Is the United States really ‘retreating’?

Is the United States really ‘retreating’?

There are two must-read articles in today’s press: Pankaj Mishra’s "America’s Inevitable Retreat from the Middle East" in the New York Times, and Edward Luce’s cautionary "An American recovery? Don’t believe the hype" in the Financial Times.

Mishra does an excellent job of tracing why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is likely to decline in the years ahead. Not only has the United States pursued policies that have alienated most of the people in this region, but it can no longer count on compliant dictators and monarchs to do our bidding. Instead, governments of all types are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment, which bodes ill for U.S. efforts to shape the region’s future.

But is this a bad thing? The problems that the Middle East is going to face in the years ahead — social unrest, youth unemployment, contentious domestic politics, poorly developed institutions, etc. — are by their very nature difficult for outsiders to fix. In fact, as we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive and direct efforts to mold the politics of millions of people whose traditions differ from ours are likely to fail, and especially when most of the people are angry about our past policies. And as you’ve probably noticed, even our more well-intentioned failures tend to be very expensive. Luce’s slightly gloomy prognosis just reinforces this point: A sluggish U.S. recovery will inevitably limit what the United States can do, and if we keep wasting lives and money on fool’s errands, recovery will be delayed even more.

One should not overstate these trends, of course. Richard Nixon used to complain that the United States was becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant," which was wrong then and is wrong today. The United States is going to be the world’s most powerful country for quite some time to come; it just won’t have the same sort of influence it once enjoyed. The real question is how it will adjust to a slightly more modest role, and what strategies it will adopt going forward. To respond intelligently, the United States will have to overcome the psychological barrier of a somewhat reduced role, and to figure out how to take advantage of America’s enduring strengths instead of constantly doing things that undermine them.

And that brings me to my main complaint with Mishra’s article: his use of the word "retreat." If Americans view a reduced role as a "retreat" — with all its defeatist implications — they will be more likely to face a domestic backlash from neocons and other hardliners shouting "appeasement" and demanding increased defense spending and a renewed commitment to knocking heads together. Framing this trend as a "retreat," therefore, will delay the necessary adjustments and squander additional resources.

By contrast, if this trend is seen as a farsighted and voluntary adjustment to new conditions and strategic priorities, then the risk of backlash will be reduced and the shift won’t have much if any effect on America’s perceived credibility elsewhere. In this sense, the idea of a strategic "pivot" to Asia was smart rhetoric. We aren’t being driven out of the Middle East; we’re just choosing to assign resources where they can do us the most good.

More broadly, the key to making these adjustment lies in convincing Americans to think about their global role differently. Instead of harping on our "global responsibilities," Americans ought to focus instead on their national interests. The litmus test of any foreign policy commitment is not what it will do for others, but rather what it will do for us. (Doing both is perfectly ok by me, but first things first).

America’s current global posture and its strategic toolbox were developed during the Cold War, when the main challenge was a well-armed and easily identifiable great power adversary. In that environment, it made sense for the United States to secure what George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power." The U.S. achieved this goal through an active leadership role in NATO, its bilateral treaty relations in Asia, and its various security commitments in the Persian Gulf. The effort that the United States and Soviet Union expended in places like Indochina or Afghanistan was mostly wasted (and at great cost to these societies). Fortunately for us, we had a lot more resources to waste. 

Times have changed. The United States may face a new peer competitor in the not-too distant future, but right now most security problems arise from regional rivalries, failng states, and local quagmires. In these circumstances, the main strategic objective should be to stay out of the quicksand. Better still, we could try to stick potential rivals with the burden of trying to solve intractable problems. Passing the buck to others isn’t some sort of inglorious retreat; it’s actually a smart strategy that will leaves the United States better prepared to deal with more serious challenges when they arise.