Rethinking retrenchment: Can the United States do less and do better?

My vacation is drawing to a close, and as usual, I didn’t get as much done as I’d hoped. I did bring my reading list along and I’ve made some progress on it, but then I got distracted re-reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars. It’s even more depressing the second time around, insofar as it shows ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

My vacation is drawing to a close, and as usual, I didn't get as much done as I'd hoped. I did bring my reading list along and I've made some progress on it, but then I got distracted re-reading Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars. It's even more depressing the second time around, insofar as it shows just how difficult it was for Obama and his advisors to get the national security establishment to think "outside the box" on the AfPak problem. And most of the warnings that were issued at the time -- that the "surge" wouldn't work in the absence of effective Afghan partners and genuine help from Pakistan -- seem to have been borne out.

Assuming Woodward's account is accurate, what is most striking is how most of the inside debate is about tactics rather than strategy. There are endless go-rounds about how many troops to send, what mix of counterterrorism vs. counter-insurgency to adopt, what deadlines to impose (or not), and how to try to elicit more cooperation from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But there's not a lot of discussion of the broader strategic issues: is it a good idea for the United States to be constantly interfering in the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Central Asia? What are the fundamental sources of our terrorism problem, just how serious is it, and is it possible that the problem might diminish if we weren't meddling there (and elsewhere) and if we passed the buck to others and let them bear burdens in non-essential areas? These are strategic issues, and you don't get the sense from Woodward that these got much of an airing.

If you're intrigued by these larger questions, you should definitely read Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent's "Graceful Decline: The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment," from the Spring 2011 issue of International Security. Based on a comprehensive survey of 18 cases of great power decline (defined as situations where a great power's ordinal ranking of share of economic power changes for the worse), MacDonald and Parent show that declining powers are usually able to adjust their strategic commitments without significant harmful consequences.  Money quotation:

My vacation is drawing to a close, and as usual, I didn’t get as much done as I’d hoped. I did bring my reading list along and I’ve made some progress on it, but then I got distracted re-reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars. It’s even more depressing the second time around, insofar as it shows just how difficult it was for Obama and his advisors to get the national security establishment to think "outside the box" on the AfPak problem. And most of the warnings that were issued at the time — that the "surge" wouldn’t work in the absence of effective Afghan partners and genuine help from Pakistan — seem to have been borne out.

Assuming Woodward’s account is accurate, what is most striking is how most of the inside debate is about tactics rather than strategy. There are endless go-rounds about how many troops to send, what mix of counterterrorism vs. counter-insurgency to adopt, what deadlines to impose (or not), and how to try to elicit more cooperation from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But there’s not a lot of discussion of the broader strategic issues: is it a good idea for the United States to be constantly interfering in the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Central Asia? What are the fundamental sources of our terrorism problem, just how serious is it, and is it possible that the problem might diminish if we weren’t meddling there (and elsewhere) and if we passed the buck to others and let them bear burdens in non-essential areas? These are strategic issues, and you don’t get the sense from Woodward that these got much of an airing.

If you’re intrigued by these larger questions, you should definitely read Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent’s "Graceful Decline: The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment," from the Spring 2011 issue of International Security. Based on a comprehensive survey of 18 cases of great power decline (defined as situations where a great power’s ordinal ranking of share of economic power changes for the worse), MacDonald and Parent show that declining powers are usually able to adjust their strategic commitments without significant harmful consequences.  Money quotation:

Faced with diminishing resources, great powers moderate their foreign policy ambitions and offer concessions in areas of lesser strategic value. Contrary to the pessimistic conclusions of critics, retrenchment neither requires aggression nor invites predation. Great powers are able to rebalance their commitments through compromise, rather than conflict. In these ways, states respond to penury the same way they do to plenty: they seek to adopt policies that maximize security given available means. Far from being a hazardous policy, retrenchment can be successful. States that retrench often regain their position in the hierarchy of great powers. Of the fifteen great powers that adopted retrenchment in response to acute relative decline, 40 percent managed to recover their ordinal rank. In contrast, none of the declining powers that failed to retrench recovered their relative position.

If McDonald and Parent are right, it suggests that Obama & Co. erred when they decided to double down in Central Asia. After the debacle in Iraq and the 2007 financial crisis, the United States needed to take bold action to bring its global commitments in line with its resources. Obama wisely kept us on course out of Iraq (though not that quickly), but an ambitious new team of foreign policy wonks wanted their turn at running the world and did relatively little to put U.S. grand strategy on a more sustainable footing.  Woodward’s account of the debate on Afghanistan suggests that Obama and a few of his advisors understood the need to retrench in a general way (and Obama has repeatedly talked about the greater importance of "nation-building" at home) but they were unable or unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to pull of this adjustment or to impose that consensus on the entire national security establishment.

Retrenchment is going to happen eventually, I’m sure, just not nearly as fast as it should have.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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