Is America in Retreat before a more threatening world?

Summary:  After 2 failed invasions and occupations, as we gear up to repeat the same tactics in another round of interventions, it’s time for our hawks to excite us with stories about our mad unprofitable Empire (unprofitable to us). Today we have a review of the oddly named America in Retreat: The New Isolationism & the Coming Global Disorder. Our first 2 interventions have set the Middle East aflame. He’s right; imagine what disorder we can cause in a future guided by our hawks (a species found on both Left and Right). But where’s this “retreat” and “isolationism” he speaks of?

Pax Americana

The Road from Westphalia

By Jessica T. Mathews
Excerpt from The New York Review of Books, 19 March 2015.

Review of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism & the Coming Global Disorder
by Bret Stephens (2015).

Almost from the beginning of its history, America has struggled to find a balance in its foreign policy between narrowly promoting its own security and idealistically serving the interests of others; between, as we’ve tended to see it in shorthand, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and the ideals of Woodrow Wilson. Just as consistently, the US has gone through periods of embracing a leading international role for itself and times when Americans have done all they could to turn their backs on the rest of the world.

… Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, sounds a call for more powerful and more engaged US leadership around the globe. Stephens appears to worry about a return to isolationism, or at least a more inward-looking American policy, and does what he can to head it off.

… Stephens’s is a facts-be-damned polemic, designed to show that the world has gone to hell since President Obama took office. Somehow, Obama is saddled with responsibility for the success of North Korea’s nuclear program. Stephens does not say that North Korea began the program in the 1950s, succeeded in building its first bomb 22 years ago, and carried out its first atomic test 3 years before Obama took office.


America In Retreat

He also makes the serious charge that Russia has achieved “nuclear superiority over the United States via the [Obama administration’s] New START Treaty.” He does not acknowledge that today the US has many more deployed strategic launch vehicles than Russia, and that the two sides have equal numbers of warheads and launchers (including those not deployed). Moreover, the US arsenal is much more able to survive an attack than Russia’s and is almost certainly far more lethal. His claim is baseless.

Stephens is explicit and unapologetic in defining what he thinks the posture of the US should be, namely the world’s policeman or, as he describes it, a cop walking a global beat, “reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.” The metaphor fails because police are servants of the law. Without it, a policeman is merely a vigilante with no independent legitimacy. What Stephens describes is a world in which the US alone decides what behavior it considers unacceptable and rides out to punish it.

… {He} holds that the US should not be bound by international rules, even those it has itself developed, but should occupy a position above the rest. In this view, it is in the world’s interest, not merely the American interest, for the US to do so. A month after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Max Boot of The Wall Street Journal {ed., it was in the Weekly Standard} called on America to unambiguously “embrace its imperial role.” “The organizing principle of empire,” according to the like-minded Stephen Rosen in The National Interest, “rests on the existence of an overarching power that creates and enforces the principle of hierarchy, but is not itself bound by such rules.”

Weaving together these and similar themes in America in Retreat, Stephens argues that the US must now shoulder the responsibility for establishing and maintaining a global Pax Americana. All the alternatives, including traditional balance of power and collective security, have been tried and failed. Americans “mainly want to be left alone,” but instead have to “sharply increase military spending to upwards of 5% of GDP” (i.e., by 1/3+ from today’s 3.8%); “once again start deploying forces globally in large numbers”; and be prepared to undertake “short, mission-specific, punitive police actions” around the globe.

The basis for such a drastic shift is his belief that international security is skidding downhill. The evidence suggests otherwise. The number of armed conflicts is down by more than 1/3 since the end of the cold war. By 2008, high-intensity wars (i.e., with an annual death toll of 1,000+) were down by nearly 80%. Since the cold war have been within states rather than between them, the average war is costing 1,000 battle deaths/year rather than the 10,000 average of the 1950s. This is not to diminish the seriousness of the many threats that abound today … But when there is saturation coverage, with video, of deaths by ones and tens, the overall impression of peace and war can be misleading.

… recent years have also been ones of declining threat from weapons of mass destruction. There are now fewer nuclear weapons in the world and fewer countries with nuclear programs than there were 20 years ago. … Chemical weapons were banned in 1997. …

Where, then, does Stephens get his sense of impending doom? Discussing why American elites have periodic attacks of what he calls “declinism,” he writes, neatly, that it is partly…

the continuation of partisanship by other means — a handy way for those who are out of power to accuse those in it not only of bungling the job, but of putting the country on the road to ruin.

This is both true and an apt description of his own book.

Read the full article here.


Jessica T. Mathews

About the author

Jessica Tuchman Mathews was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1997 until this year and is now a Distinguished Fellow there. She has served in the State ­Department and on the National Security Council staff in the White House.

For More Information

See all posts about the mad, unprofitable (for us) American Empire. A few of special interest:

  1. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world.
  2. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak.
  3. Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire.
  4. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire.
  5. Ultimately Primacy Is Its Own Justification (Imperial rule #12).
  6. A warning from the past.  Might the American Empire drag down America?

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