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Research Questions

  1. What broad and specific changes to U.S. security policies toward key regions have advocates of restraint already recommended?
  2. Where do key policy prescriptions still need to be developed?
  3. What type of analysis would help fill these gaps?

The United States is facing several national security challenges at the same time that the federal budget is under pressure because of public health and infrastructure crises. In response to these challenges, there has been growing public interest in rethinking the U.S. role in the world. Under one option, a realist grand strategy of restraint, the United States would adopt a more cooperative approach toward other powers, reduce the size of its military and forward military presence, and end or renegotiate some of its security commitments. To help U.S. policymakers and the public understand this option, the authors of this report explain how U.S. security policies toward key regions would change under a grand strategy of restraint, identify key unanswered questions, and propose next steps for developing the policy implications of this option.

The authors find that regional policy under a grand strategy of restraint varies depending on the level of U.S. interests and the risk that a single powerful state could dominate the region. Because of China's significant military capabilities, advocates of restraint call for a greater U.S. military role in East Asia than in other regions. The authors recommend that advocates of a grand strategy of restraint should continue to develop their policy recommendations. In particular, they should identify what changes in great-power capabilities and behavior would imperil U.S. vital interests, maritime areas where the United States should retain superiority, priorities for peacetime military activities, and war scenarios that should guide U.S. Department of Defense planning.

Key Findings

  • Advocates of restraint have threat assessments and assumptions that differ from those of policymakers who have shaped U.S. grand strategy since the end of the Cold War.
  • Generally, advocates of restraint would rely more on diplomacy to settle conflicts of interest, encourage other states to lead, and preserve military power to defend vital U.S. interests.
  • If a grand strategy of restraint were used, the United States would have a smaller military, fewer security commitments and forces based abroad, and a higher bar for the use of military force compared with current policy.
  • The specific implications of this grand strategy vary by region depending on the level of U.S. interests and the risk that a single power could dominate the region.
  • Advocates of restraint seek a more cooperative approach with current U.S. adversaries, such as Russia and Iran.
  • The primary area of disagreement among advocates of restraint is U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific.
  • Advocates of restraint argue that the rise of a single powerful state in East Asia, Europe, or the Persian Gulf would imperil vital U.S. interests but have not yet offered policymakers guidance on how to know that such a threat is emerging.
  • To generate more-specific policy implications for each region, advocates of restraint need to expand on their logic and conduct additional analysis.


  • Evaluate the core claims underlying a grand strategy of restraint to validate and refine its policy prescriptions.
  • Develop risk mitigation strategies to hedge against the possibility that one of the core assumptions of a grand strategy of restraint is fully or partially incorrect.
  • Specify the conditions under which the United States would stop military retrenchment or even increase its military engagement within each region.
  • Clarify what changes in great-power capabilities and behavior would constitute a serious threat to vital U.S. interests.
  • Provide guidance on whether and how to respond to China's, Russia's, and Iran's gray zone activities.
  • Identify the maritime areas where the United States should retain superiority.
  • Offer prescriptions on how the United States should evaluate threats and operate in the space and cyber domains.
  • Identify scenarios to guide U.S. Department of Defense planning and U.S. force posture decisions.
  • Provide priorities for U.S. military peacetime activities, such as exercises.
  • Develop policies toward Africa, the Americas, and the Arctic.
  • Develop proposals on trade and other international economic issues.
  • Assess the cost savings associated with core policy prescriptions.

The research in this report was conducted by the RAND Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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