On Jan. 16, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a present to a France still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks: Musical guest James Taylor. In what some considered attempted compensation for the conspicuous absence of any US official from the post-attack “Unity March,” Taylor serenaded French delegates with “You’ve Got A Friend,” his 1971 hit. Such is the state of modern American diplomacy.
One can hardly concoct a better example of Obama-era foreign policy. If Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and editorial board member at the Wall Street Journal whose “America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” describes its feebleness, watched Taylor’s performance, he likely did so in mordant affirmation of his book’s thesis: That America abandons its duty to “police the world” at not only the world’s peril but also its own.
Unfortunately, to Stephens, this idea has widespread appeal. Discussing a letter he received expressing it, Stephens remarks that the idea has crossed political lines enough that “he has no idea whether the reader who wrote me that letter is a Republican or a Democrat, a Tea Party activist or a lifelong subscriber to Mother Jones.” Various attitudes feed into this supposedly bipartisan trend: Policing the world is too expensive, we have too many of problems to worry about the world’s, we have no real enemies today like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, we’re more likely to mess things up abroad than to fix them, the world can take care of itself, et al.
These outlooks comprise “the new isolationism” of the book’s title. But Stephens does not intend the word as a slur. Isolationism, he writes, is not necessarily “an expression of parochialism or xenophobia, or a yearning for total economic self-reliance or minimal diplomatic contact with outsiders.” It is, instead, a healthy instinct with deep roots in America’s past.
Still, Stephens claims, isolationism was and remains dangerous, and will create a world of disorder, in which nations act on their own whims rather than in the interests of the global order the United States currently maintains. He brings out the familiar examples of World War II and the Cold War, often comparing the lead-up to the former horror to today.
Implicit in this argument is the existence of some litany of virulently anti-democratic belligerents wishing to refashion the world in their own image. Yet though Stephens spends much time discussing the strengths, weaknesses, and threats posed by some potential candidates — Russia, China, Iran — none ever really emerges as a feasible candidate for a 20th-century style threat, not even in the fictional scenario he conjures up to imagine possible consequences to isolationism.
But even if any of these powers were to become so dangerous, Stephens ignores an alternative to the options — “the libertarian, balance of power, or idealist” approaches, as well as isolationism and internationalism — for foreign policy he enumerates: The American. Before the 20th century, on which Stephens focuses, America tried (imperfectly) to make war and peace in her own interest, hesitating to involve itself in binding treaties and the affairs of other nations save as dictated by necessity, as when attacked (or plainly about to be attacked), and then only to fight brief yet definitive wars to remove the power that launched the attack. Such an approach could still work, and involves just as serious thinking about foreign policy as Stephens’ own (for an example, see Angelo Codevilla’s “While the Storm Clouds Gather” in the Fall 2014 Claremont Review of Books).
Strangely, though Stephens mostly ignores this approach, and spends much of his book showing the dangers of isolationism and the necessity of policing the world, his ultimate prescription demonstrates a restraint somewhat out of keeping with what he argued before: He asks, among other things, for an American foreign policy that “would sharply punish violations of geopolitical norms” with an emphasis on “short, mission-specific, punitive police actions, not open-ended occupations for idealistic ends.” Yet even these more modest aims distinguish with difficulty between “policing the world,” which Stephens favors, and “redeeming it,” on which he has soured.
Still, despite its flaws, “America In Retreat” remains a necessary corrective to our enfeebled era of foreign policy, and a welcome urge to clearer foreign policy thinking; if a return to a foreign policy more in line with the American Founding is currently beyond us, then Stephens’ will do. But if we fail to follow either, then expect — as James Taylor sang — fire, rain, and probably a lot worse.