America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder
By Bret Stephens
Sentinel, 288 pages
Although you can read the 288 pages of this well-researched, well-written, and passionately argued book over a weekend, its message will stay with you for years. Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal, believes that America is not in decline but, under the Obama administration, definitely in retreat, and that this trend must be reversed before catastrophe strikes. “Americans seeking a return to an isolationist garden of Eden, alone and undisturbed in the world, knowing neither good nor evil,” he warns, “will soon find themselves within shooting range of global pandemonium.”
America in Retreat had its genesis in “The Coming Global Disorder,” an article published in the July/August 2012 issue of this magazine. Stephens expanded his article backward chronologically to encompass George Washington’s dangerous and, in my view, myopic, farewell address and Thomas Jefferson’s equally irresponsible first inaugural speech, with its warning against “entangling alliances.” This book readily acknowledges the pristine historical pedigree of much of present-day isolationist thought, therefore, before picking it apart piece by piece as extraordinarily dangerous for modern America.
What has happened? “We got out of Iraq, completely,” writes Stephens. “We are on our way out of Afghanistan. We want no part of what’s happening in Syria, no matter how many civilians are brutalized or red lines crossed. We are dramatically curtailing our use of drones in Pakistan. We pretend to ‘pivot’ to Asia, but so far our pivot has mostly been a feint. We are quietly backing away from our security guarantees to Taiwan. We denounce Russia’s seizure of Crimea…but we refuse requests by the Ukrainian government to provide their diminished military with arms.” Last November John Kerry even announced to the Organization of American States the end of the 190-year-old Monroe Doctrine. The world’s policeman is in the process of handing in his badge and gun.
Although there are many tough strictures against the Obama administration for taking the lead in forcing America’s retreat, Stephens is clear-eyed about the dangers of Republican isolationism. Whereas on the left isolationism finds its roots “in pacifism (war never solves anything), cultural relativism (who are we to judge?), and original American sin (it’s all the fault of our past misbehavior),” the scourge is growing fast on the right as well. It had its origin in “modern-day Father Coughlins such as Pat Buchanan” but has grown to encompass parts of the populist right. For the first time since polling on the question began in 1964, a majority of Americans agree with the statement that “the United States should mind its own business internationally,” which was supported by only 30 percent of Americans 50 years ago. After President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, only 29 percent of Americans agreed with taking “a firm stand against the Russians.”
Small wonder, therefore, that America’s rivals and enemies have been emboldened and her friends and allies disheartened. This process has been hugely exacerbated by the present administration’s dismantling of America’s hard power. As Stephens points out, the Army is at its smallest since the Germans entered Paris in June 1940, the Navy launched fewer ships last year than at any time before America entered World War I, and NATO’s total military spending as a percentage of aggregate GDP is at its lowest in the 65-year history of the alliance. So even if what Stephens terms “neo-isolationism” was not triumphing over internationalism in today’s America, there would still be less and less capacity for America to remain “the world’s policeman” if she wanted to do so. Stephens zeroes in splendidly on the Obama administration’s complaints about the cost of the Iraq War, pointing out how the president spent more money in a single day—February 18, 2009—with the signing of the $787 billion stimulus package than the Pentagon spent in Iraq over an entire decade ($770 billion).
“This book takes a side in this debate,” writes Stephens, with gargantuan understatement. He argues—with impeccable logic, a dizzying array of well-sourced quotations, and reliable statistics—that if the United States continues to retreat from its position as the world’s policeman, disaster will strike both the world and the United States sooner rather than later. What would happen, for example, if the South China Sea, across which a third of the world’s maritime traffic sails, becomes a Chinese lake? The Obama administration’s bleatings about America’s “Asia pivot” are called out by Stephens, who notes that the only way that the percentages have been made to stand up is through the decommissioning of vessels in the Atlantic, rather than launching more into the Pacific.
“The tide of war is receding,” proclaimed Barack Obama, just before ISIS started capturing major cities in Iraq, a country where no fewer than 4,400 Americans died. Yet the loss of cities such as Mosul and Fallujah to the al-Qaeda offshoot has not produced the massive outcry against the administration that ought to be expected in a healthy, self-confident democracy. The three years that separated America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1972 with that country’s collapse in 1975 seem to be eerily repeating themselves. Although Stephens generously commends Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, he doesn’t ask whether the president had any alternative, for if it had become known that Obama had not authorized the attack, he would surely have been hounded from office in the 2012 elections. Obama’s sole foreign-policy success was not one that he could have avoided and is thus not really one at all.
“To say that America needs to be the world’s policeman,” writes Stephens, “is not to say we need to be its priest. Nor is it to say that we need to be its martyr. Police work isn’t altruistic. It is done from necessity and self-interest.” Stephens ruefully acknowledges the excessive idealism of the neoconservative view of foreign policy—“Many conservatives have conceded the argument that the wars they once ardently supported in Iraq and Afghanistan were historic mistakes”—while putting forth a post-neocon construct that he hopes the Republican Party might rally behind.
“What a conservative foreign policy can do,” he argues, “is maintain global order in a way favorable to the security and prosperity of our friends, watchful of the ambitions of our adversaries, and mindful of the need to keep the countries in between—states such as Kuwait, Ukraine, or Vietnam—tilting towards us.” It’s not too radical a proposal. Indeed, most neocons, Republicans, Americans, and even Hillary Clinton herself would agree with every word. Obama diverges.
If it turns out that America doesn’t want to shoulder even that level of responsibility and engagement, then frankly she doesn’t deserve continued superpower status anyhow. But when the “global pandemonium” does break out, as various vicious regional powers such as Russia, China, and Iran struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the United States, Bret Stephens will be able to say the four cruelest words in the English language: “I told you so.”