Why Obama’s foreign policy is dangerous

From Iran to Syria to Ukraine and beyond, Obama’s minimalist foreign policy has done great harm to America and the world. The Obama doctrine is what Bret Stephens calls The Retreat Doctrine, and the West's enemies love it

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Taylor Dibbert
On 12 December 2014 09:44

Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, has recently published an engaging new book about U.S. foreign policy. America in Retreat addresses ongoing debates surrounding America’s role in the world. Concisely written, Stephens’ prose is clear and lively.

Stephens favors an active and involved America abroad. He sees U.S. foreign policy as a force for good. But how far should Washington go? How far is too far? These questions are especially significant in light of a war-weary American public, increased budgetary constraints and an evolving geopolitical landscape.

Barack Obama has not done nearly enough, says Stephens. Indeed, the case that he makes is a convincing one. From Iran to Syria to Ukraine and beyond, he believes that Obama’s minimalist foreign policy has done great harm to America and the world.

Stephens goes into some detail about what he describes as “The Retreat Doctrine” which has been promulgated by Obama -- while reminding readers at the outset that this agenda entails “containment of the United States itself.”

From light footprints to the reluctance to promote American values abroad to continuous talk of “nation-building” here at home, we have been witnessing an excessively cautious, unrealistic American foreign policy under Obama’s watch.

While Obama has done far too little, the George W. Bush administration did too much on the foreign policy front. Stephens convincingly argues that we need to find the right balance. His criticism goes well beyond the current administration -- with Senator Rand Paul receiving considerable attention for his neo-isolationist views.

After all, the current international order is underpinned by American power. If Washington steps aside now, who would step in to fill the void? The global disorder Stephens worries about is a highly unpredictable international system, one that would involve “increased foreign policy freelancing” that would be inimical to American interests.

“Influence, like power, abhors a vacuum,” says Stephens.

Towards the end of the book, he presents his Broken Windows theory of American foreign policy, taken from a piece of social science intended to understand the roots of communal order (and disorder). This type of thinking undergirded policing strategies used, most notably in New York City, in the 1990s.

The idea was to crack down on smaller crimes like panhandling or turnstile jumping to encourage a greater sense of order and deter other crimes -- that the appearance of order will encourage order (and less criminal activity).

While Stephens later mentions that this theory has always been “intensely controversial,” the comparison he makes is highly intriguing and worthy of further consideration.

Furthermore, Stephens isn’t arguing that the U.S. spend 10 percent of its GDP on defense (though he does believe that going above 5 percent would be a good idea). He also mentions that Washington’s NATO allies need to bear more of the burden; aside from the U.S., only the United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece spend greater than 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

Importantly, he’s not suggesting that Washington try to remake the world in its own image. It’s about upholding existing norms, establishing “a sense of presence,” prioritizing accordingly and addressing crises before they get out of hand.

Sure, he believes that America should be “the world’s policeman,” but doesn’t think it is Washington’s responsibility to turn places like Afghanistan or Iraq into fully functioning democracies.

Stephens has written a thought-provoking, accessible book that could not be timelier. With Obama’s foreign policy in disarray and a deep field of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, the issues Stephens raises will be relevant for years to come.

While the contours of U.S. foreign policy post-Obama remain unknown, America in Retreat will remind readers – in the U.S. and beyond – that nothing should be taken for granted and that, while there are risks associated with the assertion of American power abroad, inaction or vacillation is anything but risk-free.

American policymakers would be wise to take heed.

Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert

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