Foreign Policy

National Defense in the Age of Democracy

April 2, 2016

Stand Together Trust was a proud sponsor of the 2016 International Students for Liberty Conference last month, a gathering of pro-liberty students and young professionals from around the world who were eager to learn about and discuss the ideas of liberty and free societies. The Institute hosted several sessions, the first of which was a discussion between vice president of research and policy William Ruger and Michael Desch, director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. Ruger and Desch engaged in a wide-ranging conversation covering the status quo of American foreign policy, case studies of this policy in action, and a possible alternative grand strategy of restraint.

Ruger opened the conversation by asking Desch about the current approach to American foreign policy. For the last few decades, Desch explained, the consensus across the political spectrum has been primacy. Primacy is a foreign policy based on the idea that “the world can’t operate in a smooth and peaceful way without assertive American leadership.”

Desch challenged the effectiveness of primacy by examining how it has actually played out in practice over the past 15 years. He looked at the case studies of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In each example, Desch criticized the errors that were made as a result of the primacist mindset.

“To my way of thinking,” Desch argued, “Afghanistan, or at least early stages of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan from October through early December of 2001, a necessary war for the United States.” Where the war went wrong, however, was when it “turned into an exercise in nation building … in a country that had never really been a nation throughout its history.”

Iraq, meanwhile, was another case of “a well-intentioned but ultimately foolhardy exercise in building a democratic political regime,” said Desch. The apparent success in 2008 was “the peace of a military occupation,” not a sign we had created a functioning democracy.

Desch described Libya as “a good case demonstrating the law of unintended consequences.” The military intervention significantly damaged both regional stability and U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts. He argued that “the United States and the international community went in thinking that we could do some good and get rid of a malefactor. The result is that we’ve made things worse there.” Lacking a stable government, Libya has attracted warlords, al-Qaida, and ISIS to fill the void.

In light of primacy’s defects, Ruger asked Desch to “tell me what your approach to grand strategy or U.S. foreign policy would look like.” Desch acknowledged that there are several different alternative grand strategies, but that he believes the strategy “whose time has come” is restraint, which he went on to describe more thoroughly.

Restraint is a grand strategy that would maximize existing U.S. strategic advantages. Under a restraint-based approach, the United States would not need to maintain the expensive and expansive military footprint around the world that is advocated by the primacists. The U.S. military possesses the capability to protect U.S. national interests from “over the horizon” instead of relying on deployments on the ground.

The United States has several defensive advantages, such as two huge “moats” in the form of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and militarily weak neighbors. Nuclear weapons also protect the United States from attack. Finally, Desch argued that the geopolitical situation in the world is changing, to the benefit of the United States. “I think we are moving into a period in which power is going to be very diffuse. … Given that, we will have more breathing space to engage in a less assertive way than previously, and our security will still be perfectly fine.”

This session is one of many events the Institute has hosted and will be hosting in the future to promote a national conversation about foreign policy and possible alternatives to the primacy status quo. The Charles Koch Foundation is also currently accepting proposals for research projects related to this important issue.