America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder
by Bret Stephens
Sentinel, 2014, 263 pages, $29.99
Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, there have been numerous books and articles on the purported decline of the United States as the world’s superpower. However, by defining the issue as America’s retreat rather than its decline, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has shifted the debate in an important direction. Stephens titles his new book America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.
The concept of national decline implies historical inevitability, something so deeply embedded in the scheme of things that, despite our best efforts, it is bound to happen. This version of Greek tragedy has strong appeal in the book sales market but Stephens makes a powerful case that retreat is the right word for the real world. Retreats are manmade. Sometimes they signal defeat and surrender but they can also permit regrouping and resurgence. Stephens writes:
America is not in decline. It is in retreat. Nations in retreat, as the United States was after World War I, can still be on the rise. Nations in decline, as Russia is today, can still be on the march. Decline is the product of broad civilizational forces—demography, culture, ideologies, attitudes towards authority, attitudes towards work—that are often beyond the grasp of ordinary political action. Retreat, by contrast, is often nothing more than a political choice. One president can make it; another president could reverse it. It is still within America’s reach to make different choices.
This is not to say Stephens regards the global disorder of his subtitle as an easy fix. Indeed, the problems are now more difficult than at any time since the Cold War. The inventory is daunting: the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine; the aggressive maritime claims of China against Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines; the unravelling of political order in the Arab world and the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the revival of theocratic Islam in Iran and Turkey; the progress to nuclear weapons by Iran and their international marketing by North Korea, prompting more Middle East states to consider their own nuclear options.
The mounting belligerence coincides with a widening perception of America’s reluctance to act as protector of last resort. Indeed, the perpetrators appear to believe that not only is the Obama administration’s reticence fixed in the President’s character and ideology, but that the United States is actually unable to do anything because of its weakness, both financially and militarily.
Their perceptions of America’s retreat, Stephens argues, are well-founded. It is the central fact of the present decade and is far from confined to the Middle East. In November 2013, he observes, Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to renounce the mainstay of American foreign policy in its own hemisphere for the past 190 years. “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” Kerry told the Organisation of American States, and “that’s not a bad thing”.
Instead, President Obama prefers “nation-building at home”. Stephens says this is a revealing phrase. No American president before him has chosen to argue there has to be a choice between foreign and domestic policy. Since the Second World War, every other president has pursued America’s international interests while strengthening the economy, building infrastructure and launching major domestic initiatives, from the interstate highways to civil rights and welfare reform. However, Obama’s ideal for foreign policy is to have less of it. He told an interviewer in 2013: “I am probably more mindful than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.”
In security terms, Stephens observes that American policy is actually in retreat at home too: “In the name of civil liberties we are taking apart the post-9/11 domestic security architecture—warrantless wiretaps, telephony metadata collection, police surveillance programs—brick by brick.” Meanwhile, the US Army is returning to the size it was in June 1940.
The ideological basis of this shift is Obama’s conviction that the containment most needed in the twenty-first century is not of his authoritarian adversaries China, Russia or Iran. Instead, argues Stephens, it is containment of the United States itself, containment “of its military power and its democratic zeal; of its presence and commitments abroad; of its global pre-eminence”. He quotes Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February 2014 announcing a new round of budget cuts: “We are entering an era where American dominance of the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
A new foreign policy divide has emerged in the United States, cutting across traditional partisan and ideological divides. “It’s no longer a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves,” Stephens writes:
Now it’s an argument between neoisolationists and internationalists: between those who think the United States is badly overextended in the world and needs to be doing a lot less of everything—both for its own and the rest of the world’s good—and those who believe in Pax Americana, a world in which the economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United States provides the global buffer between civilization and barbarism.
The result is the emergence of “the new isolationism” of Stephens’s subtitle. The era of American internationalism since the Second World War, he argues, is giving way, with amazing swiftness, to a period of American indifference. The most concerning feature of the isolationist shift is that it is bipartisan.
“An increasing number of Tea Party and libertarian-leaning Republicans like Senator Rand Paul,” Stephens observes, “are espousing their own version of George McGovern’s ‘Come Home, America’ speech.” He says Barack Obama wants to retreat from America’s global commitments in order to build bigger government, while many Republicans want to reduce those commitments for the sake of smaller government.
Even more significant is the fact that majority public opinion has now shifted to the isolationist side. Stephens quotes a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2013 which found that for the first time since it began polling the question in 1964, a majority of Americans—52 per cent—agreed with the view that the United States “should mind its own business internationally”. Another Pew survey in 2011 found only 39 per cent of Republicans agreed that “it is best to remain active in world affairs”, down from 58 per cent in 2004.
However, consistent with his scenario of retreat rather than decline, Stephens believes it is both necessary and possible to turn around the prevailing strategic policy framework and the ideologies that underpin it. This might happen by Americans coming to realise the benefits they gain from the world they could lose. He says Americans have lived in an orderly world for so long they have become broadly oblivious to how good that world has been for them. Under the Pax Americana, or American Peace, that has prevailed in most non-communist countries since the end of the Second World War, the increase in prosperity and progress is unmatched by any other period of history.
America’s long commitment to Western security paid fruitful dividends, from South Korea and Taiwan to Poland and the Baltic states. American military power and financial largesse underwrote peace between Egypt and Israel and helped ensure European integration. Germany and Japan were converted from militarism to pacifism. The world economy flourished. Global GDP, just $11 trillion in 1980, had doubled by the time the Cold War ended a decade later. By 2012 it reached $72 trillion. Americans were not short-changed by the spread of wealth: US per capita GDP, about $12,000 in 1980, rose to $46,000 by 2012.
However, none of this came cost-free. It required constant vigilance and a readiness to shed blood and treasure in its defence. Stephens is just as impressive in defending the cost. He points to the emergence of ambitious and aggressive creeds in Europe and Asia in the 1930s when the world lacked a great power to put them down, and the costs they eventually imposed in the 1940s after Americans realised their own way of life was at stake. If nothing changes, he argues, Americans will again find themselves in a world very much like the 1930s, another decade in which economic turmoil, war weariness, Western self-doubt, American self-involvement, and the rise of ambitious dictatorships combined to produce the catastrophe of the Second World War.
Analogies to the 1930s, or to any other period of history, have their limitations, Stephens acknowledges, and there is no law of history that dictates that America’s current retreat will have the same results. Then again, he notes, no law dictates that it will not. If the United States stops policing the world and simply acquiesces in whatever comes next, the challenges to global order now before our eyes will only multiply:
A world in which the leading liberal-democratic nation does not assume its role as world policeman will become a world in which dictatorships contend, or unite, to fill the breach. Americans seeking a return to an isolationist garden of Eden—alone and undisturbed in the world, knowing neither good nor evil—will soon find themselves living within shooting range of global pandemonium.