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The Myth of American Retreat

Like his predecessors, Obama has pursued a foreign policy of primacy, not restraint.

The United States has been pursuing a grand strategy of primacy since at least the end of the Cold War. This hegemonic approach has sought, through active, deep engagement in the world, to preserve and extend the U.S.’s global dominance that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. In other words, it has aimed to turn the unipolar moment into a unipolar era. Maintaining this dominance has meant aggressive diplomacy and the frequent display, threat, and use of military power everywhere from the Balkans to the Baltics, from Libya to Pakistan, and from the Taiwan Straits to the Korean peninsula.   

Unfortunately, primacy has largely failed to deliver what must be the first, second, and third priorities for any grand strategy: the satisfaction of national interests, foremost among them America’s safety. Rather than peace and security, primacy has brought about questionable military interventions and wars of choice in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans (twice), Iraq (three times, depending on how you count), Libya, and Syria. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the deaths of almost 7,000 American troops, the wounding of tens of thousands more, and the filing of disability claims by nearly a million veterans. Rather than protecting the conditions of our prosperity, primacy has cost Americans dearly, with the annual defense budget now set to rise to around $600 billion and the Iraq War alone wasting trillions of dollars. As for our values, the U.S. approach has placed our nation in the uncomfortable position of defending illiberal regimes abroad, stained our reputation for the rule of law with Guantanamo and drone campaigns, and sacrificed the Constitutional authority of Congress. 

Is it any wonder that more and more Americans question whether our foreign policy is working? Or that more and more Washington elites, though still a minority, are becoming dissatisfied with the status quo? Such challengers seek to reform the military budget and force structure to make them consistent with our real security needs. They also want to reduce ally free-riding and make sure that the full range of possible costs and consequences of our actions abroad get a more serious hearing so that we, in the immortal words of President Obama, “Don’t do stupid shit.”    

And yet Robert Lieber, in his slender new book Retreat and Its Consequences, thinks those who seek an alternative approach are dangerously misled. He sees any sign of realism and restraint—real, anticipated, or imagined—as a retreat with far-reaching negative implications. Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, instead makes the case for doubling down on primacy and against the U.S. playing a “reduced” role in the world. He does so mainly by attempting to show the negative consequences of the Obama administration’s supposed retrenchment while arguing for the importance of aggressive American global leadership.

Unfortunately for the primacist cause, Retreat and Its Consequences is not a satisfactory rejoinder to its challengers. Lieber is unconvincing in both his indictment of opposing views and his case for deep engagement. The book frequently reads like a rehashing of attacks we’ve heard high and low since Bush departed office, from scholars like Peter Feaver of Duke University to the Beltway neoconservatives to the fear-mongering talking heads on cable news. More importantly, it trots out a deeply flawed argument that the United States under Obama is actually in retreat and shedding its global leadership.


Retreat and Its Consequences is the last book of Lieber’s informal trilogy on recent U.S. foreign policy. In the first book in the series, The American Era (2005), Lieber argued in favor of the United States continuing in the post-9/11 era to lead the world through a grand strategy of “preponderance” and “active engagement.” He claimed that such an approach would dovetail with the realities of that changed world, to the benefit of U.S. security and the international order alike. The next book, Power and Willpower in the American Future (2012), challenged the declinist perspective and made the case for why the U.S. could still exert global leadership despite facing a number of different challenges. 

Lieber begins this third book, Retreat and Its Consequences, by claiming that America’s long-standing active engagement in global affairs has been increasingly questioned at home and that the U.S. has recently been retrenching and pulling back from its traditional leadership role. He describes this retrenchment in theory and practice, then briefly (and in more detail later in the book) paints a picture of a world gone bad as a consequence of this alleged retreat. He hangs most of his indictment on President Obama’s foreign-policy approach, which Lieber claims reflects “a clear preference for reducing U.S. power and presence abroad” as well as “a deep skepticism about the use of force” and “a de-emphasis on relationships with allies.”

The middle section of the book provides chapter-long discussions of U.S. foreign relations with Europe, the Middle East, and the BRICS countries. In the Europe chapter, Lieber argues that our critical relationship with our European allies is suffering. He claims that the “Atlantic partnership has weakened as the United States has downplayed its European commitments and Europeans themselves have become less capable and more inclined to hedge their bets.” The latter is due to Europe’s own internal woes, including economic problems, military weakness (as well as growing pacifism), demographic challenges, and problems with the EU. The other half of the problem he lays, as is typical in this book, at the Obama administration’s doorstep due to its de-emphasis on Europe and its weak behavior towards Putin’s Russia.   

As for the Middle East, Lieber claims that the region and U.S. national interests there are suffering due to Obama’s flawed retrenchment and disengagement strategy. Indeed, Lieber argues that Obama’s transformative moves, only lightly described, have “contributed to the making of a more dangerous and unstable Middle East.” He also discusses U.S. interests and history in the region, the sources of Middle East instability, and the “unexpected consequences” of the Iraq War—the rise of ISIS and Iran.

