A college professor teaching a course on theories of international relations would not find it hard to prepare for his or her students an anthology of articles or book chapters written by authors representing the major schools of thought in the field. That would hold true for realism or idealism (in their traditional of “neo” versions), liberalism (including “neo” and “post”), or Marxism, or the various alternative approaches such a post-structuralism and post-modernism, as well as efforts to apply feminism or green theory.
So it’s not surprising that our enterprising IR professor, recognizing the extent to which a school of thought known as neoconservatism has shaped American foreign policy in recent decades—even transforming it in a dramatic way through the Iraq War and the Freedom Agenda—would also search for a major work written by a leading neoconservative thinker that could provide the students with a serious and coherent overview of the neoconservative theory of international relations in its most updated version.
Here I have the realist John Mearsheimer, the neo-realist Fareed Zakaria, the idealist Samantha Power, the liberal John Ikenbeary, the Marxist Noam Chomsky, and such works as The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, The End of History, or The Clash of Civilizations. So where is our Great Neoconservative Foreign Policy Thinker and his or her magnum opus?
A historian of American intellectual thought would probably conclude that once there were actually serious neoconservative thinkers like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Irving Kristol who published original and ground-breaking works on social and economic policy, some of which have become classics in the field.
But when it comes to the field of international relations, neoconservatism has failed to produce any great thinkers, and will instead be remembered for its many pundits and operators, or policy entrepreneurs, who did affect the debate and the crafting of American foreign policy but who have never been able to ground the policies they advanced in any consistent and systemic theoretical framework that could stand the test of time.
One could make the argument that these neoconservative policy entrepreneurs were just a bunch of guys who, during the Cold War, seemed to agree that Washington wasn’t tough enough towards the Soviet Union or friendly enough towards Israel, and since the Cold War ended have been arguing that America needs to establish global dominance (Pax Americana) and control the Middle East, culminating with their push for ousting Saddam Hussein, for occupying Iraq, and for remaking the Middle East. Their policy recommendations came first, and only then did they tried to articulate the reasons why American policymakers should embrace them.
Some of these foreign policy entrepreneurs, like Robert Kagan or Charles Krauthammer, may have been more articulate than others, but much of what they and other neoconservatives have had to say and write about foreign policy has been quite predictable, calling for the exertion of U.S. military power abroad in search of monsters to destroy. And their work was never aimed not at discovering a great new idea in international relations, but rather at providing intellectual ammunition to political allies fighting the “war of ideas” in Washington’s think tanks and green rooms, while maligning political enemies, more often than not as “isolationists”.
From that perspective, Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder  fits the bill as another lightweight neoconservative foreign policy tome with quite a lot of intellectual pretension, if not arrogance, that could have been condensed into a short magazine article or even into an op-ed piece (saving at least this reader some time).
Devoid of any new ideas, America in Retreat  recycles old clichés in a confused and misleading way as part of an effort to revive and advance the neoconservative agenda at a time when it seemed (at least for a while) to be in decline, while at the same time bashing and trying to marginalize current and potential enemies of the cause. In this case, those enemies are the supposedly emerging “isolationist” wing in the Republican Party and the conservative movement, and its presumptive leader and potential presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul.
Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning deputy page editor of the Wall Street Journal has been promoting these and similar themes in his Global View column in the newspaper, and he tends to employ the same kind of literary devices in the book as in his column, starting with the Great Spin.
According to Stephens, America is retreating from the world. It is abandoning Iraq; withdrawing from Afghanistan; refusing to topple Syria’s Assad; tolerating Russia’s aggression in Ukraine; allowing China to bully its neighbors. These and other examples of weakness and appeasement amount to a rejection of America’s traditional role as the world’s policeman.
Until recently, the view that “we should not be the world’s policeman,” which Stephens equates with “isolationism”, was held mainly by the political left and “found a home in the fringes of the right, particularly among small-government libertarians and latter-day Father Coughlin such as Pat Buchanan.”
But now “isolationism” is gathering support among members of “the mainstream of the conservative movement,” with the upshot being that foreign policy in the United States “is now cutting across traditional divides.” It is no longer “a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves.” According to Stephens, it is now an argument between neoisolationists and internationalists, with “an increasing number of Tea Party and libertarian-leaning Republicans like Senator Rand Paul” joining Democrats and liberals in espousing this neoisolationist creed.
The idealist and moralistic President Barack Obama and his Retreat Doctrine, which “begins as form of prophylactic defense against supposedly inevitable failure, then proceeds to an acquiescence to a world hostile to American interests, values, and long-term security” are supposedly responsible for the “isolationist” drift in Washington and around the country. Since Obama came to office, the global political and economic order have apparently crumbled, creating the conditions for instability and chaos everywhere.
The result is that without the United States playing the role of the world’s policeman, we should expect the Coming Global Disorder, as revisionist powers (Russia, China, Iran) exploit the strategic vacuum being created in “de-Americanized world.” Former U.S. allies that cannot count anymore on American protection (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan) are tempted to take matters in their own hand, to “freelance” when they fear that their security is at stake. And “free radicals,” ranging from jihadists with WMDs to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, “take advantage of the open architecture of the modern world to attack the foundations of the free world.”
