Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist is a wonderfully articulate and bipartisan critic of U.S. foreign policy. I must say that I dislike his latest book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, because it is the kind of book I should very much like to have written, and it is rather irritating that he has beaten me to it.
Retreat (there, that feels a bit better) upgrades the time-tested argument against America’s withdrawal from the world, which was once a staple of 20th century American history but seems to have been lost on the post-Cold War generation.
Stephens points out that today’s isolationists are not only from the anti-war left, but also from the libertarian right, just as those once opposed to war against Hitler included people from both political wings.
What Stephens adds to this critique are the lessons of recent experience. The “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, he writes, has turned out rather poorly, not least because (I am paraphrasing) democracy can produce nasty, hostile regimes as easily as free-and-friendly ones.
Yet it is also true that the Obama Doctrine–which amounts to letting the world do what it wants, except Israel–has turned out to be an ever-increasing disaster by every measure.
It is clear that Stephens is particularly alarmed by the fact that some conservatives have embraced what were, fifteen years ago, left-wing fringe views on foreign policy.
His fear has a name, actually: Sen. Rand Paul.
Though Paul’s foreign policy views are still redeemable, Stephens says, they tend to sacrifice American leadership abroad for smaller government at home. In Stephens’s view, that is not a choice the U.S. can afford to make.
This is a familiar argument, one that is being hashed out not only within the conservative movement in general, but within the Tea Party itself.
Stephens adds three critical insights that may help to guide that debate. One is the point that “decline” is different from “retreat.”
Luminaries such as Charles Krauthammer may have used “decline” to describe America’s retreat from leadership, but actually the U.S. is still on an upward path, Stephens notes. There are, he shows, nations truly in decline, such as Russia, that are yet advancing on the world stage.
The point is that our retreat can be reversed.
Stephens’s second insight, delivered rather more subtly, is to rescue what is good from Bush’s failed idealism. We can support “evolutionary” change, Stephens says, but must put America’s interests first, and–at most–express our values by picking liberal autocracies over illiberal democracies.
His third insight is to explain why America ought not retreat from the world. After all, if it is not true that our presence alone is a cause for conflict, our restraint or withdrawal does not always provoke our enemies to war.
Stephens points out that a world without U.S. leadership is inherently more unstable than one with the U.S. leading from the front. Disorder, he allows, is not disaster, but makes disaster more likely and harder to resolve.
Stephens also provides a fictional–though alarmingly realistic–portrayal of what a more disorderly world might look like in 2019, with President Hillary Clinton at the helm. His prescribed solution is that the U.S. should embrace the much-derided role of “world policeman,” and do for the international arena what the “broken windows” philosophy of policing has done to clean up crime-ridden streets in New York and other U.S. cities.
Broadly, that means making sure that international rules and norms are actually enforced and enforceable. The U.S. need not intervene in every instance, but ought to maintain the kind of military presence and diplomatic engagement that makes American intervention a risk any would-be disrupter would have to weigh, Stephens argues.
In short, the U.S. must “once again start deploying forces globally in large numbers”–with cheaper, less high-tech weapons.
Stephens hastens to add that the U.S. should also demand greater reciprocal military commitments from our allies, and that America should pursue “police actions” while avoiding Iraq-style occupations that sap domestic political support for an assertive foreign policy.
Yet he cautions that there is no part of the world from which the U.S. can “pivot” away, and that in matters of national security, prevention is far cheaper and better than cure.
He concludes that “the internationalists, of both conservative and liberal stripe, have a political case to make.” Stephens obviously feels that the case must be made urgently, against the tide of isolationists, left and right.
The fact that Stephens has embraced the “world police” caricature might limit his argument’s appeal. A more important weakness is that he overestimates the strength of isolationism among grass roots conservatives.
In opinion polls, Tea Party supporters consistently support hawkish foreign policy views. Much of the new skepticism of internationalism on the right has to do solely with mistrust of President Obama.
While Stephens’s colleagues at the Wall Street Journal editorial page disparage the “Hobbits” and “yahoos” of the hinterland, that periphery, ironically, is the most reliable constituency for Stephens’s internationalism, especially if the fiscal reforms that would boost renewed American leadership are achieved.
Hopefully, Stephens will reach that audience as he promotes this worthwhile book.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak