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In ‘America in Retreat,’ a real-life Risk board

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of "America in Retreat," by Bret Stephens. Credit: Sentinel.
Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of "America in Retreat," by Bret Stephens. Credit: Sentinel.

“Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the offensive. 

Bret Stephens’s new book, “America in Retreat, The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder,” reveals the real-life Risk board taking shape globally. In a vacuum of American leadership, modern nations are at odds. They compete for influence and resources, all too often at the expense of Free World ideals. Sounding the alarm, Stephens examines America’s present-day hand in a crumbling world order. In a book rich with historical analysis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—formerly editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post, currently deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, and a popular columnist and public speaker in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities—makes a compelling case that the country is not in decline, and that a strategy of retreat is both unnecessary and a terrible risk.

“The United States was hand-delivered the job of world policeman, on a cold and gray day in Washington D.C. … February 21, 1947,” Stephens writes, recalling the origins of the Truman Doctrine. This official U.S. policy promised political, military, and economic protection to democratic nations threatened by authoritarian forces. At the time, Great Britain, severely weakened by World War II, was retreating from its policing role as the dominant colonial power. The fragile post-war peace would unravel unless the United States assumed responsibility and protected fledgling states. Enter the era of “Pax Americana,” a 68-year (and counting) period of relative peace and stability.

Stephens lauds Pax Americana, calling it a “world in which English is the default language of diplomacy, tourism, and technology; in which markets are global, capital is mobile, trade is increasingly free,… in which values of openness and tolerance are, when not the norm, often the aspiration.” America deserves credit for extending democratic ideals and unprecedented prosperity on such a global scale. Today, however, Stephens observes a war-weary public that is shrinking from its traditional leadership role, signaling weakness and ushering in a new era of “global disorder.”

Beyond America’s shores, the world is indisputably in crisis. The so-called “Arab Spring” has destabilized the entire Middle East, resulting in a bloody civil war in Syria and the rapid rise of Islamic State, a ruthless jihadist terrorist group. Russian land grabs in Ukraine renew pressure on debt-stricken Europe to defend itself against aggression. Meanwhile, China flexes its economic and military muscle in the South China Sea, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose a threat that many Israelis and Israel’s supporters around the world believe is an existential one for the Jewish state.

Recent Pew Research Center surveys demonstrate the emergence of “The New Isolationism,” referenced in the subtitle of Stephens’s book. “Across the political spectrum,” Stephens writes, “58 percent [of Americans] favor paying ‘less attention to problems overseas’…  After Russia’s conquest of Crimea, another Pew poll found that 56 percent of Americans… thought the right policy was ‘not to get involved in the situation.’” Prevailing winds dictate a withdrawal from conflict zones and the downsizing of the U.S. military footprint around the world.

“The causes of this indifference can be summed up in two words,” Stephens reflects. “Iraq and recession.” In the wake of an expensive war and the worst recession since the Great Depression, Americans are increasingly frustrated with the outcomes of their military adventures abroad. “Indifference” might be an overly harsh characterization of the American attitude toward recent world events, but Stephens may indeed be fairly asserting that the U.S., under the leadership of President Barack Obama, has shown weakness and a reluctance to honor its protective guarantees.

The current president’s reversal of his “red line” declaration in 2013 provides the most striking example of the American “retreat” that is underway. “If the American president lacks the moral will or the political stomach to enforce his chemical red line in Syria, what dissuades Tehran from marching across his nuclear red line?” Stephens asks. The author believes that America’s failure to act has alarmed allies, forcing them to seek new security guarantees from less trustworthy partners. What’s worse, America’s adversaries are emboldened.

The heart of Stephens’s argument is contained in his distinction between the terms “decline” and “retreat.”

“Decline is the product of broad civilizational forces—demography, culture, ideologies, attitudes toward authority, attitudes about work—that are often beyond the grasp of ordinary political action,” he states. “Retreat, by contrast, is often nothing more than a political choice. One president can make it; another president could reverse it.”

Determined to prove that the current U.S. strategy of retreat is an overblown reaction to the country’s military blunders abroad and faulty economics, Stephens methodically presents supportive statistics. He cites recent instances of American ingenuity, praises the world’s best university system, and recognizes the potential oil energy and wealth that the U.S. can access through fracking. These promising developments suggest an exceptional American power—still the envy of the world—with game-changing abilities, not an empire on the brink of collapse.

In Risk, the element of chance often undermines a seemingly sound strategy. Defeat necessitates retreat, and only the right combination of resources, cunning, and luck ultimately will enable a player to conquer the world. But objectives are simplified in board games, and unlike “the Brain” of “Pinky and the Brain” fame, America does not have the stated goal to take over the world. Readers digesting Stephens’s unapologetic argument in favor of a more vigorous foreign policy must ask whether they believe that the U.S. president still has the cards in hand to make significant military gambles abroad. If so, what are the outcomes Americans hope to achieve? And is Stephens’s vision for a renewed Pax Americana achievable?

America in Retreat, The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder,” by Bret Stephens, 288 pages, Sentinel (November 2014), ISBN-10: 1591846625, ISBN-13: 978-1591846628. 

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