The problem with this Great Spin is that it is ahistorical and has nothing to do with reality. Accounting for 42.6 percent of global military spending (as compared to 5.2 percent for China, 3.0 percent from Britain, and 2.2 percent for India) while continuing to maintain its military presence in every corner of the world, Washington, operating with clear bipartisan support, including by Paul, remains committed to activist global interventionist policies.
What Stephens dubs “retreat” and “neoisolationism” are nothing more than a return to normalcy, to the sources of traditional American foreign policy as practiced by Republican and Democratic Presidents since World War II. It was President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors who abandoned those principles and decided to launch a costly unilateralist military adventure and war of choice—coupled with a ideological crusade to impose American values worldwide—that ran contrary to U.S. interests and traditions.
In fact, American presidents have never tried to impose a Pax Americana or to embrace the role of the world’s policeman, except perhaps in the Western Hemisphere, but have rather sought to work with its allies in order to protect their common interests, as it did during the Cold War when it shared global power with the Soviet Union, but never considered, for example, deploying military troops to assist freedom fighters.
From that perspective, President Obama, with initial strong support from the American public as well as the backing of many realists on the political right, has decided to abandon the reckless and un-American foreign policy pursued by his predecessor (especially during W.’s first term in office) and to adopt a similar strategy of adjustment and retrenchment that was pursued by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—and orchestrated by Henry Kissinger—against the backdrop of the expected U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam.
Like in the case of Nixon, President Obama’s policies included reassessing U.S. global interests, reducing defense spending, shifting more security responsibilities to allies, and reaching diplomatic deals with adversaries, all while continuing to project and sometime use American military power abroad.
In a way, the cry of betrayal sounded by Japan and other allies in Asia in the face of American withdrawal from Vietnam and the diplomatic opening to China recalls a similar irritation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Israel as President Obama was taking steps to readjust U.S. policy in the Middle East to changing strategic realities, steps such as launching diplomatic negotiations with Iran. What Stephens describes as neoisolationism is the pursuit of nuanced Realpolitik policies.
But in Stephens’ foreign policy universe there is no place for nuance, only crude binarism. His two villains, the alleged critics of his imaginary Pax Americana President Obama and Senator Paul, are compared to two historical figures and former presidential candidates, Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace and Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio.
In Stephens’ narrative, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a straight ideological line leading from Wallace (an early critic of U.S. Cold War policies) to Obama, and from Taft (who opposed U.S. entry into World War II) to Paul—with all the four being opponents of Pax Americana and exhibiting those “isolationist”—old and neo—tendencies. But these faulty historical analogies are based on the assumption that al-Qaeda, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran pose the same level of threat that Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union did, and disregards the differences between the idealist Wallace and the more realist Taft (who by the way were also strong supporters of Zionism and Israel).
More annoying is the way that Stephens deals with his Iraq problem: his failure to resolve the dissonance between his suggestion that his ideological mates, including President Bush, are deep inside actually hardcore realists and the reality of the ambitious Wilsonian Freedom Agenda that Bush and the neoconservatives promoted after 9/11.
In order to resolve this cognitive dissonance, Stephens, in an exercise of mislabeling and historical revisionism, contends that, well, you see, there were actually two Bush Doctrines. There was the Realpolitik Bush-Cheney doctrine that was seeking to “uphold, defend and improve world order, not transform and improve human society” and only wanted to prevent Saddam Hussein from having access to WMDs. And then there was Bush Doctrine II that “promised to work toward the elimination of dictatorships the world over” and that Bush embraced only after it was discovered that there were no WMDs in Iraq.
But anyone who followed the debate in Washington before and after the Iraq War recognizes that the Freedom Agenda and the Wilsonian fantasy of turning Iraq and the Arab World into thriving liberal democracies while disregarding the political and cultural realities of Mesopotamia and the rest of the region, was an integral part of the drive to intervene in Iraq. It had very little to do with Realpolitik, and if anything, ended up harming U.S. (and Israeli) strategic interests by strengthening the power of Iran and its regional satellites.
Stephens doesn’t even try to confront the strategic catastrophe that the neoconservative agenda has created in the Middle East, and instead suggests that it is Obama that has been trying to advance a Bush Doctrine II in the Middle East by embracing the Arab Spring and abandoning Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. This is a legitimate criticism, but not a very credible one coming from Stephens, who now calls for using military power to depose Syria’s Assad and provide support to his opponents.
But then, America in Retreat, like other neoconservative foreign policy literature, isn’t supposed to make sense since it’s not based on any clear elucidation of how the world works and how to deal with it other than arguing for the need to show “resolve” and militarily threaten anyone who doesn’t share America’s values and interests (as defined by Stephens and Co).
In fact, by the time the book came out, many of its assumptions had already been overrun by events like the emergence of ISIS that actually played into the hands of the pro-interventionists in Washington, or the plunge in oil prices that weakened revisionist powers like Iran and Russia. Actually, much of what the book argues has not been overrun by reality; it never corresponded to it in the first place.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.