America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder -- A Review

At a recent event in New York City, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens was introduced to an audience of hundreds. As he introduced Stephens, the MC enthusiastically shared that the highlight of his week occurred on Tuesday mornings when he opened the Journal’s op-ed pages to read Stephens’ latest column and insights. Similarly, it was with great anticipation that I opened the pages of Stephens’ new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. And as I expected, he did not disappoint.

Stephens is an historian as well as a prolific writer and deep thinker, the combination of which has led to a thoughtful, well-researched and factually-supported manuscript. His book is a direct result of years of failed U.S. foreign policy:

Since Barack Obama took office in 2009, the political order of the Arab world has nearly unraveled. The economic order of the European world is under strain. The countries of the Pacific Rim are threatened by a China that is by turns assertive, reckless, and insecure. Despite its fundamental weaknesses, Russia seeks to dominate its “near-abroad” through a combination of local proxies, dirty tricks, and outright conquest. Another international order – the nuclear one – is being fundamentally challenged by the acquisition of nuclear capabilities by two uniquely dangerous states, Iran and North Korea, which in turn invites their nearest neighbors to consider their own nuclear options. Al Qaeda may be diminished in some corners of the Middle East, but it is metastasizing in others. The United States is more reluctant than it has been for decades to intervene abroad, judging that there is better security in inaction than action. Traditional allies of the United States, uncertain of its purposes, are beginning to explore their options in what they suspect is becoming a post-Pax Americana world, encouraging freelancing instincts which Washington has a diminishing ability to restrain.

How did America, the leader of the free world for a variety of reasons including its military strength, powerful international alliances, and unrivaled visionary leadership, come to a place at which scholars, journalists, enemies, and friends debate whether it is in decline or temporary retreat? This is a distinction with a difference that Stephens addresses early in his book as he optimistically concludes that America is not in decline -- we still have a choice. In making the case that the dismal state of affairs can be reversed, he also develops a powerful argument for the next president to be a neocon who recognizes the imperative role of America as the world’s policeman.

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.” He walks the reader through Obama’s “Light Footprint” approach to foreign policy that rests upon the belief that “the containment most needed in the twenty-first century is not of authoritarian adversaries such as China, Russia, or Iran” but of “the United States itself.”

Stephens further makes the point that while Obama, when speaking about foreign policy, tends to do so in moral terms, “so much so that it sounds as if he’s running not a superpower but a social movement,” what the president is actually doing is retreating “from ordinary moral judgment.” The problem with Obama’s Retreat Doctrine in this regard is that he does not follow through on moral decisions from ignoring human rights violations in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Russia, and China to ignoring the Green Movement in Iran in 2009.

Stephens also calls attention to the isolationists’ mistaken belief that all of these foreign policy failures are taking place, and will remain, far from America’s shores. He expounds upon the observation of Leon Trotsky that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” and observes, “[o]ne can only be alone when one is left alone. We will not be left alone.” However, he also recognizes that “No great power can treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power.”

For those concerned with the apparent divide in the Republican Party, Stephens’ chapter on “Republicans in Retreat” is interesting. He notes that “Republicans are busy writing their own retreat doctrine in the name of small government, civil liberties, fiscal restraint, ‘realism,’ a creeping sense of Obama-induced national decline, and a deep pessimism about America’s ability to make itself, much less the rest of the world, better.” He then attacks those claims and points out that American retreat

ultimately requires a return to the very thing small-government conservatives hate most: the expensive, intrusive, security-conscious state. It’s also no accident that democratic countries that do the most to slash their military budgets and global commitments also have comparatively bigger welfare states.

After investigating the foreign policy divide within the conservative movement and in particular, the influence of the Tea Party and “Realists” and how they led to isolationist ideals, Stephens concludes that only conservative foreign policy will achieve the maintenance of global order.

