“What we're seeing, for example in Syria, is that the Middle East doesn't play by Vegas rules. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as they say. What happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East.”
Gayle Trotter interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bret Stephens about his book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. Bret is the foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal. This is the first in a four-part series.
Bret, you begin your book with a quote. What is the quote you chose to frame your discussion of this topic?
It's a quote that comes from a speech that Winston Churchill gave to the Harvard Class of, I believe, 1946. This coincides, also, with his Fulton, Missouri address, the famous Iron Curtain speech. The quote goes as follows: "The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes." - Winston Spencer Churchill.
You're familiar with historian Paul Johnson, I take it?
Johnson has written about the Jupiter Complex, the idea that we can solve geopolitical problems by raining retributive thunderbolts on our wicked enemies often with mixed or even catastrophic effects. How would you answer the criticism that your recommendations in this book are another manifestation of the Jupiter Complex?
This book is a call for America to be the world's policeman, not the world's god, not the world's priest. You have to think about what a cop does in his routine. A cop mainly tries to enforce order. A cop mainly tries to reassure good people that it's safe to go about the streets. It's safe to go about their business. He's looking after them. The main role of a policeman is a deterrent role. It's a reassuring role. It's a role that says, "I'm here as a silent protector of a certain kind of civilized order." I'm not going to try to stop everything I disapprove of. I'm not going to tell people how they ought to dress. I'm simply going to make sure that that little old lady who is coming out of her apartment and wants to go shop in a bodega, feels that I'm looking out for her. It's safe for her to do so. If there is some kind of hoodlum-y kids who might harass that woman, they know to think the better of it.
The essence of a foreign policy that I'm advocating is not about taking this, that, and the other military actions. It's actually, in fact, about creating an international environment where you don't have to take those kinds of actions or when you do have to take them, they're targeted and they are infrequent. They are mainly example setting, but not customary, if you will.
Johnson’s view of what I'm talking about in this book is a caricature of the argument and it's also a caricature, by the way, of what it means to advocate for America as a world policeman, not a priest, not a god, just a cop.
We're in the midst of a presidential debate season and we have candidates like Rand Paul who, on the right, are advocating similar things to what President Obama has been doing in his administration and it's resonating with a lot of young people. This idea that we don't want to send our young people, our treasure, all around the world, and that we should be nation building at home, as you write about in your book, instead of other people's neighborhoods.
I would make a few points. Number one, having a strong domestic policy and having a strong foreign policy are things that a great country like the United States needs to do at the same time. Harry Truman had an incredible domestic agenda. He also created the architecture of the Cold War, same with Jack Kennedy, same with Ronald Reagan. Post-war American presidents have understood that it's not a choice between foreign policy and domestic policy. We have to do them both. We have to understand that just as America has to be strong at home in order to be strong abroad, we also benefit at home by being strong abroad. We benefit by supporting trading partners like South Korea that provide you with your Samsung smartphones or your Hyundai cars or whatever, little countries, by the way, at the far edge of the world that we managed to stand up for.
We benefit from a world order in which a great many states are free countries, capitalist countries, free-trading nations, prosperous, anchors of stability in their own regions of the world. This has been a pretty good world for us when you think of the amount of technological, scientific progress. Your children, my children, are going to live probably well into their 80s or 90s, knock on wood, in a way that was unimaginable for, say, my parents or my grandparents. All to do with a march of progress taking place in the world order as we have it now. We shouldn't just suppose this is the way the world always was.
The second point I would make is that what we're seeing, for example in Syria, is that the Middle East doesn't play by Vegas rules.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as they say. What happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. We now have the largest refugee crisis in modern history, precisely, because we tried to stay away from the Middle East and the crisis there festered, metastasized, exploded, whatever the metaphor you want to draw on. We have ISIS, because jihadist groups like ISIS, just like Al Qaeda before, actually prosper in situations of chaos, state collapse and indifference. Where were the roots of Al Qaeda? It was in Afghanistan. It was in the hinterlands. It was in ungoverned spaces. We're seeing the same thing now happening with ISIS.