The Unpoliced World: A Review of Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat

        America in Retreat: the New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder

by Bret Stephens

Sentinel, 2014  231 pages

What would the world look like if America stopped investing its diplomatic and military resources in the troubled areas of the globe?

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has an idea.

The date is December 25, 2019, approaching Year Three of a Hillary Clinton presidency.   Two and a half years previously, China had covertly taken possession of Kinmen Island – a few miles off  the coast of Taiwan and within  the latter nation’s territorial waters.  Japan, witnessing the failure of the Americans to launch so much as a protest to this violation of international law in the U.N., begins to make overtures to long time enemy South Korea and a few months later, under cover of darkness, lands troops on the contested Senkaku Islands, a transparent attempt to forestall a Kinmen  style fate for its claimed territory.    Russia, already emboldened by uncontested invasions of Georgia and Ukraine a few years  before, has seen its economy cratered by falling gas prices and to shore up his sagging popularity Russian dictator Vladimir Putin stirs the coals of Russian nationalism, exploiting an internal rebellion in Belarus  by sending Russian tanks rolling into Minsk.  With Belarus now conveniently transformed into a Russian satellite, Putin turns his eyes westward to the NATO defended Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The Clinton Administration has not said boo to the previous acts but  is certain that Putin would never dare  attack a NATO ally. But then again………



Meanwhile, in Iran, long time Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has died leaving his son Mojtaba as the new Guardian Jurist.  Within months, uprisings in the Iranian provinces begin to wreak a general cleavage in the population and the Clinton brain trust, unwilling to relive the mistakes of the Obama Administration during Iran’s 2011 Green Revolution, begins to arm the insurgency.  This unfortunately has unintended consequences as Iran’s ruling mullahs find themselves forced to the wall.   When the insurgents attack the nuclear facilities at the Port of Bushehr, the West awakens to the reality that the collapsing regime’s new nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of even more desperate Islamic militants. There is urgent NATO( and Israeli)  talk about a multilateral force needed to invade Iran in order to secure the nuclear facilities.  This sets  the nervous mullahs on a war footing and contemplating the first belligerent use of a nuclear weapon since the detonation of the second  Atom Bomb at Nagasaki in 1945.

Israel at the same time is confronted with a renewed effort of Palestinians to bring attention to their demands for statehood, independent of an internationally sanctioned agreement. In a 100,000 person march on the Qalandiya Checkpoint, which separates Ramallah from Jerusalem, Palestinians, each bedecked with a neck key –  a poignant symbol of a right of return to purported ancestral  homes – the crowd attempts to break through the checkpoint.  The Israeli military response results in the death of twelve of the protesters and is caught on camera, and then labeled by  the international press  a massacre.  International sanctions pour in from around the world.  The U.S. Administration seeks  to deliver a stern message to the government of Israeli prime minister Moshe Ya’alon –  withdraw to the 1949 Armistice lines and allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state or else risk the resetting of diplomatic relations between Israel and U.S.  This only emboldens  the Palestinians who repeat the Keys Marches all over the West Bank seeking to provoke Israeli retaliation.                                                         

The European continent faces its own form of crisis. With consistently low growth over several years, Germany slips into recession and one of its most significant state owned banks collapses. The German government announces that it is unwilling to bear the crushing weight of European debt any longer as it nervously watches its other banks lose confidence. Just as Germany is reconsidering its role as European savior, many of the constituent nations of a united Europe begin to fall apart. Catalonia in Spain, Flanders in Belgium and the Veneto in Italy all seek to separate from the sinking ship of Europe in which they play such a crucial economic role and the resulting referendums bring about the ultimate devolutionary crisis that the Brussels bureaucracy cannot stem.

The upshot of this vivid scenario, which comes late in Stephens’ America in Retreat, is to illustrate the chaos which might ensue when the United States gives up any pretense of serving as the world’s policeman – a job it had grudgingly assumed upon Britain’s post war abdication of the role.  The scenario that Stephens paints draws directly from the experiences of the past six years as he demonstrates how the Obama Administration has consistently  sought to  distance itself from world events to the greatest extent possible, hiding behind multilateral actions and seeking to build international consensus instead of prosecuting a vigorous policy of its own.   This misguided agenda has produced a raft of unintended consequences, including the emboldening of a revanchist Russia, the strengthening of Iranian drive for nuclear power, the recrudescence of Chinese imperialism and the devolution of Europe.  It is the mantle that  Hilary Clinton, should she succeed in her presidential quest, will inherit.

But more troubling than this is the abandonment of stalwart democratic allies.  Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Japan, Taiwan and India all now have doubts as to the worth of American guarantees and the trustworthiness of its promises. Stephens spares no effort to demonstrate how devastating the volte face has been for America’s reputation and the likely consequences of allowing our allies to hang out to dry.

Such an abandonment traces its roots among American politicians of both left and right to the concept of ‘ Declinism’ – the theory that American power is on the wane and that the nation can no longer maintain much of its influence in world affairs. The ‘ America Come Home’ slogan, which has anchored U.S. foreign policy over the past the past six years, is a fundamental reflection of this ideology. The battle for the control of American foreign policy is always a contest between internationalists who want more engagement in the world and realists who seek less. That is nothing new. What is perhaps new and alarming in our present day, Stephens contends, is the abiding sense of national impotence that the Obama Administration continues to convey to the American people and to the world  – and which eclipses U.S. efforts to maintain a decisive influence in world affairs.

One factor that Stephens does unfortunately fail to mention is the Obama Administration’s resistance to drawing appropriate parallels from the 1938 Munich Agreement – the central  event in world history whose lessons would form the foundation of America’s post war foreign policy.   Every post-war president has at one time or another felt the need to  invoke the memory of  Munich –  a determination to never appease nor tolerate aggression  –  as a cornerstone of a muscular American world view. Obama has never once referred to it -not  in any speech nor in any writing. The glaring absence of this vital historical  lesson in the thinking of the Commander -in- Chief, has exposed the empty core of his philosophy.


The battle for the control of American foreign policy is always a struggle between internationalists who want more engagement in the world and realists who seek less.  That is nothing new.  What is perhaps new and alarming in our present day is the abiding sense of national impotence that  the Obama Administration continues to convey to the American people and to the world.

Stephens, whose witty, elegant prose in the Wall Street Journal has elevated him to the top echelons of American journalism (and last year won him the Pulitzer Prize), concludes his book with an analogy of the broken windows theory of policing. Expressed concisely it is the idea that increased police presence on our urban streets is in itself a deterrent to crime – enforcing community norms, punishing minor violations and maintaining a semblance of order. As with cities, so with nations. The institution of good policing prevents rogue nations exercising free rein and results in a global order which ultimately enhances American national interests.

The American performance of the role of the good cop walking a global beat was one of the key factors enabling the extraordinary spread of liberty and prosperity in the post- war world – at a level unknown in human history. It contributed decisively to the containment of communism with all its human miseries while facilitating the flow of free trade – which has been indispensable to worldwide economic growth. But we fool ourselves into believing that the world has settled into a modern day Shangri-la which requires no further monitoring. The internationalist and realist can both appreciate that the world is still a dangerous place, full of miscreants, rogues, liars and thieves – many of whom are committed to our undoing. If America forgets this and retreats from the world, it cannot be surprised when the chaos which then ensues one day washes up on its own shores.


This article was first published in Stubborn Things on December 3, 2014


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