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To remain the preeminent global power, the United States must avoid costly conflicts that drain its resources and distract its leadership from addressing pressing domestic priorities, argues Paul B. Stares in his new book, Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace. Doing so requires that the United States adopt a more forward-looking and preventive approach to managing foreign policy challenges.
“As the principal guarantor of global peace and security, America is—like no other country—at great risk of being drawn into potentially costly military engagements to counter emerging threats to international order,” warns Stares. The United States can avoid overextending itself by adopting “a comprehensive preventive strategy to manage the risks of a more turbulent world so as to lessen the likelihood that it will be increasingly confronted and potentially overwhelmed with excruciating and hugely consequential choices about the use of military force.”
“The United States has a well-developed doctrine for fighting the nation’s wars but nothing remotely comparable for the task of preventing them,” observes Stares, the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Stares proposes a strategy of “preventive engagement” that includes
- “first, the promotion of policies known to lower the general risk of conflict and instability over the long term,” such as encouraging global trade agreements with expanded geopolitical benefits under the auspices of the World Trade Organization;
- “second, a deliberate and prioritized effort to anticipate and avert those crises most likely to precipitate major U.S. military engagement in the medium term,” such as supporting external mediation via the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea; and
- “third, the ability to react rapidly to mitigate—and, better still, resolve—those conflicts that erupt in the short term before they escalate and increase the pressure for U.S. intervention,” such as the use of diplomatic pressure and financial sanctions on Russia to abide by the terms of the latest cease-fire in Ukraine.
Instead of the United States pulling back from the world or relying on military superiority to deter and defeat potential adversaries, Stares demonstrates that preventive engagement is a smarter and less expensive strategy to maintain America’s predominant global role. He outlines how the United States can use it to manage emerging security risks before they become dangerous threats requiring costly military responses, in the South China Sea, Ukraine, and beyond. Stares offers several examples, including when the United States reacted to the warnings of incipient dangers between India and Pakistan and served as mediator to defuse the conflict in early 1990. That same year the United States failed to heed the warning signs that Iraq was gearing up to invade Kuwait and was caught completely unprepared.
“The United States cannot afford to be either naively passive or impulsively reactive to emerging international challenges,” Stares concludes. It “has not only the most to gain by perpetuating the liberal international order but also arguably the most to lose if it mismanages this task.”
A Council on Foreign Relations Book
Educators: Access Teaching Notes for Preventive Engagement.
Reviews and Endorsements
It is with impressive breadth and depth that Stares applies his multilevel approach to preventive action. . . . Stares goes a step further than many grand strategy theorists by detailing plans for how this strategy could actually be implemented with committed political leadership and specific bureaucratic reforms. While the current U.S. administration is unlikely to listen, Stares’s argument and prescriptions could certainly play a role in shaping future grand strategy debates.
Political Science Quarterly
Stares offers a timely, much needed antidote to a more turbulent world: a comprehensive strategy, drawing on all aspects of American power, to prevent conflict and advance U.S. interests without draining our human or financial resources. Far from disengaging America from the world, Stares rightly advocates greater but smarter engagement. His book is a compelling argument that strength and wisdom must be flip sides of the same foreign policy coin.
Tony Blinken, Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
An erudite, elegant, extremely well informed, and very thoughtful explanation of current American grand strategy, this book provides specific, finite, and feasible recommendations for improving the U.S. government’s ability to anticipate and manage the latent risks of war.
Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
The liberal international order as we know it is in retreat. The rise of Russia and China, combined with America’s pullback and the uneven progress of globalization, have all shaken the foundations of our global political system—but as Paul B. Stares rightly points out, that doesn’t mean all is lost. If Americans and/or members of the Trump administration still harbor hope of keeping any semblance of U.S. primacy intact, Stares’ book is a good place to start.
Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group
National security officials often prepare to fight the last war. In Preventive Engagement, Stares argues for doing more to prevent the next one. In an era when the United States is overcommitted and tensions are multiplying, learning to anticipate and head off trouble makes eminent good sense. Readers may not agree with all of Stares’ recommendations, but his systematic, lucid, and forward-looking perspective is a valuable contribution to the broader debate on America’s role in the world.
Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University
Stares offers an optimistic—yet realistic and pragmatic—plan for using all elements of national power to better anticipate and mitigate global problems before they become unmanageable.
Peter Feaver, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Duke University
Preventive Engagement is a tonic for these times of potentially profound changes and rising anxiety about the durability of the current international order. Stares offers a convincing, very practical long-term strategy for preventing and mitigating the kind of global conflict that could otherwise engulf the United States and its allies, with an emphasis on reducing costly military action. Stares seeks to make prevention as much a cornerstone of foreign policy as it is of medicine.
Nancy Lindborg, President, U.S. Institute of Peace
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