A review of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder by Bret Stephens
Bret Stephens is certainly not the first journalist to note that America seems to be in decline. Some who have made this observation couch their analysis in terms of domestic economics, or rule of law, or moral fiber, or even faithfulness to the ideals of the nation’s founders. Stephens’ main thrust is in terms of foreign affairs, international diplomacy, and national power and defense. But even in these aspects, Stephens is not the originator of the observation. What is unique and fascinating in Stephens’ book is the context in which he places the so-called decline – specifically, a clever analogy between Pax Americana and a certain US domestic policing philosophy.
The latter is the notion of “broken windows” policing. This idea, usually attributed to James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, grew popular in response to the dramatic increase in crime in the US over a quarter century (roughly 1960-1985). The theory runs as follow. The police, for example in a metropolitan area, are not only responsible for preventing crime and catching criminals, but more generally with maintaining public peace and order. Traditionally, they did that by concentrating their attention on serious crime and violent criminals – often to the extent of minimizing, even ignoring minor public nuisances like panhandling, loitering, vandalism and even non-violent burglary. The theory of broken windows holds that neighborhoods in which broken windows go unattended invite criminals to commit more serious crimes. The lack of attention to order and lawfulness – manifested by relatively trivial things like broken windows – says that the police are paying no attention to quality of life in that neighborhood and so more serious violations are likely to go undetected – and even when detected, unprosecuted.
Under the leadership of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg and Police Commissioners Bratton and Kelly, New York City forcefully enforced a policy to combat broken windows. Minor crimes, neighborhood vagrancy and vandalism, and low-level disturbances were dealt with vigorously and swiftly. And lo and behold, crime fell drastically in the Big Apple – so much so that New York attained the status of one of, if not ‘the’, safest major cities in the nation, indeed the world.
The method was copied around the country and crime rates plunged throughout the United States. The broken windows policy has its critics, but the numbers don’t lie; by any objective measure, it has been successful in curtailing crime and maintaining law and order in the nation’s cities.
Stephens’ theory is that exactly the reverse has happened in the world over the last two decades and especially since Barack Obama ascended to the residency. The global order – such as it was – enjoyed by the world since the end of WWII was a direct, predictable and verifiable consequence of the role America played in world affairs. Pax Americana was assured by the willingness of the US to take on the role of a benign superpower. We kept the world’s sea lanes open and safe for international commerce; we shielded our allies from Soviet aggression; we struck down tin pot dictators (Hussein, Milosevic, Gadhafi, and Noriega) that threatened regional peace; and we punished rogue organizations (e.g., al Qaeda and Columbian drug cartels) that attacked the West. We weren’t perfect and we made some mistakes. But overall the large presence of American forces, diplomacy, trade and aid assured a more orderly, peaceful and tranquil world than would have been present without our hands-on power.
Stephens suggests that our efforts to “police the world” involved a broken windows philosophy. Of course we dealt with major challenges to world peace – such as the Soviets. But we also paid attention to the broken windows – the relatively minor assaults and transgressions that if left unchecked would signal that no cop was on the beat and thereby engender major breaches of the peace. Examples include: Granada, the Falklands and Libya. In fact, America’s benevolent responses to natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake fit into this pattern. When, on the other hand, we refrained from interceding in minor conflagrations (Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia), the local population and the world paid a heavy price.
But now, as Mayor de Blasio abrogates broken windows in New York, President Obama is abrogating it worldwide. America is, if not in decline, than certainly in retreat. Moreover, according to Stephens, it is a bipartisan retreat. The sentiment for retreat is very strong on the left because of its classical pacifist tendencies, its sense that America has not been a force for good in the world, and its strong egalitarian sympathies. But says Stephens, the retreat is also finding favor on the right – among the libertarian wing of the GOP, among “realists” who sense we are incapable of continuing to police the world, and among isolationists who trace their lineage back to Senator Robert Taft. Stephens sees a very precise analogy between America’s attitude today and what existed in the country in the 1920s and 1930s.
Stephens points out that America suffered for more than a decade from Vietnam Syndrome – the idea that our intervention in Vietnam was catastrophically wrong and our recognition of that “mistake” was spot on. However, our desire not to repeat it crippled our nation. We retreated from and abrogated our international responsibilities. The Soviets advanced and our knee jerk reaction was simply summed up in: “We don’t want another Vietnam.” Now many feel similarly about Iraq. Indeed, there are strong signs of an Iraq Syndrome – the feeling that our intervention there was a catastrophic mistake of the order of Vietnam and we should never repeat it. Again, this is crippling our ability to respond – this time to the Islamist menace.
