America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global DisorderPenguin, 2014, 269 pp., $27.95
In his first inaugural address, President Barack Obama told the nation that he seeks to relieve “a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.” He also addressed America’s adversaries: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The two passages complement one another. In the President’s view, the country’s malaise stemmed in part from the assumption of its role as world policeman, which had exerted a high cost in blood and treasure, destabilized the Middle East, undermined relationships with allies, and galvanized rivals.At the same time, while Americans tired of the war in Iraq, they gave little thought to the possibility that withdrawal would weaken America’s future leadership role. On the contrary, they reasoned, the conflict in Iraq and its disastrous execution (notwithstanding the ultimate success of the surge) had eroded America’s credibility in the first place. Bringing the troops home from Iraq—and devoting more resources to the putatively legitimate conflict in Afghanistan—would be key to its restoration.In large measure, America’s response to the war in Iraq speaks to the deep ambivalence at the root of American identity. As Robert Kagan notes in The World America Made (2012), Americans have always experienced tension between irreconcilable commitments to the fate of man and the fate of country. They seek to right bloody wrongs across the globe, yet they also prefer to mind their own business. “Americans may be ‘imperialists’ in the eyes of many,” writes Kagan, “but if so, they are reluctant, conscience-ridden, distracted, halfhearted imperialists.”Still, the failures of Iraq marked a turning point. The rise of Obama, catalyzed in part by his early opposition to the war, heralded the withdrawal of combat troops in 2011, which Obama justified not merely as an act of prudence but as an expression of American values. A reduced military presence abroad, he said, would allow America to “focus on nation-building here at home.” The United States would lead by example—that is, from behind.Of course, the realities of a perilous world quickly interfered with Obama’s vision. A revanchist Russia, genocide and civil war in Syria, the emergence of ISIS, a rising China, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and other global challenges—which the President and his Administration met largely with indifference, feckless diplomacy, or empty rhetorical flourishes—quickly spurred the opposite remonstration: Was passivity in the face of aggression the only alternative to the unilateralism of Obama’s predecessor?Absolutely not, answers Bret Stephens in his incisive new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal offers a foreign policy model that unabashedly embraces the “world policeman” role rejected by Obama even as it simultaneously speaks to the two competing impulses of American identity.The book offers a withering and compelling critique of the President’s foreign policy: By reducing America’s leadership role, Obama has exacerbated the very problems he intended to solve. But Stephens takes his opponents’ arguments seriously. After all, isolationism, which has a lengthy historical tradition, voices reasonable doubts about the limitations of U.S. power. It insists, quite reasonably, that the needs of Americans override the suffering of foreigners, no matter how lamentable. And it demands, quite reasonably, that American soldiers only be deployed in the event of a direct threat to the homeland. As Stephens puts it, “isolationists do not think of themselves as amoral. On the contrary, they are the ultimate moralists, and they are prepared to put their brand of morality ahead of most considerations of necessity and pragmatism.”Stephens counters this worldview by asserting a moral claim of his own: Isolationism produces a world of unacceptable disorder that no one should wish to inhabit. Likewise, weakness begets aggression, and the withdrawal of one superpower inevitably presages the rise of another—likely a regime with vastly different values and priorities.In this context, Stephens makes a crucial distinction between decline and retreat. Decline, he writes, is a state of mind grounded in misplaced nostalgia for a brighter past, the cynical discounting of America’s strengths, and self-fulfilling prophecies of America’s eroding authority. By contrast, retreat is a strategy. It presumes that victory is neither realistic nor desirable, and that “the containment most needed in the twenty-first century is not of authoritarian adversaries such as China, Russia, or Iran. It’s containment of the United States itself—of its military power and its democratic zeal; of its presence and commitments abroad; of its global preeminence.”America is not declining under President Obama, at least not yet. Despite its fiscal troubles and the growing recklessness of its authoritarian competitors, writes Stephens, the United States remains politically stable and boasts a culture of pluralism and experimentation that remains critical for long-term economic growth. By nearly any metric, U.S. power and influence still tower over the country’s rivals, which face their own domestic challenges stemming from endemic repression and unstable political systems. These nations are the ones that still must navigate a long and winding path to global leadership.What, then, is the way forward for U.S. foreign policy? Stephens suggests an adaptation of the “broken windows” theory, a concept developed by Rutgers criminologist George Kelling and Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson in 1982 to reduce violent crime in American cities. The approach argues that disorder—or, more precisely, the appearance of disorder—inevitably fuels more dangerous manifestations of it. Police crackdowns on lesser crimes like graffiti-spraying, vandalism, and panhandling help deter more serious crimes like drug-dealing, robbery and murder.Such a principle, argues Stephens, can apply to foreign policy as well: “This