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Here’s How An ‘America In Retreat’ Could Benefit The World


The sequential failures of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations in managing U.S. foreign policy have led many—on the Left and the Right—to write about alternatives that avoid whatever the authors find most disturbing in each approach. Many of these commentators especially fear the policy consequences of public war-weariness, which has extended well beyond the anti-war Left to include libertarians and many fiscal conservatives, and seek to persuade frustrated Americans that foreign policy still matters. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’ new book “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” falls squarely into this category.

Christopher Michel / Flickr
Christopher Michel / Flickr

A deputy editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal who has spent most of his career with the paper, aside from a nearly three-year interlude as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, Stephens alternates between storytelling and analysis, with short narrative sections setting the stage for each substantive chapter. After a brief introduction explaining his purpose in writing the book, and why he believes America is in retreat, he presents a quick assessment of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy before devoting most of the book to the era after September 11 and his analysis. “America in Retreat” ends with a scenario for the collapse of the global order and Stephens’ prescription to avoid it: Washington as the world’s policeman.

Stephens is at his best in examining America’s excessively ambitious post-Cold War foreign policy. He aptly describes U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton administration as a “combination of naïveté, blind faith, and moral self-regard.” In another important passage, he criticizes George W. Bush’s decision to pursue an “open-ended, long-term, costly, and uncertain goal of bringing democracy to the Muslim world,” artfully adding that “Bush would not be satisfied merely with making examples of global outlaws like Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Instead, he was determined to make Iraq and Afghanistan exemplary.” [Italics in original.]

Stephens’ analysis of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is less creative and generally reflects prevailing Republican attacks on “a policy of attempting to remain aloof from the travails of other countries” and Obama’s disinterest in promoting democracy. Still, he is perceptive in highlighting Obama’s excessive reliance on international law (formal rules that a divided United Nations Security Council can’t enforce) as opposed to norms (informal standards that Washington can try to establish and uphold). Stephens is also correct to point out the dangers in believing that rising U.S. energy production will relieve Americans of the need to pay attention to the Middle East.

Despite some strengths, however, the book is fundamentally a superficial one. Stephens is a good storyteller but lacks analytical depth. As a result, he is ultimately unable to establish a coherent intellectual framework for U.S. foreign policy.

The ‘Broken Window’ Theory Doesn’t Apply Internationally

The book’s central analytical weakness is its over-reliance on policing as a model for U.S. foreign policy. In essence, Stephens argues that the “broken window” theory of social order also applies at the international level—i.e., that the appearance of disorder encourages further bad behavior—and that as a result, the United States must be a global beat cop, policing modest crimes to deter more substantial ones.

Ironically, even as he takes Obama to task for his naïve reliance on international law, Stephens rather casually grants the United States an international mandate to police the world without evaluating how anyone else would react.

The problem with this approach is that while one might complain about how the police department does its job, something that is in fact a major point of debate in the United States today, police departments are legally-constituted government bodies whose authority to conduct investigations, make arrests, and even use deadly force is widely accepted within designated geographic limits. In democracies, police departments depend upon the consent of the governed. (Even in autocracies, publics generally consent to police crime-fighting as distinct from police repression.) There is no such consent at the international level, where the only body with remotely similar authorities is the United Nations Security Council. However, the Security Council relies upon member states for enforcement and cannot provide legal authority or (more importantly) political legitimacy without agreement among its five veto-wielding permanent members. (Conservatives should view this restriction very favorably, as it limits U.N. encroachment on American sovereignty.)

Ironically, even as he takes Obama to task for his naïve reliance on international law, Stephens rather casually grants the United States an international mandate to police the world without evaluating how anyone else (even certain U.S. allies) would react. Without acceptance of Stephens’ Pax Americana among the world’s leading powers, however, a certain number of key nations might welcome American policing but others will resent it or even resist it. Some will think that the police should not also serve as a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner, others will have a different view of who is guilty and needs policing, and a few might even prefer streets empty of police to pursue their own crimes. Still others will be concerned that overly aggressive policing could harm the innocent. This is not simply a problem of Beijing, Moscow, or other authoritarian governments; recall German and French opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Absent major-power consensus supporting U.S. policing and the rules to be enforced, the “broken window” framework has very little utility in explaining the international system or formulating policy options.

International Policing Can Provoke Aggression

Although Stephens correctly distinguishes between “subsytemic” and “suprasystemic” disorder (disorder within the system and disorder that threatens the system), his attachment to the America-as-police model leads him to focus overwhelmingly on the risk that accumulating subsystemic disorder will produce suprasystemic disorder—that is, that the broken windows in Syria will lead to regional or global versions of theft, murder, and eventually international chaos. Thus he fails to recognize that attempting to combat suprasystemic disorder by imposing U.S. preferences on other major powers, especially China and Russia, could actually create suprasystemic disorder rather than containing it if such efforts drive Beijing and Moscow to cooperate against U.S. policing. This would not require a long-lasting or wide-ranging China-Russia alliance to be very costly; the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (which arose for different reasons) was quite brief in historical terms but quite damaging in its consequences.