Lieber’s main point regarding the BRICS is that these countries have not helped and will not be able to help sustain the current global order. Indeed, he thinks these states have their own different priorities and, to the extent they benefit from the current system, will try to free ride as much as possible. Lieber uses these cases as still more reasons why the U.S. cannot disengage from its global leadership role even as economic power continues to diffuse.

In the penultimate chapter, Lieber returns to his allegation that the U.S. has been retreating from the world and our leadership role—and tries to show that it has had dangerous consequences. In the process, he discusses U.S. policies toward Russia, China, Iraq and Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, and Cuba. In all these cases, Lieber finds evidence of failure and worsening conditions due to Obama’s retrenchment and his aversion to using American power. He also claims that the Obama administration has cut our military while failing to provide a focused articulation of what goals it needs to meet.

Lieber ends by returning to the theme of Power and Willpower in the American Future, namely that the U.S., despite its challenges, still has the capacity to pursue an active hegemonic grand strategy. He takes issue with the declinists and argues yet again that the U.S. ought to lead the world; otherwise, it “is likely to become a more disorderly and dangerous place, with mounting threats not only to world order and economic prosperity, but to its own national interests and homeland security.”


Lieber’s book isn’t without its lucid moments. First, he is on sound footing when he notes that the BRICS are not fully committed to the current American-led international order. Furthermore, he is also right about the need for our European allies to increase their own capabilities—though one wishes he had paused to consider how this is an unsurprising result of U.S. security guarantees that incentivize free-riding.

Second, Lieber also helpfully challenges the declinist view prevalent in some circles. The United States certainly has its challenges, with staggering debt and deficits, not to mention a stifling regulatory regime. But the U.S. continues to enjoy many strengths and advantages, especially relative to the other near-great powers in the system. (And in international politics, it is relative power that matters most.) Yet while Lieber gets the condition of the patient right in this instance, the good doctor does not convincingly argue for the necessity of his preferred prescription. That the U.S. may not be in relative decline or in as much future trouble as some might claim does not imply that the U.S. should continue to follow primacy. Rather, one could argue that it is precisely because of some of our continued advantages that his grand strategy is not required. When discussing the BRICS, Lieber admits that China suffers from some grave problems that may prevent it from becoming a serious challenger to American dominance. This raises the question of why the United States must do—and risk—so much to ensure our security or that of our allies in Asia. 

Despite these positives, Retreat and Its Consequences and the overarching approach that has guided Lieber’s policy views for so long suffer from a number of critical flaws. Most importantly, the argument of the book is simply based on a mistaken and endlessly repeated premise that the United States has significantly retreated from the world and that this has been a key source of so many problems in it. Basically, Lieber, as we’ve heard so often from others, is arguing that the administration has pursued restraint, the world has gone to hell, restraint is responsible for our woes—and thus we must return to primacy. Admittedly, Obama, especially in his second term, has exercised greater discretion in how he has managed our global engagement and leadership. And he may in his heart of hearts have some sympathy with those who have counseled greater realism. But neither make for a policy of retreat.

thisarticleappearsIndeed, the United States under Obama has continued to pursue a variant of primacy despite what Lieber and others keep saying in their critiques. The United States is still committed to defending over 60 other countries and commanding the global commons. It still has a forward-deployed military living on a globe-girdling network of hundreds of military bases. In fact, it has recently sent more troops and equipment to Iraq, Eastern Europe, and even Australia. The United States still enjoys the world’s strongest military force, costing taxpayers around $600 billion a year. This sum represents nearly a third of all global spending and is equal to that of at least the next 10 countries combined. Its nearest competitor, China, spends far less, about $150 billion. And during the Obama years, the United States surged forces in Afghanistan, fought a war against Libya that led to regime change, re-entered Iraq and engaged (even if tepidly) in Syria, supported Saudi Arabia’s dubious fight in Yemen, continued to conduct drone strikes abroad, became unprofitably enmeshed diplomatically in Ukraine’s troubles, and continued to exert its power and influence in Asia. And just recently the U.S. again bombed targets in Libya. Retreat, you say?

Finally, Lieber’s claim that disengagement and retrenchment is to blame for problems in the greater Middle East is rich given how the primacist approach he favors was to a great extent responsible for the problems in the first place. The degree of disarray in Libya and the consequences of it have flowed directly from the U.S.’s decision to go to war against Gaddafi and to pursue regime change. There is little need to note how disastrous the Iraq War was for the region and American interests—and how Iraq continues to be a source of trouble that the U.S. is ill-suited to resolve. It is especially noteworthy that the relative increase of Iranian influence Lieber bemoans was an entirely predictable result of that short-sighted campaign. And we haven’t likely seen all of the poisonous fruit from what is happening in Yemen. In short, Lieber and his fellow primacists have advocated for policies in the Middle East—including the war in Iraq—that are a big part of the problem, not the solution.

Our country needs challenges and alternatives to the status quo rather than boilerplate justifications of the policies that have failed to make us safer over the past 25 years. Regardless of what Lieber would have us believe, President Obama’s grand strategy has remained firmly planted within the confines of the Washington consensus and does not represent a retreat. One could only imagine what Lieber would think of a policy that truly hewed more closely to the advice of our Founders.

William Ruger is the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute.