When one considers the breathtaking gains in political stability and economic growth during the 50 years it took to win the Cold War — gains charted, nurtured and achieved under the leadership of the United States — it’s hard to take it in. The establishment of democracy in Japan, South Korea, Poland, Taiwan, the Baltic states and most of Latin America; peace between Israel and Egypt; Germany and Japan eschewing militarism for pacifism; and dramatic gains in global gross domestic product. All Americans should be proud of this record and carry a sense of self-confidence toward our qualifications, the benefits and the necessity of our continuing to carry forward this legacy of active leadership in world affairs, “a world in which the economic, diplomatic, and military might of the United States provides the global buffer between civilization and barbarism,” in the words of Bret Stephens in his superb book “America in Retreat.”
Yet now, as we end the year, it’s hard to find a place on the planet from Syria and Iraq, to Iran and Ukraine (or here at home) where our leaders seem able to define a problem, define a solution and lead in rallying like-minded allies toward a constructive outcome. Worse, looking ahead, political aspirants in both major parties have more resembled a cacophony of uncertain trumpets than soon-to-be statesmen with visions and ideas for leading our country and the world toward peace and prosperity. Instead, leading voices at both ends of the political spectrum are urging that we withdraw entirely from global leadership and confine ourselves to “nation-building at home” and minding our own business. While there have always been qualified voices who advocated both “splendid isolation” and full-throated global advocacy for the advance of human liberty, today the center of gravity in the debate is well toward the side of “retrenchment” and isolationism. Few voices in either party seem to be explaining the risks of such a course or the benefits of forthright American leadership.
Fortunately, into this woolly debate comes Mr. Stephens’ rich, historically well-documented and penetrating book. A veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist at The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Stephens has written a rigorously researched history of post-World War II American political thought and leadership in international affairs. It is, however, far more than a chronological narrative and makes a compelling case for how well American interests are served by — and turn on — stability in a globalized world led by the United States.
He also reminds us that when America failed to provide leadership as during the 1970s under President Carter, adversaries became more willing to take risks, such as the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and its aggressive sponsorship of “wars of liberation” throughout Africa and in Nicaragua in the 1970s. Or in contemporary terms, how, when faced with Syrian use of chemical weapons against its own people or Russian aggression in Ukraine, our fecklessness served to encourage others to take risks. In Mr. Stephens’ words, “In the knowledge that U.S. policy makers do not have the will to use force except in the face of direct attack, Iranian, Russian, and Chinese policy makers are growing bolder.”
In the off chance that the reader has missed the point, Mr. Stephens provides in Chapter 9 a notional but eminently plausible and compelling scenario of what could go terribly wrong if an American president were a proponent of the same retrenchment policies being pursued today (i.e., a world without American leadership). In this scenario, the trouble paradoxically begins as a consequence of the growing strength of the American economy. As the Federal Reserve picks up signs of inflation and begins to raise interest rates, the ripple effect owing to a strong dollar (i.e., lower oil prices, deficit spending in countries from Saudi Arabia to Russia), higher borrowing and debt-servicing costs in China produce a tide of bankruptcies.
Before long, always-near-the-surface sentiment in the United States toward reducing foreign entanglements leads a nationalist trend in Japan to stoke sentiment favoring rearmament and perhaps a serious nuclear program. In parallel, the same calls for “retrenchment” here leads to calls for rethinking our pledge of support for Taiwan. Seeing an opportunity, China moves to seize the island of Kinmen (better known as Quemoy). In the Middle East, turmoil surrounding the death of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leads to a prolonged interregnum during which the Revolutionary Guard Corps creates a dust-up with the International Atomic Energy Agency over unauthorized levels of uranium enrichment. Within six months, Saudi Arabia announces that it has detonated a nuclear weapon at a secret test site in the mountains near Yemen.
This spellbinding scenario is carried to other settings as equally alarming events occur in Russia (another invasion of a neighboring former Soviet republic) and Western Europe (a victory in the presidential election of Marine Le Pen (signaling the return of neofascism). If you read nothing else, Chapter 9, titled “A Scenario for Global Disorder,” warrants thoughtful attention.
Mr. Stephens’ intention — brilliantly executed — is to explain why modern politics among nations must take place within an accepted framework of order established, nurtured and maintained under American leadership and supervision. The author also provides solid reasoning for how philosophically misguided and unqualified Europe and social democracy are as alternative structures and paradigms for leadership in the resolution of political or economic challenges — a judgment borne out by the pitiful performance of the European Union throughout the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
As for the prospect of an emergence of sensible leadership here at home, Mr. Stephens has little time for “faux Realists,” whom he characterizes as appropriating “a good-sounding word with an academic gloss to justify nearly any set of misguided personal foreign policy preferences.” Instead, he espouses a doctrine founded upon the defense and advancement of “American interests” in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Bret Stephens has written a remarkable book that confirms him in the top rank of strategic thinkers and contributors to political thought in America.
• Robert McFarlane served as President Reagan’s national security adviser and is a co-founder of the U.S. Energy Security Council.