THE BLOG
05/02/2013 10:01 am ET | Updated Jul 02, 2013

From Containment to 'Restrainment'

At the turn into the previous century, Theodore Roosevelt invoked the proverb: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Advising caution and non-aggression, backed up by the ability to do violence if required, Roosevelt contextualized the foreign policy of a rising world power, in his own words, to "exercise intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis." Given the recent behavior of the United States when dealing with Libya, Syria, Mali, Iran, and North Korea, what we may be witnessing is a new way of applying Roosevelt's adage more along more humble lines of practice than seen certainly since becoming the world's only superpower.

The willingness of the Obama administration to let others take the lead in crisis response in Libya and Mali and its reticence to respond directly with military power in the cases of Iran, Syria, and North Korea may be evincing a pattern that transcends the foreign policy style of a president and the criticism of his political foes. Winding down from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- whose major lesson was that you cannot re-shape societies and develop democracies especially at gunpoint -- and facing enormous fiscal and socioeconomic challenges, the United States is hardly in a position to maintain a foreign policy posture of reaching first and foremost for a big stick that is both increasingly inappropriate and expensive.

In an even larger sense, as George Friedman explained in a recent STRATFOR piece:

The United States has emerged into the new period with what is still the largest economy in the world with the fewest economic problems of the three pillars of the post-Cold War world. It has also emerged with the greatest military power. But it has emerged far more mature and cautious than it entered the period... recognizing the crucial difference between pre-eminence and omnipotence.

The Cold War era was hallmarked by the grand strategy of containment. Less known is the relationship between persuasive or "soft" and coercive, "hard" power laid out in NSC-68, in which diplomacy (not defense) was in the lead, and military power was a holding or enabling action until moral suasion had a chance to facilitate the collapse of the Soviet system under the weight of its self-contradictions through the connective and "corrosive power of freedom." This is exactly what happened when the Berlin Wall fell.

The problem of late, of course, is that we've not done a very good job walking the talk. Our actions over the past decade in particular have belied many of the values upon which our approach to the world is supposedly based. The face of American power, at least in perceptual terms, remains the military or worse yet the faceless explosions of drone-launched precision guided munitions.

The new emerging grand strategy of the United States is become one more of military restraint -- not only because it's morally right (allowing us to leverage that comparative advantage). It's more efficacious as well as affordable.

The key is in the relationship between intimidation and inspiration. Besides a more multilateral approach to resolving issues and responding to crises, "restrainment" implies larger and more leading dosages of soft power and far greater caution in going to the big stick. This is why some suggest future military engagements adopt a "light-footprint" approach that favors prevention over decisive action and is civilian-led, mainly through the country team, where "military activities are planned and approved in the context of more sustainable, civilian-led efforts to address the underlying political drivers of the conflict through reconciliation, governance reform or other programs designed to address local grievances."

What "restrainment" also implies is that peacebuilding will play a much larger role, especially in the prevention of conflicts in the first place. Peacebuilding is mainly about soft power, and as Joseph Nye just re-iterated in Foreign Policy, government is not the main source of soft power because soft power springs largely from individuals, the private sector, and civil society. But Nye is also quick to point out that "... in a smart power strategy, hard and soft reinforce each other."

It's not "either/or" but "both." Nor is it some kind of zero-sum trade-off. As Richard K. Betts noted in a Center for a New American Security study:

The United States can easily exercise more restraint and still preserve its primacy in international affairs... In fact, restraint may safeguard primacy better than activism that causes expensive disappointments and subverts credibility... Primacy should be a cushion for U.S. policy, not a driver. Soft primacy means staying ahead of potential challengers but conserving power for when it is truly needed, a stance that is robustly passive much of the time but decisively active in the face of important challenges and opportunities.

Besides, like all good strategies, as Richard Rumelt points out in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, it "doesn't just draw on existing strength; it creates strength through the coherence of its design."

That design also means less in big-ticket government-run development projects and a greater lead by non-governmental and civil society organizations as well as private enterprise, as much at the retail as the wholesale level. As at home, public-private partnerships may find greater traction and sustainability in solving socioeconomic issues that nest the drivers of conflict and instability.

A strategy of "restrainment" would have to develop ways and means by which the U.S. government not only brings its own civil-military capabilities to bear, but more importantly, how those capabilities leverage and support non-government capacities for building peace. A current example of such a blend is the involvement of a small private security company in not only training Somali forces to defeat Islamic terrorist but also in real estate development there.

"Restrainment" is a natural progression from containment. It leverages opportunities such as the defense drawdown in the right way; but, more importantly, the moral strengths of a country founded on e pluribus unum and a dynamic, multicultural civil society that still make it the ideal lead nation in the 21st century.

The big stick is far more powerful and effective when implied and not applied. Seen this way, we can begin to update our national strategic software, re-balance resources, and re-shape the way we build peace and not just maintain security. By thinking more globally while acting locally and speaking more softly while treading more lightly, we can do a better job at leading without having to dominate, ensuring a better world for ourselves and our posterity.

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