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.