Bret Stephens has written not just a good book on American foreign policy. He has written an important book.
As Islamic radicalism rampages through the Middle East on a global drive to create a caliphate, the Chancellor of Germany is trying to deal with Vladimir Putin’s aggressions in the Ukraine, the Chinese navy is on track to outnumber the U.S. Navy by 2020, and America’s allies have understandable doubts about America’s lack of resolve, not to mention U.S. credibility. That doesn’t even touch the Iranian mullahs and their relentless drive to possess nuclear weapons. Or the craziness that goes on in North Korea.
All of which prompts Stephens’ book America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. In which the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist recounts a needed history of the mid-twentieth century world, the corresponding views of America’s role in the world advocated by the progressive movement’s Henry Wallace and the conservative Robert Taft, as well as the birth of what once was known as “Pax Americana,” described as:
…a world in which English is the default language of business, diplomacy, tourism, and technology: in which markets are global, capital is mobile, trade is increasingly free, and networks increasingly global; in which values of openness and tolerance are, when not the norm, often the aspiration. It is a world in which the possibility of another country imposing its will upon us remains, for the time being, remote. The wars we now fight may be long wars, but they are small: they do not require conscription or rationing. They don’t even require a tax increase.
While those last two sentences — doubtless unintentionally — sound not dissimilar to the statement the other day from Obama national security adviser Susan Rice — that “Too often, what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective. Yes, there is a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War” — there could not be more distance in common sense between Mr. Stephens’ book and the foreign policy of the Obama administration. (And note to Ms. Rice — in 1922 as Hitler gathered his club of thugs in Munich the Nazis weren’t an “existential threat” either. But the world refused to take them seriously — and World War II was the result.)
Stephens makes a point that in this corner is something I believe cannot be said enough. Years ago as a young Reagan White House aide I stood on the South Lawn with others and watched then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev arrive for a December summit with President Reagan. This 1987 gathering followed the much anticipated 1985 Geneva Summit between the two, and the fall of 1986 out-of-the blue summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. The last a meeting that one of the participants, Reagan arms control director Ken Adelman, would describe in his own book Reagan At Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War as “an emotional roller coaster, full of twists and turns, ups and downs” for the duration of the weekend-long gathering. A little after a mere five years from that tense confrontation in the one-time Icelandic residence of a French diplomat known as Hofdi House, the Berlin Wall had been torn down and the Soviet Union itself — the Evil Empire as Reagan had once termed it — had been dispatched to what Reagan had termed “the ash heap of history.” Ending what was known in the day as the decades-old Cold War.
The relief was palpable at the moment. But Stephens makes the dead-on point that escaped many at the time of just how wrong this sigh of relief was. He writes:
Americans expected too much from winning the Cold War. We expected a modicum of admiration and gratitude from a world saturated with envy and resentment. We expected our supremacy was mostly uncontroversial and anticipated a world of friendly imitators, not ambitious challengers. We believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union put to rest the only serious ideological challenge to liberal democracy and permanently settled all the core questions of political philosophy. “The day of the dictator is over,” George H. W. Bush proclaimed in his 1989 inaugural address. “We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right.”
And so we conflated the West with the world, human ideals with human nature, a respite from history with a victory over it.
This assessment is spot-on correct. As the Soviet Union ceased, Osama bin Laden lurked in the shadows. America entered a decade that has been called a “holiday from history.” And America and the world would pay dearly for that vacation.
Stephens lays out two contrasting time-lines. The first, running from the November, 9, 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall through the dissolution of the Soviet Union ends in June of 1999 with victory in the Kosovo War. Along the way are markers — triumphalist markers, as it were — of a post-Cold War nation and world on the move. These markers include the laying of the “legal groundwork for the euro,” decisions by South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to dismantle their nuclear arsenal, and the signing of the North American Free Trade Treaty. On the domestic American side there was Netscape, “the world’s first commercial web browser,” the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform bill, the “first U.S. federal budget surplus in thirty years,” the Dow hit 10,000, and so on.
