Marine Corps University Press Book Review: American Power & Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy
Kashish Parpiani
The following article originally appeared in Marine Corps University Press

Ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, a Pew Research Center poll found that 57 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: the United States should “deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs the best they can.” Compounded by America’s post-9/11 protracted wars and congressional bipartisanship on America’s role in the world coming under strain, the intent for lesser American activism abroad has borne existential questions for U.S. grand strategy.

In his book American Power & Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy, Paul D. Miller offers conservative internationalism as an American grand strategy best suited for addressing the dichotomy presented by an increasingly inward-looking, conflict-fatigued U.S. electorate and a world imperiled by nuclear autocracies being “more confident than ever”; armed nonstate actors having “access to ever-greater resources”; and the transnational jihadist movement having “yet to be dealt a definitive blow” (p. xiv).

Miller makes an emphatic case for sustaining the liberal order because it is “mutually constitutive” with American security. Given the declining popularity of liberal internationalism, only accentuated by an “America First” worldview, conservative internationalism as a grand strategy is argued to be superior to restraint as being “more farsighted and morally defensible.” It is also deemed superior to liberal internationalism given its emphasis on being “realistic and achievable” (p. 279). In many ways, it attempts to “blend the strengths of realism and liberal internationalism” (p. 26).

In their seminal work U.S. Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy (2017), Caitlin Talmadge, Eugene Gholz, and Harvey M. Sapolsky define four grand strategies in U.S. foreign and security policy decision making: primacy, liberal internationalism, selective engagement, and restraint. If these four strategies were to be marked by their degree of activism, they represent a scale of extremes reflecting high to low U.S. stewardship, broad to narrow conception of U.S. interests, and more to less employment of U.S. force.

Given conservative internationalism’s emphasis on the liberal order being the “outer perimeter” of U.S. security and constituting a “cost-effective” approach short of retrenchment, it may be marked around selective engagement, albeit its position would be tilting toward liberal internationalism on the scale.

One may construe the same as perceptive selective engagement, given Miller’s derision of restraint’s “short-sighted” prescription of “narrowly focusing on the territorial security of the United States while neglecting the nature of the world order” (p. 13). Instead, it perceptively views sustaining U.S.-led alliances and institutions of the liberal order as “a form of ‘insurance’ against the uncertainties of the future” (p. 17).

In further distinguishing conservative internationalism from restraint, much like Barry R. Posen in his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2014), Miller goes beyond mere descriptive assessments. The same is done via distinguishing regions as frontline (Europe and East Asia), opportunity (South Asia), quagmire (the Middle East), and periphery (Latin America and Africa). In doing so, however, conservative internationalism’s bent toward liberal internationalism’s instincts is most apparent in the case of the “frontlines” of Europe and East Asia.

Miller deems Europe to be the “most important geopolitical theater for the United States.” In underscoring the criticality of its stability, Miller points out that Europe, including Russia, hones “about a quarter of global power, more than a third of U.S. trade, and three of the world’s nine nuclear weapon states. Europe is the largest concentration of liberal democracies in the world, the headquarters for many of the world’s most important international institutions, and collectively constitutes a primary pillar of support for liberal order” (p. 159).

In contrast, Posen argues Europe is the “easiest region” to implement a strategy of restraint since the region’s economies “have been rebuilt and democracies have flourished.” Restraint thus advocates for the United States to disengage from the region “to accustom Europeans to managing their own security affairs” (Posen, p. 67).

Miller’s case for Europe’s criticality holds water in light of recent developments such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the rise of populist strongman leaders like Victor Orban in Hungary, the weakening of regional bulwarks of liberal ideals like Germany’s Angela Merkel, and continued anxieties over a no-deal Brexit. Hence, conservative internationalism rightly dictates for the United States to largely stay the course with its prescribed role: “Stay in NATO, maintain the alliance, resist Russia’s attempts to expand its influence through illegitimate means, and keep the peace” (p. 159).

On East Asia and China, Miller underscores its criticality as the “second most important geopolitical theater for U.S. interests, accounting for a third of U.S. trade and a slightly smaller proportion of world GDP, two nuclear-weapon states (and perhaps two more near-nuclear states), though only a fifth of global power” (p. 164). On China challenging the United States, conservative internationalism underscores the U.S.-China security dynamic to “not mirror the Cold War or fall easily into the conventional categories of analysis, such as hegemony, competition, or cooperation, but evolve into something distinctive” (p. 166). Miller argues for confronting China’s use of coercion to rewrite the balance of power in the region. Recognizing that as a “threat to liberal order,” Miller clarifies the response to not necessarily be belligerent, but to be firm (p. 167).

Restraint, too, advocates for the abandonment of a “Cold War model” of containing China’s rise. However, it rests the argument on the premise of the United States recognizing its inherent secure geopolitical position. Posen argues that China’s economic power is highly enmeshed in global trade, making it susceptible to a naval blockade, and highlights its geographic encirclement by two nuclear weapon states, Russia and India, and two near-nuclear weapon states, Japan and South Korea.

However, one may argue that such a realization of America’s inherent security may spur complacency on China pushing the envelope on post–Second World War dictums and norms, causing a slow erosion of the rules-based liberal order via setting untoward precedents. Recent developments, such as China’s militarization of the South China Sea and use of debt-trap diplomacy to attain strategic vassals add credence to Miller’s call for a “firm” response—certainly short of war.

Miller’s prescriptions, however, stand reminiscent of the last most-vocal liberal internationalist U.S. administration. The William J. “Bill” Clinton administration is often recounted as a touchstone of America’s Asia policy, given the “pertinence” of then deputy secretary of state Robert B. Zoellick’s idea to pursue China’s integration into the liberal order as a “responsible stakeholder.”

Similarly, Miller advocates emphasizing the upsides of China’s integration into the liberal order. For example, since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has lifted about 300 million people out of poverty and received increased voting rights at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In touting these developments, Miller argues for a balanced approach of not starting a war or “humiliat[ing] the People’s Republic but . . . counter[ing] China’s coercive diplomacy in kind and forcibly socializ[ing] China into responsible great power behavior” (p. 167).

Thus, with regards to Europe and Asia, conservative internationalism seems proactive, much like the activist grand strategies of liberal internationalism. However, the same stands distinguished as being warranted against pressing near-term challenges in Europe and Asia. Moreover, the same is advocated in recognition of America’s relative decline as an axiom of the prevailing multipolar world.

In denouncing liberal internationalism’s advocacy of American stewardship stemming out of romantic conceptions of American Exceptionalism—à la an “indispensable nation” or a “shining city upon a hill”—conservative internationalism underscores a rising “incentive to invest in liberal order as an extension of American influence” in the face of a declining ability for the United States to “rely on its raw power advantage” (pp. 13–15).

The limited parallels with liberal internationalism aside, Miller’s sense of a “conservative” internationalism is most apparent in his approach to the tension between protecting America and advancing liberal ideals (p. 24).

In conceding stability operations or “nation-building,” as derided by advocates of restraint, to be highly “unpopular” with the American public, Miller argues for a more “coherent doctrine” in envisioning a conservative internationalist grand strategy (pp. 140–45). Miller decries liberal internationalists’ argument of the United States having a “moral obligation to fix every failed state” (p. 133). Instead, he advocates for the essential ones to be framed as “essential preventive exercises of hard power against defined threats” (p. 144).

Furthermore, in tacit recognition of the downsides of an overtly militarized approach, Miller rightly advocates for a more sustained employment of foreign aid and an increase in civilian operations to compliment tactical aims of the military. The author also urges the acceptance of the fact that “different states fail in different ways” (p. 146). To that end, he offers a typology of failed states—anarchic, illegitimate, incompetent, unproductive, and barbaric—as requiring different prescriptions.

In offering these distinctions, Miller not only furthers scholarship on the nontraditional challenges to the Westphalian system but also opens the door to increased nuance on the decision-making level. With regards to this point specifically, it is apparent that his prescriptions are well-grounded in practice, given his extensive experience in deliberative roles at the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the U.S. Army. Fundamentally, Miller’s astute recommendations add credence to the oft-dismissed yet highly relevant view of encouraging more practitioners to compliment theoreticians’ scholarship.

Miller’s book also makes it particularly relevant with regards to another contemporary debate. In his work The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018), Stephen M. Walt derides the “foreign policy community” for institutionalizing liberal internationalism as a standard preset of the U.S. worldview. Disparaged as “the Blob,” this group of professionals are alleged to have seen “liberal hegemony and unceasing global activism” as constituting “a full-employment strategy for the entire foreign policy community” (Walt, p. 112).

Miller, however, advocates for a clear-eyed conception of American interests, amounting to a cost-effective approach while falling short of espousing restraint advocates’ “misunderstanding of the relationship between American security and world order” (p. 10). Miller notes recent failures of encouraging liberalism in Iraq and Afghanistan have “given new life to advocates of restraint who believe there is no meaningful connection between American security and liberal order and that efforts to build liberal order are expensive ways of proving its futility” (p. 53).

In surely accepting a certain degree of overreach of liberalism in U.S. activism abroad, Miller defends internationalism from “scholars or policymakers,” allowing “previous failures” to delegitimize “future efforts” (p. 60).

Such a case for internationalism does not stem from heady optimism or “great delusion,” as John J. Mearsheimer refers to liberal aspirations in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018), but from an understanding of the liberal order being “an extension of American—and other democracies’—power” (Mearsheimer, p. 15). This nuance by a former U.S. national security official on the mutual dependency of American security and liberal order, while recognizing hegemonic excesses and liberal fallacies, only disproves Walt’s reductionist, broad-stroked idea of the prevalence of giddyheaded liberal activism among America’s foreign and security policy community.

In summation, American Power and Liberal Order offers a much-needed deliberation over a conservative, yet internationalist, American grand strategy in face of the “bipartisan internationalist consensus” on America’s promotion of liberal ideals crumbling in recent times (p. ix). This book is a must-have for all watchers of U.S. foreign policy at this pivotal juncture in time marked by a decline in the currency of liberal internationalism.