Should America Remain Globally Engaged?

A review of:  America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century By Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, Oxford University Press, 2016

Two Dartmouth Professors of Government, Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, have written a timely book examining whether it would be wise for the United States to continue with the basic global strategy it has pursued since the end of World War 2 -- what the authors call “global deep engagement.”  This strategy has been called into question not only by other academics, who propose an alternative strategy of American retrenchment, but also by several prominent candidates for President this year, including the Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump, the Democratic runner-up, Senator Bernie Sanders, and several of the earlier Republicans contenders.  President Barack Obama has to some extent retreated from the deep engagement approach in some areas, while adhering to it in others.

To their credit, the authors make their case independent of commentary on the candidates, and stick to an argument for why the long term strategy is still a suitable one for American foreign policy practitioners.

The deep engagement strategy, according to the authors has three principal components:

  1. Managing the external environment in key regions (Europe, Asia, the Middle East) to reduce near and long-term threats to U.S. national security,
  2. Promoting a liberal economic order to expand the global economy and maximize domestic prosperity,
  3. Creating, sustaining and revising the global institutional order to secure necessary interstate cooperation on terms favorable to U.S. interests.

The authors describe adjustments to the deep engagement approach which some confuse with the approach itself.  Deep engagement plus, for instance, might involve more frequent use of American military efforts, whether for addressing perceived threats (Iraq), democratization efforts,  or human rights campaigns whether undertaken  (Kosovo, Libya) or not (Rwanda, Congo, Syria).  Many who are critical of some of these efforts, particularly Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya, use this as a basis for opposing the broader deep engagement approach, even though the broader approach would not have likely argued for some of these efforts.

The authors attempt to tackle the question of whether the world order which has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one with unparalleled dominance by a single state, the United States, will continue into the future.  The authors argue that the U.S. military and material dominance has worked hand in hand with the deep engagement strategy to serve American interests and those of our allies in the last quarter century. The question now is whether China has emerged as a new superpower, restoring the bi-polar leadership role that existed during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition, there are other emerging trends: slower American economic growth and an enormous debt load, a turning inward after 15 years of overseas missions by the U.S. military, a more aggressive posture by Russia, especially in Europe and the Middle East, and the new threats from non-state actors, which could complicate the traditional American strategy and argue for less engagement abroad, since the risk/reward equation may have changed.

The authors make an interesting case that China, despite its enormous economic growth over the past few decades, with compound economic growth rates 2 to 3 times that of the United States States or its allies, is still a long way from matching US economic, military and technologic primacy.  On the other hand, China has now by some measures passed the U.S. in GDP, and while the size of the American military is shrinking- in dollars invested, ships, planes, active duty personnel, China is advancing at a rapid rate in all of these areas, with what is clearly a more determined will to achieve super power status, or at least become the dominant  state in its region.

China, as the authors point out, has many problems of its own, including a slowing growth rate that could threaten the general support of government policy that has existed during a period when hundreds of million were lifted into the middle class. So, too, while the authors assert that the United States remains far superior technologically to China, including investments it has already made in military technology, one of the latest products of that superior technology, the F-35 fighter, is so heavily laden with 20 million lines of computer code, that some think it is a step back  from the planes it was designed to replace .

The authors discuss bilateral and multinational trade deals, a subject that has become a key theme of the current Presidential campaign. Astonishingly, over the course of a year, a free trade policy that was supported both by Democrats and Republicans, has become so toxic politically that both major party nominees have now attacked deals already in existence and argued against future ones they once supported , or used trade deals as a barometer of how America is regularly losing  in its relations and arrangements with other nations.   The authors describe agreements that are hegemonic (advantageous to the United States, reflecting our strategic position), and benevolent (probably more advantageous to others), though they argue that most of the agreements in recent decades have been beneficial on balance to both sides.

One of the principal multinational agreements, which established the American deep engagement approach after World War 2 ended and the Cold war quickly followed, was the creation of NATO, which has always relied on the American commitment to protect Western Europe (and now Eastern Europe as well) with a deterrence capability tied to the commitment of American forces and weaponry.  This year, even NATO commitments are under attack. The authors describe advocates of retrenchment as believing that American presence overseas is both a financial burden, and adds to the risk of war, and that we are fully capable of transport of forces if circumstances demanded. The authors believe the financial advantages of retrenchment are greatly overstated, and that the argument that our presence in Europe encourages war, rather than prevents it, is not at all supported by the history.  The Middle East may be a different story, where American forces, when viewed as an occupying army, in fact encourage violence against our troops. But the authors do not believe such a presence in this region is part of the deep engagement strategy they endorse.

In any case, some of the themes of American foreign policy, which have been generally accepted and unchallenged for decades, are now clearly under the microscope, or in some cases, the megaphone. A more mercantilist approach to the world, evaluating everything in terms of dollars and cents for America, would be a dramatic break with our postwar history. Even a mercantilist approach however, designed to make the nation a financial winner, does not assure that the spoils of victory are shared among those who have not been the beneficiaries of prior policy.

America Abroad is a carefully argued tract, and worth a careful read.  My criticisms are limited to these: much of the book is a section by section refutation of other scholars’ view of global strategy.  Some of these scholars, such as the realists John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, have so thoroughly discredited themselves in recent years with their tendentious, factually absent and non-scholarly attack on Israel and its American supporters, that it seems the authors at times respect the pedigree of degrees more than the substance or value of what some contribute. One need not be a PhD to offer thoughtful commentary on these matters, and those with the doctoral degree do not always offer anything worth a response, especially if they are clearly bigoted.

It would also have been useful to have a summary chapter where the authors take the strategic approach they prefer (and which I also support) and go region by region to summarize how that approach might work best.  There is not a lot of commentary in the book on non-state actors, though the authors do argue that multilateral approaches involving the US and its allies, will be more effective in dealing with these new threats than we would be if we pursued a retrenchment strategy.  9/11 after all occurred before the US was in Iraq and Afghanistan with major troop contingents.

I doubt that either Presidential candidate will read this book before the election, but they would benefit from doing so. Global strategy is different from creating a foreign policy on a day-to-day basis.  And there are clearly various ways to win, and winning over the long term is the win most necessary.