Paul Miller is sounding the alarm about the perils of restraint:
Because this seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the moment, it is important to stress the opposite. American security and liberal order are mutually constitutive: liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security, and American power upholds liberal order. The existence of liberal order is an opportunity for the United States: continuing to invest in its upkeep is a cost-effective strategy for producing an outer ring of security for itself. Advocates of restraint are wrong to neglect this opportunity, and illustrate the weakness of an exclusively threat-centric and reactive grand strategy. Liberal order already exists over much of the globe. It would be a foolish waste to walk away from it.
Miller’s argument is not very persuasive. He never demonstrates that the survival of “liberal order” depends on continuing what he insists on calling simply internationalism, and at one point acknowledges that “liberal order” doesn’t depend solely on U.S. power. He misrepresents what advocates of restraint propose so that he can more easily dismiss them, and he barely engages with what restrainers have argued. Miller contrasts internationalism and restraint, as if restraint weren’t another kind of internationalism, and he lumps advocates of restraint with Trump despite the fact that he and they don’t hold the same views. It’s also not true that a preference for restraint is the “prevailing wisdom of the moment,” but I suppose this is the conceit that justifies the need for a defense of the status quo.
He says that the U.S. should retain its extensive network of allies and clients and overseas military deployments “to invest in culture of liberal order [sic] in the world’s key regions,” but it isn’t clear how this “investment” works or why that “culture” would deteriorate without it. When the U.S. arms the Saudis and its GCC allies so they can bomb Yemen, what does that have to do with “investing” in “liberal order”? When the U.S. and its regional clients arm insurgents in a foreign civil war, how does that sustain liberal norms? Since the “liberal order” exists and appears to have the support of the vast majority of states, why would that order weaken if the U.S. pursued a strategy of restraint? If this order is as beneficial to the U.S. as Miller says, it is presumably also quite beneficial to most other states as well and would continue to function without a hyperactive U.S. foreign policy. If that’s so, restraint won’t require giving up the benefits of “liberal order,” but it will allow the shedding of unnecessary burdens.
One of the complaints he makes against advocates of restraint is that they rely too much on the Iraq war as proof of the dangers of a strategy of primacy (or “leadership” as he prefers to call it). I will agree that it is not “the paradigmatic case of the United States’ role in the world,” but it is a perfect example of the sort of disastrous policies that come from exercising global “leadership” of the sort that Miller champions. It is also proof that the U.S. can do far more harm to international peace and security when it actively seeks to enforce “world order” than when it does not. The presumption that the U.S. has both the right and the obligation to act as an enforcer is a dangerous one, and it opens the door to trashing international law and norms in the name of upholding them. Exercising “leadership” in this way is not only very costly for the U.S., but it clearly makes the countries affected by it worse off than they were before and undermines those laws and norms in the process. Besides, it’s not as if Iraq is the only example of irresponsible and destabilizing interventionism by our government in the last twenty years, and in each case interventionists have justified their proposed action by claiming that the U.S. must intervene in order to show “leadership.”
Miller’s internationalist is inclined to see almost every crisis and conflict as a potential threat to “liberal order” that requires a U.S. response, while advocates of restraint are much less likely to see any U.S. interest at stake that needs to be defended. In practice, the former requires frequent if not constant warfare, while the latter keeps the U.S. out of almost all conflicts. That is one of the major practical differences between restraint and the status quo, but Miller never really addresses it. He also makes the extraordinary claim that “scholars and policymakers are in greater danger of underestimating threats to American security than overestimating them,” but that is so completely detached from the reality of our foreign policy debates that I find it hard to believe anyone seriously holds this view. Threat inflation has an overwhelming distorting effect on our foreign policy debates, and that should be obvious to everyone.
Miller claims that sustaining “liberal order” isn’t a completely open-ended invitation to overextension, and he says that “it is possible to fix limits,” but if there are limits set somewhere they are so expansive as to be meaningless. Once you have identified preserving “world order” with U.S. security, almost anything can be perceived as a current or potential future threat that the U.S. has to address. That not only means that the U.S. will find itself policing multiple parts of the globe at once, but it makes it much more likely that any given policy response will be poorly-designed and under-resourced because of the sheer number of problems that the U.S. is trying to solve at one time. The U.S. has limited resources and power, but if it takes for granted that it is our job to maintain “world order” it will assume responsibility for more crises and conflicts than it can competently handle. Pursuing such an ambitious foreign policy doesn’t make the U.S. or the world more secure, but just sets the U.S. up for one failure after another. Restraint saves the U.S. both the expense and the headaches that come from a more ambitious strategy, and it allows the U.S. to husband its resources to guard against the relatively few real threats to our security more effectively.