Book Review: America in Retreat by Bret Stephens

The Claremont Colleges have hosted a series of events discussing international relations and the United States’ role in global affairs. On November 6, the Athenaeum hosted Stephen Walt, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, to discuss the challenges of current American foreign policy. During his lecture, Walt suggested that the United States should distance itself from intervening in global issues, claiming that it contradicted the American interests. In it, he employed the rhetoric of “nation building at home” while simultaneously claiming that American interventionism hurts the world as a whole.

America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder — Bret Stephens — Sentinel HC, 288 pp., $27.95

Bret Stephens suggests otherwise in America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. In his first book, Stephens takes arguments for isolationism from the likes of Henry Wallace and Rand Paul, and contends that the greatest threat to global security is the absence of American influence globally. He looks into the recent decisions of the Obama Administration to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the recent emphasis on using diplomatic methods against Iran, Russia, and China. He then predicts that this will all result in the United States losing the ground it acquired following World War II and the Cold War.

He recounts the failed track record of isolationism starting from the days of Henry Wallace and Robert Alphonso Taft, two prominent politicians active before and after World War II. Taft, a staunch Republican, opposed American intervention against Nazi Germany, arguing that there was no difference between the warmongering cries of Hitler and that of Roosevelt. Wallace, a progressive Democrat, argued that the United States should avoid exacerbating the rise of Communism by ignoring Stalin’s campaigns in Eastern Europe. These voices remain integral to the current isolationist theory that natural order would be restored if the United States left the world alone.

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Bret Stephens, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is the foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal.

While Wallace argued that increased American intervention against the Soviets would curb civil liberties, the United States progressed at home, defeating Jim Crow and empowering both women and the LGBTQ community in unprecedented ways. Contrary to the nondemocratic policies of the Soviets, American power both furthered social progress and ensured freedom and democratic values by ensuring capitalism in Western Europe, keeping South Korea free from Communism, and helping Israel thrive as the only democracy in the Middle East. According to Stephens, interventionist policies preserve American values of liberalism and tolerance and it prevailed over the asinine ideals of totalitarianism and collectivism.

While arguing that American interventionism remains of paramount importance to America’s success globally and domestically, Stephens recognizes that America is prone to mistakes. He highlights that the Iraq War was just in its mission to remove the dictatorial Saddam Hussein, but took a devastatingly wrong turn when Paul Bremer disbanded the army and ousted many public figures in order to restart the Iraqi government. That transformed the American military from a liberating force into an occupying force.

Our generation did not live with the Cold War. Rather, we lived with a War on Terror that was well intentioned but improperly managed. Because we have been exposed to that as our reality, we fail to acknowledge how the history of appeasement and isolationism allowed malicious actors to go unchecked. It makes it easier for us to oppose interventionist policies because we kept seeing it in a negative light rather than realize how significant it was in maintaining global order. We are further disillusioned when we hear idealistic calls to make peace and build up ourselves to acknowledge the harsh realities that our world faces.

With Vladimir Putin’s annexation Crimea, Chinese strong-arming control of various seas and islands, and Iran pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, Stephens argues that United States cannot continue its path of retreat when it has historically upheld order. As both a military and economic superpower, the United States has the capability to create powerful influences and ensure that global disorder does not ensue. However, Obama’s decision to cut back military power, American influence, and involvement in places like Syria and Crimea has resulted in a world without American foreign assistance to rely on. This is especially true of Saudi Arabia and Israel, which heavily rely on the America’s support against unstable neighbors.

What makes Stephens’ assertion particularly relevant is how the United States is losing credibility in the global sphere. Our perceived weakness further incentivizes historical adversaries to march toward a path that will spiral out of control. We have seen how Islamic State has ravaged through the failed states of Iraq and Syria, which could have been avoided if we had acted. Most importantly, our focus on “nation building at home” makes us less relevant in the global sphere. In my view, this line of thinking not only endangers our national security, but it also endangers the free world’s capabilities of creating spheres of influence in places where human rights violations are ignored and, in the worst cases, tolerated.

The moral of America in Retreat is that the United States cannot entirely retreat from its position as a beacon of order in a chaotic, unstable world. Stephens argues that presence of disorder will result in a snowball effect that leads to more chaos. If the United States starts policing the world in a manner that does not require prolonged military presence in other countries, but also gets the job done, then military intervention is something that the United States should pursue to maintain order. The United States is a strong economic and military power and it has the ability to ensure that the world does not fall to totalitarianism, extremism, and non-Western ideals. Therefore, the United States should revitalize its interventionist policies to keep chaos at bay.

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Image Sources: Bret Stephens, Department of Defense/Flickr

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