Ever since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, a number of leading intellectuals, from both liberal and conservative points on the political spectrum, have been predicting the decline of the United States. The London School of Economics philosopher John Gray responded to the GFC by declaring: “The era of American global leadership is over.” The Yale historian Paul Kennedy revived his doctrine of “imperial overstretch” to argue that American military spending and the consequent increase in federal debt would soon bankrupt the country.
The conservative Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson was the most pessimistic of all. In a 2010 paper “Empires on the Edge of Chaos: The Nasty Fiscal Arithmetic of Imperial Decline,” Ferguson said America’s fate would be sealed very quickly. Like other great powers of history, it would not decline gradually, but would suddenly “fall over a cliff.” The tipping point would come when the costs of servicing government debt exceeded the defense budget, which, he said, would occur some time within the next five years, that is, by 2015.
With that ominous year now almost upon us, the debate has recently attracted two formidable conservative contrarians. In his book The Myth of America’s Decline, Joseph Joffe bases his case largely on economic comparisons: the United States remains much more economically viable than its detractors imagine, and the rival Chinese model, on which most critics base their vision of the future, is already facing diminishing rates of growth. Suddenly, Joffe writes, China is looking more and more like Japan, yesterday’s champion. Joffe’s book is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of global economic prospects.
Even more indispensible is the most recent contestant in the field. It focuses more on American foreign policy in a world which, if not yet fallen over a cliff, has certainly tumbled into a vale of turmoil. The Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens titles his book America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.1
By defining America in retreat rather than in decline, Stephens shifts the debate in an important direction. The concept of a nation’s decline implies historical inevitability, something so deeply embedded in the scheme of things that, despite our best efforts, it is bound to happen. This version of Greek tragedy has strong appeal in the book market, but Stephens makes a powerful case that “retreat” is the right word for the real world. Retreats are man-made. Sometimes they signal defeat and surrender, but they can also permit regrouping and resurgence. Stephens writes:
America is not in decline. It is in retreat. Nations in retreat, as the United States was after World War I, can still be on the rise. Nations in decline, as Russia is today, can still be on the march. Decline is the product of broad civilizational forces—demography, culture, ideologies, attitudes towards authority, attitudes towards work—that are often beyond the grasp of ordinary political action. Retreat, by contrast, is often nothing more than a political choice. One president can make it; another president could reverse it. It is still within America’s reach to make different choices.
This is not to say Stephens regards the global disorder of his subtitle as an easy fix. Indeed, the problems are now more difficult than at any time since the Cold War. The inventory is daunting: the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine; the aggressive maritime claims of China against Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines; the unraveling of political order in the Arab world and the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the revival of theocratic Islam in Iran and Turkey; the progress to nuclear weapons by Iran and their international marketing by North Korea, prompting more Middle East states to consider their own nuclear options.
The mounting belligerence coincides with a widening perception of America’s reluctance to act as protector of last resort. Indeed, the perpetrators appear to believe that not only is the Obama administration’s reticence fixed in the President’s character and ideology, but that the United States is actually unable to do anything because of its weaknesses, both financially and militarily.
Their perceptions of America’s retreat, Stephens argues, are well founded. It is the central fact of the present decade and is far from confined to the Middle East. In November 2013, he observes, Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to renounce the mainstay of American foreign policy in America’s own hemisphere for the past 190 years. “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” Kerry told the Organization of American States, and “that’s not a bad thing.”
Instead, President Obama prefers “nation-building at home.” Stephens says this is a revealing phrase. No American president before him has chosen to argue that a choice must be made between foreign and domestic policy. Since the Second World War, every other president has pursued America’s international interests while strengthening the economy, building infrastructure, and launching major domestic initiatives, from the interstate highways to civil rights and welfare reform. Obama’s ideal for foreign policy, however, is to have less of it. He told an interviewer in 2013: “I am probably more mindful than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.”
In security terms, Stephens observes that American domestic policy is actually in retreat at home too. “In the name of civil liberties we are taking apart the post-9/11 domestic security architecture—warrantless wiretaps, telephony metadata collection, police surveillance programs—brick by brick.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is returning to the size it was in June 1940, the date, Stephens reminds us, when Nazi Germany conquered France.
The ideological basis of this shift, argues Stephens, is Obama’s conviction that the containment most needed in the twenty-first century is not of the United States’ authoritarian adversaries China, Russia, or Iran. Instead it is containment of the United States itself, containment “of its military power and its democratic zeal; of its presence and commitments abroad; of its global pre-eminence.” He quotes Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February 2014, announcing a new round of budget cuts: “We are entering an era where American dominance of the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
On the ground, the resulting tactic is that of the “light footprint.” Stephens argues that this has been a core idea of the retreat strategy since 2009. Obama believes that, in its recent history, the United States has been treading too heavily in the world and that staying out of other people’s business is a better policy, even when American strategic interests are at stake. Instead, the United States should use minimalist means to achieve limited goals. The Defense Department’s 2012 Strategic Defense Guidance document stresses: “Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives.” Hence the emphasis under Obama on the use of drones and special forces to make strikes against terrorists, and on the training and partnerships with friendly countries, defined by the administration as “leading from behind.”
While the light footprint tactic has had some success—Stephens cites the case of the war against Colombian drug cartels where the United States. helped shore up the arms and resolve of the Colombian military—elsewhere it has been a disaster. It was the operating policy in the American occupation of Iraq after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, when it was thought cheaper and safer for American troops to avoid being a constant, visible presence on Iraqi streets. The result was to accelerate the country’s descent into chaos. The subsequent, and successful, surge, Stephens observes, was the opposite of light footprint. The gains of the surge in 2007–8, however, were eclipsed once Obama announced America’s withdrawal from Iraq would take effect. According to a recent Rand Corporation report, between 2010 and 2013 the number of jihadist groups in the Middle East rose by 58 percent, the number of jihadist fighters doubled to 100,000, and the number of Al Qaeda attacks around the world jumped from 392 to 1,000.
Light footprint, says Stephens, is an approach politically well-suited to a country wearied by, and wary of, lengthy nation-building exercises, and fiscally well-suited to a period of growing deficits and shrinking military budgets. Beneath its shadow, Obama has largely given up on any efforts to foster liberalism and democracy abroad. “Light footprint, it turns out, isn’t just a military concept,” argues Stephens. “It’s also a retreat from ordinary moral judgment.”
The upshot of all this “leading from behind” has been the spread of its influence far beyond the White House’s Democratic coterie. A new foreign policy divide has emerged in the United States, cutting across traditional partisan and ideological divides. “It’s no longer a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves,” Stephens writes.
Now it’s an argument between neoisolationists and internationalists: between those who think the United States is badly overextended in the world and needs to be doing a lot less of everything—both for its own and the rest of the world’s good—and those who believe in Pax Americana, a world in which the economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United States provides the global buffer between civilization and barbarism.
The result is the emergence of “the new isolationism” of Stephens’s subtitle. The era of American internationalism since the Second World War, he argues, is giving way, with amazing swiftness, to a period of American indifference. If it prevails, this isolationism means the present retreat will be long-term and perhaps permanent. The most concerning feature of the isolationist shift is that it is bipartisan.
“An increasing number of Tea Party and libertarian-leaning Republicans like Senator Rand Paul,” Stephens observes, “are espousing their own version of George McGovern’s ‘Come Home, America’ speech.” He says Barack Obama wants to retreat from America’s global commitments in order to build bigger government, while many Republicans want to reduce those commitments for the sake of smaller government.
On the left, isolationism is the logical policy prescription for people whose instincts lean towards pacifism (war never solves anything), cultural relativism (who are we to judge?) and original American sin (it’s all the fault of our own past misbehavior). On the right, isolationism suits people who believe that culture determines everything (we can’t save others from themselves), and the law of unintended consequences (whatever we do will backfire).
Even more significant is the fact that majority public opinion has now shifted to the isolationist side. Stephens quotes a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2013, which found that for the first time since it began polling the question in 1964, a majority of Americans—52 percent—agreed with the view that the United States “should mind its own business internationally.” Another Pew survey in 2011 found only 39 percent of Republicans agreed that “it is best to remain active in world affairs,” down from 58 percent in 2004.
Consistent with his scenario of retreat rather than decline, however, Stephens believes it is both necessary and possible to turn around the prevailing strategic policy framework and the ideologies that underpin it. This might happen by Americans coming to realize the benefits they gain from the world they could lose. He says Americans have lived in an orderly world for so long they have become broadly oblivious to how good that world has been for them. Under the Pax Americana that has prevailed in most non-communist countries since the end of the Second World War, the increase in prosperity and progress is unmatched by any other period of history. Stephens is an impressive singer of its praises.
Pax Americana is a world in which English is the default language of business, diplomacy, tourism, and technology, in which markets are global, trade is increasingly free, and networks increasingly global; in which values of openness and tolerance are, when not the norm, often the aspiration. It is a world in which the possibility of another country imposing its will upon us remains, for the time being, remote. The wars we fight might be long wars, but they are small: they do not require conscription or rationing. They don’t even require a tax increase.
He points out that America’s long commitment to Western security paid fruitful dividends in the globalization of democracy and wealth, from South Korea and Taiwan to Poland and the Baltic states. American military power and financial largesse underwrote peace between Egypt and Israel and helped ensure European integration. Germany and Japan were converted from militarism to pacificism. The world economy flourished. gdp, just $11 trillion in 1980, doubled by the time the Cold War ended a decade later. By 2012 it reached $72 trillion. Americans were not shortchanged by the spread of wealth: U.S. per capita gdp, about $12,000 in 1980, rose to $46,000 by 2012.
None of this came cost-free, of course. It required constant vigilance and a readiness to shed blood and treasure in its defense. Stephens is just as impressive in defending the cost. He points to the emergence of ambitious and aggressive creeds in Europe and Asia in the 1930s, when the world lacked a great power to put them down, and the costs they eventually imposed in the 1940s, after Americans realized their own way of life was at stake. If nothing changes, he argues, Americans will again find themselves in a world very much like the 1930s, another decade in which economic turmoil, war-weariness, Western self-doubt, American self-involvement, and the rise of ambitious dictatorships combined to produce the catastrophe of World War II.
Analogies to the 1930s, or to any other period of history have their limitations, Stephens acknowledges, and there is no law of history that dictates America’s current retreat will have the same results. Then again, he notes, no law dictates that it will not. If the United States stops policing the world and simply acquiesces in whatever comes next, the challenges to global order now before our eyes will only multiply.
A world in which the leading liberal-democratic nation does not assume its role as world policeman will become a world in which dictatorships contend, or unite, to fill the breach. Americans seeking a return to an isolationist garden of Eden—alone and undisturbed in the world, knowing neither good nor evil—will soon find themselves living within shooting range of global pandemonium.
1 America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, by Bret Stephens; Sentinel, 263 pages, $27.95.