At the conclusion of the book, Stephens lays out a scenario for a resumption of Pax Americana; albeit more modest in its goals. However, he does not strike a very optimistic note.
The strengths of Stephens’ book are many. He writes clearly, with great moral clarity. The historic parallels are carefully and cleverly drawn. And as mentioned the analog he uncovers between the broken windows policing philosophy and America’s role in Pax Americana is brilliant. Here are some representative samples of Stephens’ extraordinary prose:
No great power can treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power. 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. It would be a world very much like the 1930s, another decade in which economic turmoil, war weariness, Western self-doubt, American self-involvement, and the rise of ambitious dictatorships combined to produce the catastrophe of “World War II. … To say America needs to be the world’s policeman is not to say we need to be its priest, preaching the gospel of the American way. Priests are in the business of changing hearts and saving souls. Cops merely walk the beat, reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked. Nor is it to say we should be the world’s martyr. Police work isn’t altruism. It is done from necessity and self-interest. It is done because it has to be 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. Not everyone grows up wanting to be a cop. But who wants to live in a neighborhood, or a world, where there is no cop?
Since World War II Europeans have relied on U.S. security guarantees to make up for the inadequacies in their own defenses; they have been able, as Robert Kagan suggested a decade ago, to live in a Kantian world of “perpetual peace” because the United States was rooted in a Hobbesian world of power. But U.S. security guarantees are no longer what they once were. If the result of the Retreat Doctrine is an America with entitlement programs that resemble Europe’s, it will eventually have a military that resembles Europe’s too. And it will have the same reluctance to pursue military options to deal with geopolitical crises. European policy makers need to begin thinking about their long-term security outlook in a world in which Uncle Sam has decided to take a European-style vacation from history. In the meantime, Americans may consider that the reason Europe was able to afford that long holiday from history is because a friendly power across the sea was prepared to devote immense resources to its defense. When Americans go on that holiday, who will be minding the store for us?
Barack Obama loves to talk about rules. When North Korea launched a ballistic missile in 2009, he warned that “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” When the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to murder more than one thousand people in Damascus in 2013, he insisted that “what happened to those people—to those children—is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our country.” After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, he denounced the Kremlin for “challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future. The language is elegant; the words are true. Yet the warnings rarely amount to very much….This is how we arrive at 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… One window breaks, then all the others. The old expectations for order and the perpetuation of order no longer hold. If the American president lacks the moral will or the political stomach to enforce his chemical red line in Syria, what dissuades Tehran from marching across his nuclear red line? If the United States will do little more than wag its finger over Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory—an act the Kremlin justifies with reference to historic and ethnic claims—what stops China from behaving likewise with Taiwan? If the United States won’t honor the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by which Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its borders, why should Japan or Israel trust similar paper promises?”
On the down side, I believe that there are also some flaws and gaps in Stephens’ analysis:
- I believe he makes too much of his perceived bipartisan nature of the choice to retreat. There is definitely some of that on the right (as pointed out), but the overwhelming impetus comes from the left. Stephens is not always clear enough about how Obama desires this course of action and how the left does not care at all about the deleterious effects Stephens outlines. The left welcomes them. It believes that America has no moral right to lead the world; that our past leadership has resulted in more harm than good; and that we deserve to be just one among the nations of the world – not exceptional.
- Stephens also focuses mostly on the US, whereas the retreat is really a concerted action of the entire West. The countries of Western Europe began their retreat almost a half century before we did and the state of their decline is much further advanced than ours. Although, Obama seems determined to catch up.
- Stephens also doesn’t really point out that our global retreat is paralleled by an equally dangerous domestic retreat. Again, like the countries of Western Europe, we seem to be losing confidence in – indeed abrogating the founding ideals of our nation. The moral rot in America may not be as advanced as it is in France or Italy, but we’re headed in the same direction. The decline and retreat of America is national as well as global.
- Finally, he doesn’t focus enough on the subversive elements in the country that foster the retreat – leftists, Muslims, much of the mainstream media and America’s hyper-partisan public educational system. Americans didn’t wake up one morning and decide to retreat. We are being programmed by domestic subversive elements that welcome the prospect.
However, overall, Stephens has written a powerful book with a compelling message and a dire warning. Americans should take his message to heart.
This review also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative