good Intentions. They sum up a life of research and yet are accessible, gallant and irrefutable. Since I consider the three of them linked by academic excellence and identical approach, I offer to the reader a vision of the three beginning with Restraint, published in 2015, to be followed by the other two. 

Mr. Barry Posen’s book begins with this statement of principles. “The US has grown incapable of moderating its ambitions in international politics. Since the collapse of Soviet power, it has pursued a grand strategy that can be called “Liberal Hegemony” which is unnecessary, counterproductive, costly and wasteful. The purpose of this book is to explain why this grand strategy works poorly and to offer an alternative grand strategy and associated military strategy and associated military strategy and force structure”.

Mr. Posen’s central argument is that after the fall of the USSR, the US believed its unipolar moment had arrived and embarked in the Russian space, in Afghanistan/Pakistan and in Iraq in policies that were as unnecessary as counterproductive. Since the geographic position of the US allows it a high level of security, this strategy, labeled “liberal hegemony”, as defined by John Ikenberry, has proved wasteful. The other argument runs in the direction of how this strategy has fared: not well. Therefore, the US has to understand that a deep and constant intervention in a world of anarchy, nation states, nuclear weapons and difficult management of violence leads to unforeseen consequences. He advises restraint as an alternative.  

His review of military forces needed to maintain an acceptable level of security follows and mention is made of the percentage of US military spending, 41% of the world total, a sum difficult to explain in military terms only. A chapter is devoted to the allied powers that practice “reckless driving”, allowed by the unrestricted access to the American goodwill and defense backing. They are, Israel, Kosovo, Georgia, Maliki’s Irak, Karzai´s Afghanistan with the possible addition of Philippines and Vietnam. I, personally, would add Ukraine.

I was most drawn to an elementary fact I never took into consideration. Liberal Hegemony is not astatus quo policy. This is a very serious charge. But I can find no fault in it, barring it did never dawn upon me before. 

Mr. Posen reviews then, the different geographies where he advises consent. Europe, East Asia, Greater Middle East, the Israel/Palestinian dispute and South East Asia (Af-Pak and India). China deserves special treatment as does the fight for transnational terrorism. Mr. Posen’s knowledge of the field is encyclopedic and well-grounded in metrics and data. To top his case for prudence, Mr. Posen shows a bias towards a “maritime” strategy leading to a control of the commons, where he advocates a sensible reduction in ground forces and bases abroad in order to obtain more control and less waste. A call to nuclear balance is part of the equation as well.

Very recently and considering the present state of affairs Mr. Posen has begun to label the US grand strategy “illiberal hegemony”. 

The book sums up many of the arguments put forward by the different specialists, but the author’s approach this time is comprehensive and no less competent in each of the chapters. It is, in short, an excellent guide to a critic’s angle of the US grand strategy. Only done by a scholar and, therefore, lacking the usual bitterness and partisanship of the ranting crowd.

Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for the US Grand Strategy, (2015), Cornell University Press.


Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983. He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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