Answering a Misguided Polemic Against Restraint

The authors do not engage with the arguments that restrainers actually make.

Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry have written a long article in Survival criticizing foreign policy restraint in general and the Quincy Institute in particular. (Full disclosure: I regularly write for the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft website and consider the scholars there to be colleagues and friends.) It is a frustrating article, to say the least, because it fails a basic test of scholarship: they mostly do not cite their sources and they do not engage with the arguments that restrainers actually make. It is notable that their criticism of “the Quincy coalition” does not cite a single thing that the Quincy Institute itself has published.

The authors make a number of effective polemical moves to portray the “Quincy coalition” as an incoherent mish-mash of different groups and traditions, and they make sure to tar restrainers with the brush of Trumpism whenever they can. Deudney and Ikenberry are interested in promoting what they dub a Rooseveltian foreign policy tradition, and so they emphasize their position as heirs of FDR and liberal internationalism. They are determined to ridicule the restraint alternative so that they can affirm liberal internationalism as the best and indeed only foreign policy path worth taking. The article is above all a polemic, and like most polemicists Deudney and Ikenberry do not intend to provide an accurate or fair summary of the views of their targets.

There is nothing inherently wrong with polemics. They can sometimes be clarifying and can force both sides to hone their arguments. When a polemic is just an exercise in denunciation without understanding, it wastes everyone’s time. Unfortunately, this article falls into this latter category. No one will learn anything true about foreign policy restraint from this article that could not be found somewhere else, and there are plenty of misleading and false claims that leave the reader with a worse understanding of the subject by the end.

The conflation with Trump is the article’s biggest error, and it could have been easily avoided if the authors had bothered to consult the writings of the people they are criticizing. They assert, “While the new restraint coalition did not commend Trump’s reckless conduct and administrative incompetence, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the basic thrust of his ‘America First’ foreign policy was a bold – if crude – implementation of the Quincy coalition’s core vision.” This is simply wrong. The thrust of Trump’s foreign policy was one defined by arrogant unilateralism, militarism, and setting international agreements on fire. On almost every issue, restrainers opposed Trump’s policies and were not shy about saying so. I have made a point of referring to him as the “anti-restraint president” because his approach to the world was so antithetical to what I understood foreign policy restraint to be. It is very easy to escape their conclusion.

The authors’ claim that restrainers favor scrapping international agreements and abandoning international institutions is likewise false. They write, “Like them, he rejected international institutions, withdrawing from numerous arms-control accords and free-trade agreements and even pulling out of the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic.” That would be an interesting point if the restrainers in question supported any of these actions, but they did not. The “Quincy coalition” certainly never supported withdrawing from any arms control agreements or the nuclear deal with Iran. On the contrary, we have been vehemently opposed to these decisions. You will look in vain for restrainers cheering on the U.S. exit from the WHO and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Deudney and Ikenberry apparently chose to take the lazy cheap shot without so much as checking to verify their claims, because it would have been easy to find that restrainers were opposed to Trump’s hostility to diplomatic agreements and international institutions. Throughout the article, the authors attack a caricature of restraint that they have invented, and then pat themselves on the back for tearing down their strawman.

Deudney and Ikenberry assert, “The Quincy-coalition agenda points towards a foreign policy that is roughly Trumpian, while modern liberalism and internationalism underwrite the Biden administration’s strategy.” This is a woeful distortion of what the Quincy Institute stands for and the foreign policy it supports, and it reads like something from an election-year hit piece. It doesn’t matter that restrainers were and are opposed to Trump across the board. The authors are bound to identify their approach with Biden’s agenda and to smear the alternative as Trumpism, and so they make the unfounded claim. The article resembles nothing so much as an entry in the catalogue of a heresiologist, who is tasked with describing heretical groups in the most unflattering and dismissive way possible. Genuine understanding is not the goal of such an exercise. The purpose of defining a heresy is to belittle and condemn it and to affirm what the heresiologist considers the true teaching, and that is what the authors have done with their article. The encouraging thing about this article is that defenders of the status quo in U.S. foreign policy clearly feel threatened by restraint as an alternative.