is how we arrive at a broken-windows world: Rules are invoked but not enforced. Principles are idealized but not defended.” So, for example, President Obama fails to enforce his “red line” on Syria. He refuses to provide military assistance to Ukraine. He exhibits desperation in nuclear talks with Iran. His promised “pivot” to Asia is forgotten. He neglects to support a fully funded military that can respond effectively to a range of threats. And America’s adversaries and allies quietly take note; both understand that the defining feature of a broken-windows world is the absence of a cop on the beat.Stephens argues, correctly and persuasively, that President Obama erred grievously by reducing America’s presence and influence in the world. He also acknowledges that President Bush erred grievously by advancing a utopian vision of a world free of tyranny. In this context, the broken-windows approach seems to occupy a sort of middle ground, appealing to the American instinct to serve as a global leader that preserves order but does not try to fix the unfixable.How should a world police force operate in practice? Stephens proposes several core steps. First, establish presence by amplifying America’s military in key regions. Second, seek reciprocal military investments from allies, particularly NATO countries. Third, emphasize “police actions”—a nebulous term he never quite defines, though he makes clear it would not include long-term occupations—rather than unrealistic efforts at cultural metamorphoses (such as democratizing Iraq). Fourth, prioritize the greatest security threats rather than “pivots” to areas that pose no imminent hazards; America cannot solve all the world’s problems and should not try. And fifth, respond to crises quickly and decisively lest they snowball into an even more dire predicament.These principles, which Stephens outlines in the book’s final chapter, function less as a set of policy recommendations than as an overarching framework to guide strategic objectives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Policymakers seek to shape developments in a world of chaos and uncertainty; a rigidly defined model could constrain them from reacting to events as they unfold. Indeed, the proposition that an increased military presence will often deter potential enemies proceeds from ample historical evidence as well as common sense, but the decision to shift from defensive to offensive positions in particular instances will usually depend on circumstance.At the same time, this reliance on generalization is also the source of the book’s chief weakness. In his predilection for metaphors, Stephens occasionally misses nuance and proportion; his specific policy recommendations are far more compelling than the symbolism he deploys to unify them under a single doctrine. And precisely for this reason, it is sometimes difficult to apply his doctrine to examples he has not addressed.For instance, Stephens calls for “police actions” to destroy Tehran’s nuclear program and to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons. In these cases, “police actions” means air strikes, but he neglects to provide a consistent definition of the term that would distinguish it from other types of kinetic actions. Moreover, it obscures, intentionally or not, a significant point: Bombing other countries is an act of war, and wars often have unintended consequences that can prove gravely damaging to the interests of America and our allies even in the absence of an occupation. It’s worth noting that U.S. Presidents do not seek congressional authorization for the use of a world police force, but for authorizations of military force.The semantics matter, because they speak to America’s self-perception and limitations, both of which affect the public’s willingness to assume risk and make sacrifices. In fact, U.S. foreign policy challenges may lend themselves to a different set of comparisons, which would shape the U.S. response quite differently.Here is what a more sober metaphor might look like: America inhabits a world not of broken windows, but of houses engulfed in flames. It faces broken societies riven by religious extremism, broken regimes that rule at the barrel of a gun, and broken economies with few prospects for recovery. For U.S. foreign policy today, the stakes are higher, the risks are greater, and the repercussions of failure are vastly more consequential. In his explanation of the broken-windows theory, Stephens writes, “If the situation appears orderly, it will influence [potential criminals’] behavior accordingly. Even crooks know when ‘something just isn’t done.’” Try telling that to Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-un, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.America in Retreat went to press just before the dramatic territorial gains of ISIS over the summer, but it is striking how little guidance the book offers of relevance to this crisis. As military experts now agree, America cannot achieve its strategic objectives in the territory without vast numbers of U.S. boots on the ground. Would the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria constitute a “police action”? Or would broken-windows theory relegate the problem to one of the many that, alas, America lacks the means to solve?For that matter, how should policymakers make such determinations elsewhere? A police force, at least in principle, seeks to prevent as much crime as it can, but would anyone argue that a world police force has the same obligation? How should the United States balance its humanitarian impulses with its strategic imperatives? At what point do risks overwhelm potential gains?In a world of fists, both literal and metaphorical, Stephens’ analysis lacks the precision that more delicate hands might have cultivated. In the end, however, the book nonetheless offers a provocative and original prescription for American renewal that would at least correct many of the flaws of Obama’s foreign policy and provide a meaningful starting point for his successor. And for that we should be grateful.