Answering a Misguided Polemic Against Restraint

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

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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 It is a frustrating article, to say the least, because it fails a basic test of scholarship: they mostly do not cite their sources and they do not engage with the arguments that restrainers actually make.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.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.