The second timeline is decidedly not a happy one. Also beginning in 1989 it starts with “Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan begins shipping centrifuges to Iran” and moves on to the government decision to relax lending standards for mortgages, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the realization that North Korea is making nuclear weapons, and the August 23, 1996 declaration of war on the United States by Osama bin Laden and so on through the so-called “Battle of Seattle” anti-globalization protests during a World Trade Organization gathering.
Two starker views of the realities of the 1990s could not be had. With, of course, 9/11 looming over the horizon as the millennium has barely dawned. In a word — Stephens’ point — the idea that a holiday from history was ever possible in the first place was an illusion. He says — another critical point — that
Every illusion comes to an end, but every illusion also shapes thinking — and policy — for as long as it lasts. When the Cold War ended, American policy makers persuaded themselves that they could do more than merely help improve the world. They could redeem it. In so doing, they neglected a more prosaic responsibility: to police it.
Suffice to say what Stephens is saying here is not popular in some quarters. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan those who are the philosophical descendants of the left’s Henry Wallace and the right’s Robert Taft both object to the notion of America as the “world’s policeman.” Yet Stephens make his case well that, as he calls it, “the Retreat Doctrine” is seriously bad policy.
In doing so he analyzes the “Republicans in Retreat” and “Republican Realism” and more on the right. He does not shy from questioning the policies of every recent player on the GOP foreign policy stage, from George W. Bush to Rand Paul, the latter of whom Stephens, though on the record with skepticism, sees as a “political work in progress.” He is equally blunt about President Obama’s leftward lurches, describing Mr. Obama as “President ‘What, Me Worry?’” Stephens also posits what the future — specifically 2019, four short years away, could look like if America persists in retreat mode, with the resulting global disorder causing horrifically dangerous crisis across the board from Europe to Iran to Russia.
Stephens ends his book with a look to the future. He starts by quoting a hard truth from Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher. Said Christopher: “The simple fact is that if we do not lead, no one else will follow.”
“Whatever we do, we need to understand that American preeminence is not going anywhere,” Stephens concludes, adding that America’s success in the world — not to mention the security of its citizens’ liberties — like it or not — depends on “American power with the reach and credibility to keep our enemies in check and far away; power that fosters global conditions of predictability, prosperity, decency, and freedom.” Or in other words, as Stephens also says, America may by its preeminence have to be a policeman — but it doesn’t have to be the world’s priest. Neoconism this is not. What Stephens suggests is a national security version of ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” policy — taking care of the small problems before they become, to refer back to Susan Rice, “existential” problems.
The world out there is an ever-ongoing dangerous place. As we are seeing unfold in real time, the Obama foreign policy, a descendant of the leftist views of the progressive Henry Wallace, has resulted in what Stephens calls “global disorder” and what I would call “global chaos.” In today’s world we are faced with a serious enemy — Islamic radicalism — that the strategy-free Obama White House cannot even bring itself to identify by name, drifting off into bizarre (not to mention historically wrong) comparisons to the Crusades.
Anyone even minimally conversant with human nature and history — and Mr. Stephens is far more than that — understands exactly the dangers that are caused by an American Retreat and the lethal global disorder it makes inevitable.
Ronald Reagan had a term for what Bret Stephens is talking about. It was called “peace through strength.” President Reagan — who used this principle to, as Margaret Thatcher said, “win the Cold War without firing a shot” — was correct. So too is Bret Stephens.
The real question here as the clock runs on the Obama administration and the clock starts on the 2016 presidential race is just how much longer this period of American Retreat and the new isolationism that accompanies it will last. Will it take some surely avoidable horrific event — as was Pearl Harbor or 9/11 — to shake the nation out of its torpor? Or will some candidate emerge who can — like Ronald Reagan — successfully make the case for reversing an America in Retreat? And instead make the case for confronting — and winning — the inevitable challenges that always result in a world filled with flawed — and yes occasionally evil — human beings.
We will see.
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