Bret Stephens is the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize winning foreign affairs columnist. He is also author of a new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming World Disorder, detailing the Obama administration’s foreign policy blunders. Recently I spoke with Stephens about his book, how this White House has caused trouble for America abroad, and if there’s hope on the horizon.
Lee Smith: Is retreat a choice?
Bret Stephens: Yes—at least this retreat is. Barack Obama came to office determined to scale down America's global commitments for the sake of what he likes to call "nation building at home." He is the president who, King Canute-like, commanded the tide of war to recede and declared that al Qaeda was on a path to defeat. Obama has fulfilled the promise of George McGovern's 1972 run for president: Come Home, America.
None of this was forced on Obama, in the way that an enfeebled Britain had no choice but to relinquish her Empire in the late 1940s or France was forced to get out of Vietnam and Algeria in the 1950s and 60s. There was no strategic or even political requirement to get out of Iraq once we had succeeded in pacifying the country. There was no need to abandon our commitment to build an anti-ballistic missile site in Poland for the sake of the Russian reset—much less to do so without warning on the 70th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact. There was no pressing diplomatic need for John Kerry to announce to the Organization of American States that the Obama administration had renounced the Monroe Doctrine.
All this was done because the president's ideal foreign policy is to have less foreign policy. Like most progressives, Obama believes that, as with our carbon footprint, so too with our geopolitical footprint: It's too big. It harms the planet. It makes things worse. It creates misunderstandings. It's a waste of money. It gets in the way of collective action.
So retreat was the choice Obama made. And now we are living with the consequences of that retreat: Power vacuums, created by the U.S., being filled by our adversaries. A perception across the world of a Washington that is timid, feckless and disengaged. Fear among our allies that our security guarantees aren't good and that they had better start thinking of Plan B. This is a world of emboldened rogues and nervous freelancers. It explains the palpable sense of a new world disorder, a world where America has just checked out.
LS: Is this particular retreat, Obama’s, reversible?
BS: It is for now, though it becomes more difficult as time goes on.
I titled my book America in Retreat, but I devote an entire chapter to explaining that America is not in decline. Decline is something that happens to defeated nations, or exhausted nations, or nations in the grip of overwhelming demographic, cultural or social forces that not even the most talented statesmen can reverse. Could Winston Churchill have prevented Britain's postwar slide if he had been re-elected in 1945? I doubt it.
The U.S. today is nothing like the Britain of 1945, which had spent a quarter of its national wealth on winning the war and lost nearly 400,000 lives. Great nations are not felled by small wars like Iraq or mediocre economic recoveries like our current one. American innovation continues to set the pace for the rest of the world: Just look at social media, or the apps industry, or the fracking revolution that is restoring our status as the world’s leading energy producer. Our competitors are all hobbled by their own profound structural problems. China is only formidable if you credit its bogus economic statistics and ignore its burgeoning structural liabilities.
All this means that the U.S. has the capacity to reverse its retreat. The real question is whether we can elect leaders who understand the consequences of retreat and are prepared to persuade Americans that the U.S. must lead.
LS: Many around the world, and even here at home, like the president himself, seem to believe that U.S. action around the world does on balance more harm than good. What credibility does the US have to serve as the world’s police force?