In my entries here on ADV, I have touched upon topics on the US’ role in the world affairs. On the very same subject, even though it is not the best book on this, the Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal and former editor of The Jerusalem Post, Bret Stephens’ first book, America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder is an important one to understand the essence of the discussion. Therefore, today I will review this book to pin my points down on the topic once again.
He starts its book by stating two things: i) by any objective measure the United States is not in decline, it is in retreat; ii) halting the current retreat requires a political will (which is Obama does not have), not a systematic change in international affairs. According to him, retreat is neither decline (it could be a symptom or cause of it) nor surrender. “Decline is the product of broad civilizational forces –demography, culture, ideologies, attitudes toward authority, attitudes about 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 could reverse.” Nonetheless, America’s retreat, or in Obama’s word retrenchment, is the central fact of Obama’s foreign policy, which is evident in almost every front. As one of the reviewer said, “in examining the ‘Retreat Doctrine’ of ‘rebalance, resize, and retreat,’ Stephens notes that Obama’s foreign policy approach is not simply a retreat in military might. It is also “a diplomatic approach, a strategic posture, perhaps even a national ideal.” As a result, he suggests, “we have entered a period in which Americans are generally turning their back on the rest of the world.”
In his entire book he outlines a middle course of American foreign policy after he reviews the persistent tensions between the isolationist and liberal interventionist foreign policy impulses. He points out: “It’s no longer a story of (mostly) Republican hawks vs (mostly) democratic doves. Now it’s an argument between neoisolationists and neointerventionist: between those who think the US is badly overextended in the world and needs to be doing a lot less of everthing – both for its own and the rest of the world sake – and those who believe in pax Americana, a world in which economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United states provides global buffer between civilization and barbarism.”
He rejects both isolationist outright (as it was/is in Henry Wallace’s, Robert A. Taft’s or Obama’s mind: “we should not be the world’s policeman), and the messianic foreign policies (as it was/is in Woodrow Wilson’s and George W. Bush’s mind: “you are with us against us”). He argues these two often do more cloud thinking than clarify it. For instance he says that: “America’s global interest suffer when it is mire in unwinnable wars in distant regions. Dwight Eisenhower helped the country’s position in the world by leaving Korea, Nixon by leaving Vietnam, Obama by leaving Iraq. None of these places became Jeffersonian democracies. But the United States was better of for leaving “but… no great power treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power…” He rightfully states that in a world where democratic nations do not assume their required role, the economic turmoil, war weariness, ambitious dictators, revisionist powers will fill the breach. Whether you like it or not, “even if you are not interested in wars, wars will be interested in you.”
In this sense, he calls for America not to choose to rescue itself from its global responsibilities but quite opposite to accept the absolutely necessary role of a middle course to keep the order. (Here, order means rules-based interactions of international affairs and there are differences between different types of orders, which I will elaborate more on in the my next entry.)
All in all, my points of departure while assessing the US role in world affairs is based on the interpretation that in the post Cold War era, there is a strong link between order and disorder and the US “will and capacity” as the sole superpower. Bret Stephens does not share this idea but also makes more wittingly the point! It is a good read.