Stephens’ historical analysis is compelling. “The tragedies of the 1930s are well known. What’s forgotten is how they flowed from the illusions of the 1920s, the same illusions that conservative advocates of the Retreat Doctrine harbor today.” Against this backdrop, he debunks the claims of those who support this doctrine and who believe the world will sort itself out without American intervention. He exposes the failures of concepts such as liberal peace, balance of power, and collective security as alternatives to Pax Americana. “A balance of power may seem plausible in theory. But the nature of power is that it seeks pre-eminence, not balance.” Again, it is clear that the only alternative to Pax Americana is global disorder.

After recognizing America’s recent weak responses to provocations (N. Korea’s testing of a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons, Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Russia’s seizure of Crimea), Stephens proscribes a way out of this mess. The immediate goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to arrest the slide, introduce a “broken-windows” approach of deterrence rather than reaction, put cops on the street by deploying personnel globally, increase military spending, punish violations of geopolitical norms, be global in approach, distinguish core interests, and prevent local conflicts from escalating into regional catastrophes. While this may seem like a common sense approach, our current policy-makers and leaders would benefit from a tutorial.

There is a growing sense that if America provides no leadership, authoritarian regimes will quickly fill the breach; that if our red lines are exposed as mere bluffs, more of them will be crossed; that if our commitments to our allies – both the ones we generally like and the ones we have no option but to accept – aren’t serious, those friends might abandon us; that if our threats against our enemies are empty, our enemies will be emboldened, and we will have more of them.  If history does not end – and it hasn’t – then the United States does not get a holiday from it.

Through the use of historical facts and analyses, the inclusion of compelling statistical realities, and the embrace of practical analogies (“No police or fire department would wait until a house is consumed in flames before it started putting it out”), Stephens makes the case that the coming global disorder is inevitable if the country continues on a path of retreat. He even includes a chapter entitled, “A Scenario for Global Disorder” peeking into the looking glass of the adventures in the Democrats’ wonderland if Hillary were to win in 2016. But he also gives readers like me, who feared prior to reading his book that America’s decline was irreversible, a rational basis for hope that our preeminent place in history and the world can in fact be restored under the right leadership. It is not too late for America -- especially if everyone reads America in Retreat.

At a recent event in New York City, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens was introduced to an audience of hundreds. As he introduced Stephens, the MC enthusiastically shared that the highlight of his week occurred on Tuesday mornings when he opened the Journal’s op-ed pages to read Stephens’ latest column and insights. Similarly, it was with great anticipation that I opened the pages of Stephens’ new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. And as I expected, he did not disappoint.

Stephens is an historian as well as a prolific writer and deep thinker, the combination of which has led to a thoughtful, well-researched and factually-supported manuscript. His book is a direct result of years of failed U.S. foreign policy:

Since Barack Obama took office in 2009, the political order of the Arab world has nearly unraveled. The economic order of the European world is under strain. The countries of the Pacific Rim are threatened by a China that is by turns assertive, reckless, and insecure. Despite its fundamental weaknesses, Russia seeks to dominate its “near-abroad” through a combination of local proxies, dirty tricks, and outright conquest. Another international order – the nuclear one – is being fundamentally challenged by the acquisition of nuclear capabilities by two uniquely dangerous states, Iran and North Korea, which in turn invites their nearest neighbors to consider their own nuclear options. Al Qaeda may be diminished in some corners of the Middle East, but it is metastasizing in others. The United States is more reluctant than it has been for decades to intervene abroad, judging that there is better security in inaction than action. Traditional allies of the United States, uncertain of its purposes, are beginning to explore their options in what they suspect is becoming a post-Pax Americana world, encouraging freelancing instincts which Washington has a diminishing ability to restrain.

How did America, the leader of the free world for a variety of reasons including its military strength, powerful international alliances, and unrivaled visionary leadership, come to a place at which scholars, journalists, enemies, and friends debate whether it is in decline or temporary retreat? This is a distinction with a difference that Stephens addresses early in his book as he optimistically concludes that America is not in decline -- we still have a choice. In making the case that the dismal state of affairs can be reversed, he also develops a powerful argument for the next president to be a neocon who recognizes the imperative role of America as the world’s policeman.

