What if the U.S. isn't special?

George W. Bush gave voice to the implicit assumption of many in the foreign policy community when he asserted in his second inaugural address that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” That he used the formulation to defend the war he launched against Iraq in 2003 and Beinart implies the same thing about a very different, explicitly multilateral approach to the world illustrates the assumption’s conceptual vacuousness. If we live in a world in which all good things go together, in which it isn’t necessary to make trade-offs among our various vital interests and between those interests and the demands of our deepest moral beliefs, then whatever policy we’re trying to rationalize will appear as fully and unproblematically justified.

Strangely, even those in Washington doing the most work to advance an alternative approach to foreign policy fall into a variation of the same moralistic trap. Those in the circle around The Quincy Institute are very effective at counterpunching against the reigning foreign policy consensus, which favors armed intervention around the world. In most cases I share their preference for greater military restraint in our dealings with other nations and regions of the world. But “restraint” can’t be the orienting idea of a nation’s foreign policy any more than it can be a substitute for doing the hard and necessary work of formulating a strategy for defending and advancing its interests. When you’re the pre-eminent military power on the planet, pre-emptively announcing that your new watchword is “restraint” is tantamount to giving rivals and opponents an invitation to take bold, potentially destabilizing moves against you.

Any attempt to break out of the straightjacket of our own incorrigible self-regard will have to take account of one overarching reality, which is America’s decline relative to rising powers. The unipolar moment is over.