Excerpt: 'America in Retreat' by Bret Stephens

Penguin Group USA

Reprinted from AMERICA IN RETREAT: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder with permission of Sentinel, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Bret Stephens, 2014.



The World's Policeman

In the nearly nine years that I have been the foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, I have received tens of thousands of letters from readers, many of them warm, a few of them rude, others critical or constructive. I publish my e-mail address, bstephens@wsj.com, at the foot of my column, read every note, and try to answer as many of my readers as I can. But there are times when a letter deserves a more extended reply than I have time for in the course of an ordinary workday. One reader, responding to a March 2014 column advocating a muscular U.S. stance against Russia's seizure of the Crimean peninsula, wrote me just such a letter.

In response to your editorial today, please repeat after me: "We should not be the world's policeman." Repeat again. And again. apparently, you just do not get it that an overwhelming majority of Americans would agree with this declaration. Unfortunately, you do not. So, given that, I encourage you to form your own volunteer army to police the hotspots around the globe. Please do not remit any bills to the U.S. government.

Barack Obama agrees with my reader. "We should not be the world's policeman," he told Americans in September 2013. So does Rand Paul: "America's mission should always be to keep the peace, not police the world," the Kentucky Republican told an audience of veterans earlier that year.

This book is my answer to that argument.

In formulating the answer, it's important to acknowledge that the wish not to be the world's policeman runs deep in the American psyche. "For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us," John Winthrop warned his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists in 1630 as they were aboard the Arbella on their way to the New World,

soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going. . . .

Though the phrase "city upon a hill" is taken from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount ("A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid"), Winthrop's admonition is pure Old Testament. The Lord's blessing depends not on our worldly striving but on our moral performance. The fate of the enterprise rests on the virtue of its people. A bad reputation in the opinion of mankind can be fatal. The great task for Americans is to be supremely mindful of our business, not of someone else's. Our security as well as our salvation lie in the proper care of our souls, not the acquisition or exercise of power.

To study American history is to understand that Winthrop's admonition has been honored mainly in the breach. The citizens of a city upon a hill may be in "the eies of all people." But those citizens, in turn, will be able to see far over the surrounding lowlands. At a glance, they will see rich plains stretching in every direction. They will seek dominion over those plains and their scattered inhabitants, whether through purchase and treaties or confiscation and war. Beyond the plain they will find oceans to harvest and traverse. They will meet enemies on the seas, and to defeat those enemies they will build a navy. In faraway ports they will find wealth and wonders but also double- dealing and cruelty, arousing their appetite and greed- but also their conscience and charity.

And in mixing with the world they will become part of the world. Yet they shall still think of themselves as a city upon a hill.

So it is that America's encounter with the world has always been stamped with ambivalence about the nature, and even the necessity, of that encounter. It is an ambivalence that has often been overcome- because the temptation was too great, as it was with the war with Mexico, or because the danger was too great, as it was during the Cold War. But the ambivalence has never been erased. Nearly 240 years after our birth, we Americans haven't quite made up our minds about what we think of the rest of the world. Every now and then, we're tempted to return to our imaginary city, raise the gate, and leave others to their devices.

It says something about the politics of our time that I have 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. This is new. Until recently, the view that "we should not be the world's policeman" was held mainly on the political left. Yes, the view also found a home on the fringes of the right, particularly among small- government libertarians and latter- day Father Coughlins such as Pat Buchanan. But it was typically the left that wanted America out: out of Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, even Europe. And it was usually the left that made the case for a reduced role for the United States in global politics and for a radical rebalancing of spending priorities from guns to butter.

The case for "America Out" is still common on the left. But now it's being made from within the mainstream of the conservative movement. Many things account for this change, including the deep mistrust, sometimes slipping to paranoia, of the Obama administration's foreign policy aims. Many conservatives have also conceded the argument that the wars they once ardently supported in Iraq and Afghanistan were historic mistakes, and that imbroglios in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, or the South China Sea are other people's problems, best kept at arm's length.

The upshot is that there is a new foreign policy divide in the United States cutting across traditional partisan and ideological divides. It's no longer a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves. Now it's an argument between neoisolationists and internationalists: between those who think the United States is badly overextended in the world and needs to be doing a lot less of everything-both for its own and the rest of the world's good-and those who believe in Pax Americana, a world in which the economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United States provides the global buffer between civilization and barbarism.

Some readers of this book will reject these categories. They will note that there are vast differences between liberal and conservative internationalists;between, say, Samantha Power, President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, and John Bolton, her predecessor in that job under George W. Bush. Or they will claim that the term "neoisolationist" is a slur on people who really should be thought of as "noninterventionists" or simply "Realists." They will point out that labels often do more to cloud thinking than to clarify it. They're right, up to a point. But labels also capture emotional reflexes, ideological leanings, and tendencies of thought that in turn help predict policy preferences and political behavior.

Where do you fall on the spectrum between internationalists and neoisolationists? Ask yourself the following questions:

• Does the United States have a vital interest in the outcome of the civil war in Syria, or in Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, or in Saudi Arabia's contest with Iran?

• Should Americans take sides between China and Japan over which of them exercises sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands? Similarly, should we care whether Ukraine or Russia controls Crimea?

• Is America more secure or less secure for deploying military forces in hot spots such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea?

How you answer any one of these questions will likely suggest how you answer most if not all of the others. And how you answer all of the questions will be an excellent indicator of how you are likely to think about other foreign policy crises, now or in the future.

This book takes a side in this debate. 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. When Franklin Roosevelt asked Winston Churchill what that war should be called, the prime minister replied "the unnecessary war." Why? Because, Churchill said, "never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle." That's an error we should not wish to repeat.

A final preliminary: 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? Would you? Should the president?