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The Dangerous Dreamworld of Bret Stephens

The New York Times columnist insists a world without American primacy is a world of chaos. A look at our latest achievements says otherwise.

Beware, fellow citizens, of the isolationist temptation. History itself has summoned America to lead. To slack off on that duty is necessarily to court disaster. Hear me: The inevitable alternative to American primacy is global chaos.

Members of the commentariat without number somehow carve out a living by reciting variations of this absurd litany. Few do so with less subtlety and a greater affinity for cliches than New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. Every few months Stephens takes it upon himself to remind readers of the consequences that will inevitably befall humankind if the United States, as he wrote in a recent piece, “turns its back on the world.”

For Stephens, and for other members of what we might call the Henny Penny school of punditry, Americans are always on the verge of abandoning the world, thereby allowing evil to triumph. Any moment now the sky will fall and it’s all going to be our fault.

Carrying the title, “Don’t Wish for a Post-Pax Americana,” his most recent column offers a case in point. Two unstated premises inform his argument: first, that Pax Americana accurately describes the existing global order;  and second, that the workings of that Pax benefit men and women of good will everywhere. Put simply, to the extent that global peace and order exist, it’s as a direct result of American muscle and assertiveness. If you think a viable alternative exists, you’re kidding yourself.

Stephens inventories the baleful consequences sure to result from failing to uphold this Pax. They include “predatory behavior” by nations not given to following the rules; nuclear proliferation, leading to “miscalculation, accident and tragedy”; and economic distress, with global trade held hostage to “hostile powers and unexpected events.” Worst of all, with the passing of the Pax Americana, “liberal democracy would wither,” both abroad and here at home. All told, it makes for a grim picture.

Grim, but shot through with dishonesty. Stephens’s tribute to the Pax Americana is nothing if not selective. Among the matters that he overlooks is the predatory behavior of the United States as it initiates wars of choice in defiance of established norms; the ongoing trillion-dollar plus modernization of the U.S. nuclear strike force, incentivizing others to follow suit; Washington’s casual disruption of international trade whenever it suits some domestic constituency, such as Cuban Americans in Southern Florida; and, of course, the abysmal condition of American democracy, attributable at least in part to the post-Cold War (and post-9/11) follies that proponents of a Pax Americana vigorously supported.

Stephens numbers among those who promoted those follies, not least of all the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On going to war with Saddam, he was all in. In a matter of weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Stephens felt certain that events had rendered a definitive judgment. “The defeat of Saddam Hussein is a great achievement,” he wrote. The naysayers had been proven wrong. The Iraq war “did not turn into a bloody quagmire.” By year’s end, with U.S. forces now bogged down in what was indeed a bloody quagmire, Stephens was still insisting that the war was going well. Operation Iraqi Freedom had “exceeded nearly every expectation,” he argued.

With his penchant for prematurely spiking the football, Stephens expects the current showdown over Ukraine to serve as a redemptive moment, reaffirming the indispensability of American global leadership. So he gives Biden “full credit for masterly crisis management,” which includes “whipping into line our European allies,” deploying additional U.S. troops to the region, “refusing to negotiate at Ukraine’s expense,” and threatening sanctions “that, for once, have real teeth.” There is, in that catalog of achievements, more than a small amount of wishful thinking, especially when adding to the mix Biden’s vow that under no circumstances will U.S. troops come to Ukraine’s defense. If Biden believes in a Pax Americana, it excludes Ukraine.

I make no pretense of being able to decipher Vladimir Putin’s motives in instigating this crisis. I do take seriously his insistence that Russia has a legitimate sphere of influence, which must include Ukraine. I’m guessing that Bret Stephens entertains similar feelings about U.S. relations with Canada and Mexico.

Whether or not a Pax Americana ever existed is an interesting question, best left to scholars to decide. But one thing I know for certain. Today, the erstwhile unipolar order is gone for good. We live in a multipolar world disinclined to take its marching orders from Washington. Bret Stephens numbers among those who believe that throwing our weight around provides the best way to get back on top. In fact, this is a recipe for further diminishing American power.

Having squandered trillions in needless wars in the Greater Middle East and with the world facing an existential climate crisis, the United States has more important matters to tend to than nursing further delusions about a Pax Americana. The sooner Bret Stephens figures that out the better.

Andrew J. Bacevich, TAC’s writer at large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.