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The World Doesn’t Need a More Restrained America

Opposed $40 billion in Ukraine aid.
Opposed $40 billion in Ukraine aid. (Photographer: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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It has been a bumpy year for the restraint coalition — that loose network of analysts, advocates and politicians calling for a sharply reduced US role in the world. Having reached peak influence with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, this group initially found itself marginalized by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Now, the restraint crowd is offering a renewed critique of US policy, one that will probably prove to be persistent, though not persuasive.

Restraint is a broad church. It features anti-interventionist academics, who often style themselves as non-ideological “realists,” alongside well-funded think tanks such as the Quincy Institute. It includes libertarians such as Senator Rand Paul who deplore the financial costs of US foreign policy and progressives who contend that American globalism is a cover for imperialism and neoliberalism. There are pacifists who believe that all wars are criminal, as well as nationalists such as Senator Josh Hawley who argue that being appropriately hawkish on China requires being more dovish on nearly everything else.

Some restrainers seek wholesale global retrenchment; others mainly decry ongoing US involvement in Europe and the Middle East. What unites them is a conviction that the overuse of US power has been catastrophic for America and the world.

This coalition seemed ascendant a year ago, when President Joe Biden denounced the “forever wars” while pulling out of Afghanistan. That decision, two analysts argued, marked Biden as a hard-nosed realist — and perhaps an ally in the struggle to reshape American diplomacy.

Yet the moment didn’t last. The collapse of the Afghan state even before the US finished withdrawing showed that, while waging wars is expensive, losing them can impose a serious cost. Then came Russia’s assault on Ukraine. As Vladimir Putin’s forces sought to restore the Soviet empire and murdered Ukrainian citizens, they revealed just how awful a world shaped by great powers other than Washington might be.

Indeed, Biden isn’t getting much praise from self-proclaimed realists today. While refusing to intervene militarily, Biden has otherwise backed Ukraine with money, weapons and other support. NATO — whose peaceful expansion allegedly forced Putin to order a campaign of aggression and murder — now appears likely to add two new members, Finland and Sweden. Biden has even invoked the rhetorical legacy of his cold war predecessors, declaring that Ukraine is a vital front in the struggle to save the free world.

In response, the restraint coalition has itself opened a new front, finding multiple reasons to attack Biden’s Ukraine policy.

First is cost. Sustaining a medium-sized country under a ferocious military assault is fantastically expensive. The latest US support package for Ukraine totals some $40 billion — money, Hawley complained, that could be better spent on giving US military personnel a generous raise. Some Republicans in Congress seem to agree — 57 representatives and 11 senators voted, unsuccessfully, against the aid package.

Second is risk. No one knows how the war in Ukraine will end. If the US helps Ukraine defend itself too successfully, the thinking goes, then perhaps a humiliated Russia will escalate wildly rather than accept defeat.

Finally, there is politics. With Biden having gone all-in on Ukraine, there’s little space for the restraint contingent on the left. But Hawley and other Republicans seeking to inherit Donald Trump’s political base clearly believe that there is a constituency for claims that supporting a vulnerable democracy equates to putting “America last.”

It is uncharitable to label such arguments “pro-Putin.” Forty billion dollars is real money, given that the Pentagon is struggling to find a 10th of that for urgent near-term improvements to America’s military posture in the Pacific. There is, undoubtedly, danger in a scenario where Putin worries that he is losing the war — and in consequence loses his head.

But the perpetual problem with restraint is the corresponding unwillingness to consider what happens after America pulls back. Suppose Washington does slash support to Ukraine and leave European security to the Europeans. What does that bring?

Judging by the past century — or even the past six months — the answer is not a stable Europe and a more solvent America. Rather, the result is likely to be a partially successful Russian war of conquest that creates pervasive insecurity in Europe; a continent that, lacking American leadership, is less united and confident in opposing Putin; and greater global instability that ultimately makes it harder to contain China, as well.

Similarly in the Middle East, reasonable people can debate the proper level of U.S. involvement, or what constitutes a reasonable risk to accept on a variety of issues, from containing Iran to opposing Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine. But recent events have reminded us that a world less influenced by the US will be one in which autocratic predation becomes more common. The Ukraine war has reminded the world about the stubborn persistence of evil. In doing so, it has also illuminated the virtues of American power.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin’s Unconditional Surrender Isn’t the Right Goal: Ian Buruma

• Psychology Has a Label for Putin’s KGB-Made Mind: Andreas Kluth

• US Can Break Russian Blockade of Ukraine Ports: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is co-author, most recently, of  “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China.” 

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