Review of ‘America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder’ by Bret Stephens


America-in-Retreat Bret Stephens, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (New York: Sentinel, 2014). Hardcover | Kindle

Should America walk the beat as the world’s policeman?

Many Americans on both sides of the political aisle think not. For example, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, flatly states, “We should not be the world’s policeman.” Similarly, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, avers: “America’s mission should always be to keep the peace, not police the world.” After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sentiment is understandable.

Understandable, Bret Stephens argues in his new book, America in Retreat—but still dangerous. “No great power can treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power,” he writes. “A world in which the leading liberal-democratic nation does not assume its role as world policeman will become a world in which dictatorships contend, or unite, to fill the breach. Americans seeking a return to an isolationist garden of Eden—alone and undisturbed in the world, knowing neither good nor evil—will soon find themselves living within shooting range of global pandemonium.”

To be the world’s policeman, Stephens quickly qualifies, “is not to say we need to be its priest; preaching the gospel of the American way.” Nor does America need to be “the world’s martyr.” “Police work isn’t altruism,” he explains. “It is done from necessity and self-interest. It is done because it has be done and there’s no one else to do it, and because the benefits of doing it accrue not only to those we protect but also, indeed mainly, to ourselves.”

Stephens draws on a famous 1982 essay in The Atlantic Monthly to explain what it would mean for America to police the world. That essay, “Broken Windows,” attempted to understand “the nature of communal order, the way it is maintained, and the ways in which order turns into disorder.” Penned by George Kelling, a Rutgers criminologist, and James Q. Wilson, a political scientist then at Harvard, the essay became the intellectual foundation of the New York Police Department’s much heralded and much criticized, yet very successful strategy to combat crime in Gotham.

Citing a 1969 study by Philip Zimbardo, Kelling and Wilson argued: “Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” Why? Not because “some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers,” but rather because “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” Rather than deal with crime’s “root causes,” then, Kelling and Wilson urged police to enforce sanctions on “petty crimes” and “social incivilities.” An orderly city—one where “broken windows” are fixed—reduces crime rates.

Applied to foreign policy, Stephens suggests that the current international order, the one from which America is in retreat, is “a broken-windows world”: “Rules are invoked but not enforced. Principles are idealized but not defended. International law is treated not as a complement to traditional geopolitical leadership but as the superior alternative to it.” This broken-windows world is one in which Russia invades Ukraine, China threatens its neighbors, Syria uses chemical weapons against its citizens, Iran develops its atomic weapons program, and Palestinians ignore the strictures of the Oslo Accords and seek United Nations’ recognition of Palestinian statehood—all without serious repercussions, if any repercussions at all. The consequences of these broken windows—the “coming global disorder,” as Stephens calls it—will be even worse.

So what should be the “broken-windows formula for U.S. foreign policy”?

It would require the United States to sharply increase military spending to upwards of 5 percent of GDP. But unlike in the past, it would lay greater emphasis on raw numbers—of ships, planes, and troops—than on high-cost technological wizardry. It would deploy more military assets for the protection of our allies. But unlike in the past, it would do so on condition that those allies invest strategically in their own defenses. It would sharply punish violations of geopolitical norms, such as the use of chemical weapons, by swiftly and precisely targeting the perpetrators of the attacks. But the emphasis would be on short, mission-specific, punitive police actions, not open-ended occupations for idealistic ends. It would be global in its approach: no more “pivots” from this region to that. But it would also know how to discriminate between core interests and allies and peripheral ones. It would seek to prevent local conflicts, such as the one in Syria, from spilling over their borders and becoming regional catastrophes. But it would do so by working vigorously through local proxies. It would place an emphasis on stability and predictability in international affairs. But it would put greater stock in behavioral norms than in international law.

In other words, a broken-windows foreign policy would be neither the nation building of George W. Bush nor the leading-from-behind of Barack Obama. It would be both internationalist and realist, as opposed to both isolationist and idealist. It would not attempt to “save” the world (a priestly role), but merely to make it incrementally safer.

Are there alternatives? “Broadly speaking,” Stephens writes, “there are three alternatives: a liberal peace, the balance of power, or collective security.” But China’s bullying in Asia Pacific calls into question Immanuel Kant’s insistence that “the spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later that spirit dominates every people.” Given America’s global dominance economically—both now and for the foreseeable future—it’s difficult to see “how a balance-of-power can be practiced in the absence of a genuine balance of power.” And, anyway, who would be on the balancing end opposite the U.S. China? Russia? Finally, there’s collective security, specifically, the United Nations. Here, the danger is the same one as during the Cold War, when “the Soviet Union would happily use the UN as an instrument of its propaganda but would not submit to it as a check on its power.” That conceptual flaw in the UN’s very design renders it an unlikely restraint on political bad actors, an outcome proven by the UN’s dismal track record.

And so, Stephens concludes, Pax Americana—the U.S. as the world’s policeman—is the best way to restore global order. It is a credible option, though it depends on a bipartisan consensus—for internationalism, against idealism—that’s unlikely to materialize any time soon. Plus, after more than a decade of nation building in the Middle East, Americans seem unwilling to put on the badge and walk the beat. Finally, many view America as an incorrigibly corrupt cop rather than an honest law enforcer. (America is not perfect, I agree, but comparing the U.S. to bad actors like China or Russia is, in my opinion, a false moral equivalence.)

However you slice things, then, it seems that we are in for a lot of broken windows and all the global disorder they portend.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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