When it comes to understanding America’s place in the world, prospective presidential candidates could do much worse than read just three pieces of writing: Charles Krauthammer’s Weekly Standard essay “Decline Is a Choice” (Oct. 19, 2009); Robert Kagan’s New Republic article “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire” (May 26, 2014); and, now, Bret Stephens’s America in Retreat. This book is the Wall Street Journal columnist at his best: substantive, historically informed, and with the kind of cutting style that helped him earn his Pulitzer Prize two years ago.
Obama spent more money in a single day—February 18, 2009—with the signing of the $787 billion stimulus package than the Defense Department spent in Iraq in an entire decade: $770 billion. . . .
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.
Regarding Thomas L. Friedman’s unfavorable comparison of China’s high-speed train with the Washington, D.C., subway system, he writes, “It’s vintage Friedman: mistaking anecdote for data, making an apples-to-oranges comparison, and reaching a morally dubious conclusion.” As the book’s title and subtitle make clear, Stephens’s chief target is the rise, on both the left and right, of a desire to turn away from America’s post-World War II role in leading and protecting the liberal international order—and the consequences of doing so.
Like Krauthammer, Stephens is at pains to note that the present policy of retreat is a choice, not a necessity based on objective conditions. As he details, America’s longer-term prospects, when compared with those of possible rivals such as China and Russia, actually look quite good. Nevertheless, for different reasons, a considerable portion of Democrats and Republicans have coalesced around a posture of retrenchment.
In the case of President Obama and his partisan allies, the “higher purpose” is “to build America anew” by way of a social democratic domestic agenda paid for by global disengagement and deep, deep cuts in military spending. For conservatives, the logic for retreat is more complex, ranging from confusion about what a “small government” agenda should mean to a strain of old-style realpolitik that is in fact not realistic about the nature of power or about modern democratic politics. Add a dollop of “tea party leftism” that sees most foreign engagements as part of a conspiracy to drain away American strength, and you have a mix in which left and right meet not at the center but at their extremes.
According to Stephens, this tendency is a product of recent events: difficult wars, a poor economy, and a president who thinks “leading from behind” is actually leading. But Stephens believes there is a more deeply ingrained ambivalence in the American psyche about how the country should interact with the larger world—an idea first expressed in John Winthrop’s address to his Puritan brethren in 1630, when he said that the Massachusetts Bay colonists should be “as a Citty upon a Hill.” They were to be an example of right rule to the rest of the world—no more, no less.
As evidence that this ambivalence has lived on, Stephens points to the examples of “Mr. Republican” Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio (in office 1939-53) and Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president during 1941-45. Both Taft and Wallace were willing to disengage from Europe and Asia despite the evident threat posed by Soviet communism and the incredible cost in blood and treasure resulting from the isolationist policies of only a few years past. Neither, of course, commanded a majority, but they were, nevertheless, major policy figures.
To Stephens’s credit, he doesn’t summarily dismiss the arguments for retrenchment. What he does show, however, is that the proposed alternatives to American leadership—be it collective “security” under the United Nations, the fantasies of a self-sustaining liberal peace, or a balance of power model that fails to understand that “the nature of power is that it seeks preeminence, not balance”—all fall short in providing the kind of general stability that has proved to be in America’s interest, let alone the world’s.