StrategyU.S. Grand Strategy of Restraint: Advocates Need to Provide More Details

Published 25 January 2021

As the Biden Administration takes over, some U.S. policymakers have expressed interest in a new approach to America’s role in the world: a realist grand strategy of restraint under which the United States would cooperate more with other powers, reduce its forward military presence and end or renegotiate some security commitments. A new report explains how U.S. regional security policies would change if this strategy were adopted.

As the Biden Administration takes over, some U.S. policymakers have expressed interest in a new approach to America’s role in the world: a realist grand strategy of restraint under which the United States would cooperate more with other powers, reduce its forward military presence and end or renegotiate some security commitments. A new RAND Corporation report explains how U.S. regional security policies would change if this strategy were adopted.

“We do not evaluate whether the arguments put forward by advocates of restraint are sound or whether adopting such a strategy is advisable,” said Miranda Priebe, a political scientist at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND and director of the RAND Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy. “Rather, we take advocates of restraint on their own terms and explain how U.S. regional security policies would change if their proposals were adopted.”

Unlike policymakers who have shaped U.S. grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, advocates of restraint would rely more on diplomacy to settle conflicts, encourage other states to lead, and preserve military power to defend vital U.S. interests, according to the report. Under such a strategy the United States would have a smaller military, fewer security commitments and forces based abroad, and a higher bar for the use of military force.

Advocates of restraint have offered a clear critique about recent U.S. grand strategy as well as broad policy proposals for key regions,” Priebe said. “To generate more specific policy implications for each region, advocates of restraint need to expand on their logic and conduct additional analysis.”

The report is the first conducted by the center, created in 2020 to inform the debate about America’s role in the world by evaluating new approaches to U.S. grand strategy. Initial funding for the center was provided by the Charles Koch Institute, while ongoing funding comes from foundations, philanthropists and RAND supporters.

Questions about U.S. grand strategy and its associated costs have taken on new urgency because of the direct costs and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the report notes. Many more Americans are likely to question whether the United States needs to rethink its global role to focus on domestic challenges.

Recent policymakers have generally contended that, to be secure, the United States must prevent Russia, China, and Iran from gaining influence in key regions. Advocates of restraint disagree, arguing that U.S. geography and economic dynamism mean that few international developments could undermine U.S. security. They assess that Russia and Iran are relatively weak states that will be unable to dominate their regions. Advocates of restraint are divided about the ability of local powers to limit China’s domination of East Asia, according to the report.

The authors argue that the claims that both advocates of restraint and defenders of current grand strategy put forward have not been fully tested empirically. Evaluating these core claims is important not only for deciding which grand strategy the United States should adopt but also for designing more-effective policies within a given grand strategy, they assert. Evaluating these claims is one of the Center’s ongoing research priorities.

The report recommends that advocates of restraint offer policymakers options to hedge against the possibility that a core assumption of a grand strategy of restraint is partially or entirely incorrect before adopting major policy changes, such as ending an alliance commitment or withdrawing all forces from a partner country. It would also be helpful to offer policymakers indicators that they can monitor to know whether recommendations from advocates of restraint are working as expected.

Advocates of restraint could clarify their logic by identifying conditions that would alter their core policy prescriptions for military retrenchment in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the report. For example, are there any changes in allied or Russian behavior or capabilities that would change the recommendation to withdraw most U.S. forces from Europe? Are there types of Chinese behavior, military acquisitions, or other indicators that would suggest that the United States needs to increase its forces in the region or change its policies toward China more generally?

Although advocates of restraint seem to have a higher threshold for identifying threats to vital U.S. interests, it is unclear exactly where that threshold is, according to the report. The report recommends that advocates of restraint clarify their logic by developing criteria for what changes in another great power’s capabilities and behavior would pose a serious threat to U.S. vital interests and identifying scenarios that would necessitate an increase in U.S. forces or the use of force in key regions.

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