Moreover, suprasystemic disorder is more likely to contribute to subsystemic disorder than the reverse. Imagine Syria’s civil war as a full-blown proxy war between major powers in conflict (the natural result of suprasystemic disorder). Or, for that matter, Ukraine’s. From this perspective, anyone seeking to maintain international order would do better to focus on stable relationships among the world’s major powers than on each individual conflict in a world of over 7 billion people divided into nearly 200 countries and uncountable ethnic and religious groups.

‘America in Retreat’ Forces America into a Mental Model

In addition to these underlying problems, “America in Retreat” has many minor weaknesses. Some, like Stephens’ description of Vladimir Lukin—a founder and former leader of Russia’s pro-reform Yabloko party who became Russia’s human rights ombudsman—as a “Kremlin apparatchik”—likely reflect inadequate research. Others, such as his face-value acceptance of ominous-sounding statements by various Chinese, Russian, or Iranian leaders without any effort to assess their motives, seem to originate in an intellectual inconsistency that accepts that American leaders say things they don’t really mean for political reasons but expects foreign leaders to eschew similar behavior. Still others—such as his statement amidst a litany of dark projections for Europe’s future that its Muslim population will “easily double” by 2020 without explaining why he thinks this would be a problem—seem to express underlying attitudes and unexamined assumptions. (This impression is reinforced by the fact that Stephens enthuses about U.S. population growth and an American population that will remain younger than other leading nations but does not express parallel alarm at the demographic changes in the United States enabling this.)

The principal problem with the Obama administration’s foreign policy is not that it rests on a strategy of ‘retreat’ or of ‘nation-building at home,’ as Stephens argues, but that it is not strategic at all.

Ultimately, however, Stephens fails in his central task not due to these minor flaws but as a result of his forced effort to make the real world fit his mental model. This goes well beyond his curious fixation with the broken windows theory; it also defines his treatment of President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul, who appear to be his principal targets, and his assessment of foreign policy realism—a far more promising alternative to Bush and Obama than Stephens’ policing strategy.

The principal problem with the Obama administration’s foreign policy is not that it rests on a strategy of “retreat” or of “nation-building at home,” as Stephens argues, but that it is not strategic at all. Seriously pursuing “retreat” and “nation-building at home” would in fact require much greater effort to manage the international environment in a way that would allow the United States could concentrate on its own affairs—something that the president has little apparent interest in attempting. For Obama, “nation-building at home” is more a slogan than a strategy. It provides rhetorical justification for a disinterested and politically-driven foreign policy, allowing the White House to check the box and move on.

Stephens’ attitude toward Paul is perhaps most obvious in his 2019 “scenario for global disorder,” which occurs three years after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “blowout victory” over Paul to become president. Although he is careful to describe Paul as a “political work in progress” and accepts that Paul’s views may differ from those of his father, Ron Paul, Stephens quickly follows this with the statement that “there is a Republican precedent for a foreign policy that in many ways resembles Paul’s” from the isolationist 1920s and 1930s—without actually presenting Paul’s statements or positions for comparison. Finally, although Paul describes himself as a foreign policy realist, Stephens argues that this cannot be, because “[Hans] Morgenthau’s Realism would not automatically forbid” drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American territory that Paul rejects. Since the purpose of realist theory is to explain relations between states rather than domestic governance, this is hardly surprising.

Who’s the Real Unrealist?

As the reference to Morgenthau illustrates, Stephens thoroughly confuses realism as an academic international relations theory with realism as a practical guide to U.S. foreign policy. The two are very different, most notably because practical foreign policy realists give considerable emphasis to domestic political processes that are secondary in realist theory. Thus Stephens tries to knock down realism by taking on its extremes rather than honestly assessing its more practical form. “Realism, in its purest sense, has become politically unrealistic,” he writes. Perhaps in its purest sense this is true—but every other approach is likewise politically unrealistic in its purest sense; the world is too complicated for ideal types. More significantly, the military budget that Stephens seeks, 5 percent of America’s gross domestic product, is also politically unrealistic—a fatal blow to his foreign policy vision.

As realists know, however, world order first requires ordered relationships among the major powers that Pax Americana precludes.

What Stephens and other interventionist foreign policy commentators are loathe to acknowledge is the extent to which they themselves are responsible for public rejection of not only military action but even U.S. international leadership. For nearly two decades, interventionists on both the Right and the Left have insisted over and over again that America leads when it uses force and abandons leadership when it doesn’t. Because most Americans believed in U.S. leadership, this argument was successful in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and many smaller conflicts. (Afghanistan is a special case, since the U.S. invasion directly followed the September 11 attacks.) However, once many became frustrated with near-constant war, they also began to question U.S. leadership; if this is what leading means, they thought to themselves, I don’t want it.

Realism solves this problem by providing a new definition of American leadership that rests upon U.S. military power—and the use of force when vital national interests are at stake or the survival of U.S. allies is threatened—but does not depend upon frequent, much less routine, military action to police conflicts. It does not mean abandoning the rest of the world; on the contrary, one of the most important reasons for the United States to preserve and strengthen the existing international order is that Americans are among its principal beneficiaries economically, socially, politically, and in security—something realists well recognize. As realists know, however, world order first requires ordered relationships among the major powers that Pax Americana precludes. Realism’s enlightened self-interest, incorporating efforts to help others when we can make a real difference at an acceptable cost, is much better than unending armed policing to avoid the retreat and disorder that Bret Stephens fears.