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.” He walks the reader through Obama’s “Light Footprint” approach to foreign policy that rests upon the belief that “the containment most needed in the twenty-first century is not of authoritarian adversaries such as China, Russia, or Iran” but of “the United States itself.”

Stephens further makes the point that while Obama, when speaking about foreign policy, tends to do so in moral terms, “so much so that it sounds as if he’s running not a superpower but a social movement,” what the president is actually doing is retreating “from ordinary moral judgment.” The problem with Obama’s Retreat Doctrine in this regard is that he does not follow through on moral decisions from ignoring human rights violations in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Russia, and China to ignoring the Green Movement in Iran in 2009.

Stephens also calls attention to the isolationists’ mistaken belief that all of these foreign policy failures are taking place, and will remain, far from America’s shores. He expounds upon the observation of Leon Trotsky that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” and observes, “[o]ne can only be alone when one is left alone. We will not be left alone.” However, he also recognizes that “No great power can treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power.”

For those concerned with the apparent divide in the Republican Party, Stephens’ chapter on “Republicans in Retreat” is interesting. He notes that “Republicans are busy writing their own retreat doctrine in the name of small government, civil liberties, fiscal restraint, ‘realism,’ a creeping sense of Obama-induced national decline, and a deep pessimism about America’s ability to make itself, much less the rest of the world, better.” He then attacks those claims and points out that American retreat

ultimately requires a return to the very thing small-government conservatives hate most: the expensive, intrusive, security-conscious state. It’s also no accident that democratic countries that do the most to slash their military budgets and global commitments also have comparatively bigger welfare states.

After investigating the foreign policy divide within the conservative movement and in particular, the influence of the Tea Party and “Realists” and how they led to isolationist ideals, Stephens concludes that only conservative foreign policy will achieve the maintenance of global order.

Stephens’ historical analysis is compelling. “The tragedies of the 1930s are well known. What’s forgotten is how they flowed from the illusions of the 1920s, the same illusions that conservative advocates of the Retreat Doctrine harbor today.” Against this backdrop, he debunks the claims of those who support this doctrine and who believe the world will sort itself out without American intervention. He exposes the failures of concepts such as liberal peace, balance of power, and collective security as alternatives to Pax Americana. “A balance of power may seem plausible in theory. But the nature of power is that it seeks pre-eminence, not balance.” Again, it is clear that the only alternative to Pax Americana is global disorder.

After recognizing America’s recent weak responses to provocations (N. Korea’s testing of a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons, Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Russia’s seizure of Crimea), Stephens proscribes a way out of this mess. The immediate goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to arrest the slide, introduce a “broken-windows” approach of deterrence rather than reaction, put cops on the street by deploying personnel globally, increase military spending, punish violations of geopolitical norms, be global in approach, distinguish core interests, and prevent local conflicts from escalating into regional catastrophes. While this may seem like a common sense approach, our current policy-makers and leaders would benefit from a tutorial.

There is a growing sense that if America provides no leadership, authoritarian regimes will quickly fill the breach; that if our red lines are exposed as mere bluffs, more of them will be crossed; that if our commitments to our allies – both the ones we generally like and the ones we have no option but to accept – aren’t serious, those friends might abandon us; that if our threats against our enemies are empty, our enemies will be emboldened, and we will have more of them.  If history does not end – and it hasn’t – then the United States does not get a holiday from it.

Through the use of historical facts and analyses, the inclusion of compelling statistical realities, and the embrace of practical analogies (“No police or fire department would wait until a house is consumed in flames before it started putting it out”), Stephens makes the case that the coming global disorder is inevitable if the country continues on a path of retreat. He even includes a chapter entitled, “A Scenario for Global Disorder” peeking into the looking glass of the adventures in the Democrats’ wonderland if Hillary were to win in 2016. But he also gives readers like me, who feared prior to reading his book that America’s decline was irreversible, a rational basis for hope that our preeminent place in history and the world can in fact be restored under the right leadership. It is not too late for America -- especially if everyone reads America in Retreat.