But the academic purists cannot be found in the policy community or in the administration. There, a very different type of restrainer prevails. These restrainers want to preserve America's core alliances and commitments. For that reason alone the neo-isolationist moniker does not apply to them. However, they do want to avoid new entanglements that go beyond core commitments -- hence the reluctance to get involved in Syria -- and they do intend to scale back U.S. involvement overseas. They would also like to shift the burden somewhat to America's allies -- hence the Obama administration has done less to help France in Mali than President Hollande has hoped.
Shapers believe that the United States must remain a global leader and influence developments all over the planet, particularly in the Middle East, Northeast and Southeast Asia, and Europe. They do not just want to preserve America's alliances and commitments; they want to increase them to account for the changing nature of international politics. They believe that an increasingly competitive world means that the United States will have to work harder to maintain its military and diplomatic edge. This means building new strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia, influencing events inside Syria and Libya, and strengthening military capabilities. They also want to embrace and prudently advance concepts like the Responsibility to Protect, which they see as a crucial component of a values-based foreign policy. They know America will make mistakes, but they hope to minimize them by learning from the past and they believe that the risk of error is outweighed by the risk of inaction.
The Obama administration has had elements of both sides. It has been a shaper in East Asia and a restrainer in the Middle East. Indeed, the shaping in East Asia was embraced by some restrainers who saw an opportunity to get out of the Middle East. But, the balance recently shifted in favor of the restrainers. The departure of several leading shapers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and National Security Council Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, has moved the needle in favor of those who want to do less in the world. Chuck Hagel is squarely in the camp of the restrainers. John Kerry is something of an unknown quantity -- he seems to want to engage diplomatically in the Middle East, but his attitude toward Syria and Asia is unclear.
Perhaps most important of all, President Obama seems comfortable as a restrainer. Bob Woodward has reported that Obama chose Hagel because the two share the same philosophy: "the U.S. role in the world must be carefully scaled back -- this is not a matter of choice but of facing reality; the military needs to be treated with deep skepticism; lots of strategic military and foreign policy thinking is out of date; and quagmires like Afghanistan should be avoided." Of course, this is only a second-hand report, but it is consistent with parts of the president's record.
Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world -- and probably in a way that is detrimental to America's interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.
If President Obama does move in the direction of restraint, the next few years are likely to see the development of a Democratic critique of his foreign policy. This critique may be spearheaded by experts, including former Obama administration officials, who are seeking to shape the foreign policy platform of Hillary Clinton should she decide to run for president. Its core insight will be that the United States must continue to exert global leadership because in an interdependent world, retrenchment will not work. Welcome to the Democratic Party's new foreign policy debate.