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Is America in Retreat? A Conversation with Bret Stephens

with Bret Stephens

This edition of Liberty Law Talk discusses with the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens his recent book, America in Retreat. Stephens argues that an America which declines to engage globally with its military is accepting a false promise of peace at the expense of rising disorder. The introduction chapter is entitled “The World’s Policeman” where Stephens quotes President Barack Obama’s proclamation in a 2013 speech: “We should not be the world’s policeman.” Similarly, Rand Paul states that “America’s mission should always be to keep the peace, not police the world.” “This book,” says Stephens, “is my response to that argument.”

Our conversation focuses on the foreign policy choices that America should make by considering the factors that must be weighed and analyzed to make those decisions. Here, we disagree on foreign policy and strategy. If we believe, as Stephens argues, that “No great power can treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power,” then what, exactly, will that require? What are the ends that we seek, and what are the means at our disposal for pursuing a particular course? Why is a certain regional or national disorder in a part of the world America’s problem to remedy? How is that determination made?

While there is plenty of discussion on foreign policy here, Stephens also notes the strength of America. To Stephens’ credit he argues against the declinist talk we’ve seen take hold in recent thinking on America’s future. He marshals important data and tantalizing anecdotes that indicates something very much the opposite. Stephens observes the ways that elites from supposedly rising nations like China keep connecting their fortunes and their families to America. What do they know about us and about their own country that we choose to forget or ignore in our bemoaning of America? This conversation reminds us that for America decline is very much a choice. We can and should choose the better course.

Reader Discussion

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on March 18, 2015 at 19:06:35 pm

Hard to tell which is more despicable: the psychotic imperialism of Stephens or the interviewer's cowardice. Do you have a Samsung phone? ZING! That's because "we" "gave""American lives", fly-over idiot!

This interview demonstrates why most Europeans still regard Americans as lunatics.

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Carl
on March 19, 2015 at 06:48:42 am

Carl, Several points of profound disagreement in this interview on the means and ends of foreign policy. That is, I question the very project of an expansive strategy that Stephens is articulating. I'm not into the zinger business.

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Richard M. Reinsch II
on March 19, 2015 at 13:50:03 pm

We should do what the Founding Fathers intended as foreign policy, no foreign entanglements, friendship and trade with all nations, and, when confronted with hostility, show force with one hand and extend the olive branch in the other one. That is the only workable, sensible solution to maintain a global player and restore trust in our Republic.

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Mark
on March 20, 2015 at 18:48:05 pm

[…] Is America in Retreat? A Conversation with Bret Stephens […]

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Weekend Reading | The Ordeal of Consciousness
on March 24, 2015 at 13:53:06 pm

Great podcast about a book I was curious about. So as to let folks judge what I say below, my own for pol position is as follows: it's Aron/Hamiltonian realism, which accepts the first Bush doctrine, thinks the invasion of Iraq was necessary given what we knew, and thinks Bush made the right decision also with the surge. It is against hawkishness against Russia, for it towards Iran and ISIS, short-term for backing our allies Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Israel, "Kurdistan," NATO to the hilt, long-term for diminishing some of our NATO commitments. It detests efforts to grant international bodies involvement in our decisions. It agrees with Stephens that our military should be larger. It encourages robust cultural diplomacy for the sake of pumping up Islamic reformers and dragging down Islamic fundamentalists.

I am broad agreement with Stephens' resistance against the vague isolation-leaning quasi-libertarian position. But there are two huge things that Stephens neglects, in advocating a return to Reagan-style and "the-good-W-only"-style policing and international engagement.

1) The big lesson from Iraq is that we have to proceed as if the nation will be similarly dividable by the left in future wars. The left will demagogue the slightest difficulties and mistakes in future wars, because a belief in militaristic and imperialistic U.S. is at the very heart of who they are. That means we have to have a for pol that gets clearer Dem party buy-in and commitment at every single step, and that we only pursue policies that can win over such support from half the Dems, and their key leaders. The likes of Obama are of course hopeless. They're not the Dems we'll have to be looking for, and have to be thinking of when drawing realistic "red lines" for the sake of international security. NO amount of quantifiable military might is going to alter that fundamental weakness of our own division-proclivity moving forward. It infects every agency, every command. This proclivity for quick political division in any real war led by the conservative half of the nation has to be assumed. It would do us and the world no good, for example, to fight Islamist advance in sub-Saharan Africa, which would actually be a good thing to do, if the price is the election of another Obama-type. The full ugliness of that, is that we will have to look certain victim nations and peoples in the eye and say, "We are too politically weak to help you, even though we do have the military power to do so." But there it is.

2) Stephens seems blind to the problem of our allies backing us into an imperial role (that among other things threatens our constitutional system), through a) their refusal to develop the politics or the defense budgets necessary for their potential military action, and b) their entangling our for pol and military decisions in international agency and international law governance. See, as a slogan, "leading from behind" was a good one. Any "return" to our global role after said "retreat" has got to find way of signalling greater caginess towards our allies. In part, this will simply be honesty, of the sort that says to our allies, "political opinion in our nation is only so reliable, and we are NOT going to 'insulate' for pol decisions from democratic say in ways that violate or verge-on-the-edge of violating our Constitution. You have to provide more for your self-defense."

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Carl Eric Scott
on March 24, 2015 at 22:03:03 pm

[…] And over at the Liberty Fund’s LibertyLawTalk series, Richard Reinsch converses with the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens about his important new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Disorder. You can listen or download the 48-minute podcast at this link. […]

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Image of The Latest in Alt-Media: Fukuyama and Stephens | Drawnlines Politics
The Latest in Alt-Media: Fukuyama and Stephens | Drawnlines Politics
on March 31, 2015 at 10:47:38 am

[…] Is America in Retreat? A Conversation with Bret Stephens […]

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Image of Public Union Power: A Conversation with Daniel DiSalvo - Freedom's Floodgates
Public Union Power: A Conversation with Daniel DiSalvo - Freedom's Floodgates
on April 08, 2015 at 20:26:27 pm

Wow. Such a shamefully Eurocentric comment.

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EssEm
on April 30, 2015 at 08:59:00 am

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Is America in Retreat? A Conversation with Bret Stephens | Online Library of Law & Liberty

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Heavy Haul Transportation company
on June 23, 2015 at 09:15:40 am

[…] Is America in Retreat? A Conversation with Bret Stephens […]

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Image of Russia, China, and Us: A Response to Mark Helprin - Freedom's Floodgates
Russia, China, and Us: A Response to Mark Helprin - Freedom's Floodgates

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.