Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’s new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, presents the dangers of an isolationist foreign policy and prescribes a solution for bringing America back to the forefront of the international community.
Speaking to Breitbart News, Stephens expands on his notions of decline and retreat, why America should be the world’s policeman and not its priest, and how a robust foreign policy benefits Main Street America.
In your book, you note that there are two strains of thought in American foreign policy that call for limiting defense spending and international influence– one on the left and one on the right. Do you see the civil libertarian wing of the Republican Party as an equal, lesser, or greater threat to our national security than similarly-minded Democrats?
I don’t know, that’s hard to say. Error of opinion should be combated wherever it is found. I think that it is worrisome that the party that has most consistently stood on the right side of all great national security issues of our day, going back many decades, now finds itself infected with the same kind of “come home, America” mentality that has typified the McGovernite Left for more than 40 years.
What I hope Republicans take away from my book is that the call for reducing our commitments overseas for the sake of shrinking the size of government is a siren call. Any conservative should know that the countries that have the smallest militaries in the West are also the countries that have the biggest debts. Look at Europe; look at Japan. And that is because money that is supposed to be saved by cutting the defense budget never goes back to the taxpayers, it never goes to the productive side of the economy. It goes to further funding of the welfare state. So conservatives who foolishly think we can scrimp and save on defense in order to reduce our deficit are telling themselves a fable. Not to mention all the dangers of minimizing or reducing America’s strategic footprint at just the moment when Russia is on the march, ISIS is on the march, China is approaching on the South China Sea, and Iran is on the cusp of nuclear capability.
Do you predict that we will see more of this “McGovernite” attitude among Republican contenders in 2016?
Well, hopefully my book will have some effect by persuading some leading Republican contenders for the nomination that the Rand Paul recipe for foreign policy is crazy, at least as I’ve previously heard Paul define it. I shouldn’t say crazy–really misguided. And I want conservative readers–and this book is really written largely with conservative readers in mind–to understand that it is wrong to suggest that foreign policy and domestic policy are in a zero-sum game. That what we invest in our security or invest in our alliances is somehow taken away from Main Street America. Main Street America walks around with Samsung phones in their pockets, built in a country that we’ve defended for the past 60 years that went from being one of the most backwards countries in the world to being one of our greatest trading partners. That’s part of American prosperity, so we have to understand that we will never be prosperous at home unless we are also secure and also securing friends from Estonia to Israel to Taiwan.
Are there places in the world where we should be establishing more of a presence, perhaps unlikely contenders for American military aid outside of the nations already heavily associated with U.S. presence?
We need to be careful about where our priorities lie, not only strategically, but geographically. We need to be particularly mindful of helping the defense of those countries that stand on the border of the free and the unfree world. That’s Estonia–between the European Union and Russia. That’s Ukraine. That’s South Korea. That’s Israel. So the idea of the pivot, which was such a big deal in the Obama administration, is fundamentally misguided, because our strategy cannot just be based on geography, it also has to be based on political realities.
For Republicans who may want to agree with you but see Republican intervention abroad in the last decade or so as problematic, what can they learn from the mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq and what actions that weren’t mistakes can they use as guidance?
We’ve had many misadventures in the past decade in the Middle East, but one of the points that I try to make in the book is to explain what was right about the Iraq war and what was wrong about it. And if I had to sum it up in a couple of sentences, it would be this: we went into Iraq to make an example of Saddam Hussein, and that was the right thing to do. We stayed in Iraq to try to make Iraq exemplary as an Arab democracy, and that was the wrong thing to do.
Making examples for the sake of enforcing global norms, liberal order, and punishing evil violators of that order–that’s the right way to connect with foreign policy, as a policeman. But attempting to heal crippled societies as if we were the world’s priest or doctor, changing hearts and saving souls, that’s the wrong foreign policy. It’s wrong not just because of the cultural realities of the Middle East itself and the absence of traditional liberal democratic values, it’s also wrong for the political realities of the United States, which are not interested in ten-year-long wars.
Can you elaborate on the difference between “decline,” and “retreat,” and how American can be in retreat without being in decline?
I really do not believe for one second that America is in decline, although I do notice that a lot of people like to say that it is in decline because they favor a policy of retreat. The difference between decline and retreat, I would say, is this: decline is a product of broad cultural and even civilizational forces that are beyond the reach of ordinary politics. For example: How would a Russian leader, even Putin with all his power, get Russians to have more babies? Very hard to do. Russia has this massive demographic problem because Russian couples aren’t having children.
How do you get the Japanese to accept that, given their demographic realities, they have to start taking in many more immigrants, bringing into question the whole concept, ethnically, of “Japanese-ness”?
So these are countries that are in decline on account of these large, supra-political forces. On the other hand, retreat is just a policy choice. Retreat is what happens when you get Barack Obama in office talking about nation-building at home and acting defensively, or indifferently, or reactively to foreign policy crises. Its’ a choice that he made, and it’s a choice that we can undo. American retreat is about choices that were made and what we can do about them.
If there is no decline, what is the appeal of a policy of retreat?
There are always signs of decline. Adam Smith famously said “there’s a lot of ruin in the nation.” The question is whether you look at those pieces of ruin and you think it’s a sign of decline, or you think it’s a sign of rebuilding, or a reality of everyday life. Look back on what was being said in the 1950s about the state of American education and how we were falling behind the Russians and how we weren’t teaching Johnny and Jane to compete when it came to math skills and all the rest of it. Now I think most of us would look back at the high schools of the 1950s and say they were a golden era in terms of the quality of public education.
So there is always this idea that you are in decline. The question is: are you really in decline, or are you just looking at everyday evidence of something that isn’t meeting your expectations and calling it a sign of decline? So Americans looked at what happened in Iraq–by historical standards, a relatively small, if very long, war–and said “well, you see, we can’t win wars anymore.”
And they looked at the recession of 2008, which by historical standards is actually not the deepest recession, and they said “we’re never going to be able to get back to high levels of growth and real, full employment.” So they took these pieces and treated them as proof positive of a proposition that the country is in decline, so we therefore have to scale back our military commitments.
I don’t see a recession or an inconclusive and difficult war as sending the country with the largest economy on earth into decline. When you think about Britain, Britain lost a quarter of its national wealth fighting the Second World War, and this was just twenty years after it also lost much of its wealth and many of its citizens fighting the First World War. It takes a heck of a lot to send a country into decline.
Many of us probably have moments of hypochondria where we think some pimple is cancer. That doesn’t mean it’s cancer. And we run the risk of misdiagnosing the state of the nation, and as a result prescribing the wrong medicine, and having the wrong medicine do us more damage that what had been ailing us at the start.
For Breitbart News’ review of America in Decline, click here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.