Patrick Porter, a professor of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham, explains at the Cato Institute that America must, in the words of Samuel P. Huntington, “address the gap between ambitions and capabilities.” Porter writes:
Deteriorating circumstances make it imperative for Washington to conduct a cold reassessment of its grand strategy.
It needs to ask what works and what doesn’t, to rank its interests into a hierarchy and distinguish what is vital from what is desirable, to assess what is achievable, and what costs and sacrifices it can bear.
The growing demand on already scarce resources, from the mounting costs of defense to the current and future burdens of entitlements, means that it will be difficult for the superpower to increase its extraction of resources from its population base. For a reassessment to be realistic, the country must be able to consider retrenchment, burden shifting, the accommodation of potential rivals, and the limitation of commitments.
History suggests strategies that bring a state’s power and commitments into balance and that can successfully prevent overstretch, insolvency, or exhaustion.79 To do this, decision makers can draw on an American tradition of prudential, realist thinking about aligning resources and goals.
As Samuel P. Huntington summarized it, to address the gap between ambitions and capabilities, states can attempt
to redefine their interests and so reduce their commitments to a level which they can sustain with their existing capabilities; to reduce the threats to their interests through diplomacy; to enhance the contribution of allies to the protection of their interests; to increase their own resources, usually meaning larger military forces and military budgets; to substitute cheaper forms of power for more expensive ones, thus using the same resources to produce more power; to devise more effective strategies for the use of their capabilities, thereby securing also greater output in terms of power for the same input in terms of resources.80
If “liberal order” visions prevail, it will be deemed immoral even to consider an alternative of restraint.
A pernicious byproduct of such nostalgia is its reductionism, whereby traditionalists assert a false choice between primacy or “global leadership” on one hand and inward-looking isolation on the other.
Accordingly, advocates of primacy brand today’s realists who call for retrenchment as Trumpian.81
By contrast, if Washington can be liberated from the burdensome historical fantasy that hegemonic nostalgists impose upon it, then it can gain a clearer-sighted appreciation of the choices now before it.
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