Retreat is a Choice

Review: Bret Stephen’s ‘America in Retreat’

• December 14, 2014 5:00 am


Russia has taken land from Ukraine, China is prowling the South China Sea, the Syrian Civil War has spun out of control, the Islamic State has asserted itself as the new face of terror, and Iran wants the bomb.

America is in retreat.

Why? How did we get here?

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bret Stephens seeks, and finds, the answer in his new book America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.

True to his journalistic roots, Stephens wastes no time in putting forward his proposal for what America’s role in the 21st century ought to be: The World’s Policeman. But that is not to say that America needs to be the world’s priest. Stephens’ foreign policy could be categorized as a "third way" to liberal internationalism and conservative isolationism. He proposes what he calls a "Broken Windows" foreign policy. This approach, Stephens argues, will lead to a Pax Americana where the United States enforces global norms and follows through on its commitments. We will secure our position "with military protection in exchange for diplomatic pliancy."

Stephens builds the case for his "Broken Windows" policy by first focusing on the history of American foreign policy since the start of the 20th century. The most pertinent periods involve President Woodrow Wilson’s utopian push for internationalism through the League of Nations, along with the shattered illusions of peace and economic growth in the Twenties.

The Great Depression forced America back into its shell. It was in this decade that America and other Western powers felt weary of war, and were plagued by economic woes. But "War is; how we choose to speak or think of it doesn’t change it," says Stephens, and "war, like drink, cannot be abolished."

There was a general indifference to serious events developing across the globe. The United States turned toward domestic policy rather than maintaining a strong foreign policy. It was a time of American retreat, just like today. As we retreated, the Soviet Union grew in strength, Hitler bullied European powers, and Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia.

President Obama has employed the doctrine of retreat, where America imposes a "light footprint" wherever it goes. The core tenets of this doctrine are "rebalance, resize, and retreat."

Obama has sought to create a "lean" military force by promising an emphasis on technological developments and cost-effective policies at the expense of our visibility. To Obama’s credit (and to the dismay of others), he has held true to his promise. The Army announced in 2013 that it would cut 80,000 active-duty troops by 2017, and has in fact accelerated the process. Thus, the "Army is returning to its June 1940 size. The Air Force plans to retire 25,000 airmen and 550 planes."

Stephens is not the type to say that Obama is anti-American, trying to sabotage America’s strength. That is for people who believe in conspiracy theories and would rather see the president’s record as corrupt and not incompetent. Stephens does not follow what Richard Hofstader calls the "paranoid style of American politics." Obama isn’t a communist or a Marxist, he is a social democrat of the European mold. He isn’t a Kenyan but he does empathize with the views of many foreigners.

The maturity Stephens brings forth in his argument is evident, as he says "it’s hard to accuse the president of being malevolent when he’s merely inattentive."

The argument that America should limit its military prowess due to cost falls short in Stephens’ mind: "The wars we now fight may be long wars, but they are small: they do not require conscription or rationing. They don’t even require a tax increase." He even points out that in the 2009 stimulus package, totaling $787 billion, "Obama spent more money in a single day" than the Department of Defense did on the Iraq war.

To prevent never-ending military interventions, an emphasis should be placed "on short, mission-specific, punitive police actions, not open-ended occupations for idealistic ends."

Despite all of the doom and gloom, Stephens remains optimistic. The United States remains the preeminent global economic and military power relative to aggressors like Russia, China, and Iran. Stephens points to various economic data to illustrate this point. Russia and Iran are both heavily dependent on energy revenues, while the United States is seeing a revitalized energy sector.

We remain a nation in which the entrepreneurial spirit is not crushed by a top-down, command economy system. Our laws protect intellectual property rights and allow for the exchange of information. "A regime that imposes controls on the free flow of information" Stephens says, "will inevitably suffer mounting inefficiencies and potentially catastrophic failure whenever the gap between available and necessary information becomes too wide."

It is not too late, because retreat "is often nothing more than a political choice." Stephens makes sure to outline the distinction between retreat and decline, which are often confused. A retreat implies a conscious decision to take a step make, while decline "is the product of civilizational forces."

With political willpower, America can reassert its sovereignty and credibility. "Perceptions shape actions," says Stephens, and in order to shape the perception of an America power, there must be both the appearance and presence of strength across the globe. Let us hope that those looking to replace the president are listening.

Published under: Book reviews