America the Strong

Photo of aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis by Defence Images via flickr

America the Strong

Pulling back from America’s global commitments would amount to a “massive experiment.”

Read Time:
3m 26sec

It’s rare to find agreement in academia, but when it comes to the grand strategy of the United States, there is near unanimity among security scholars: America is too dominant and too domineering for its own good. The cash-strapped and war-weary United States ought to cut its bloated defense budget and pull back from its “globe-girdling” foreign policy, a chorus of scholars implores.

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, government professors at Dartmouth, and G. John Ikenberry, a political scientist at Princeton, say their colleagues are all wet: The United States mustn’t retreat. The nation is at its safest, richest, and most influential when it flexes its muscles far beyond North America.

“Deep engagement,” as Brooks and colleagues call U.S. strategy today, gets a bad rap, they say, from scholars who overlook its benefits. America’s vast network of military bases and alliances in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East prevents a foreign power from dominating all of Eurasia (and therefore menacing the United States). The strategy ensures American economic well-being by guarding global stability and keeping shipping lanes open. And deep engagement greases the squeaky wheels of diplomacy. When the United States wants to ink a free-trade deal or isolate a rogue state, its allies cooperate, lest they lose the perks of American friendship, such as American-made weaponry or U.S. security guarantees.

America plays nice with other countries in forums such as the United Nations, magnifying the benefits of deep engagement. It does not always get what it wants, but its combination of hard and soft power “results in more cooperation on matters of importance than would occur if the United States disengaged.”

Critics rebut all this. They contend that Eurasia isn’t a legitimate American concern. Or they claim that stability would endure there in the absence of a U.S. presence. Besides, they say, America can’t afford the financial and human costs of policing the world anymore.

Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth shudder at the thought of leaving so much to chance. Pulling back from America’s commitments—whether entirely, as some advocate, or only “over the horizon” to a maritime stance—would amount to what the authors call a “massive experiment.” The question: “How would the world work without an engaged, liberal leading power?”

It would be no peaceful idyll. Among other “nasty security consequences,” U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, might acquire nuclear weapons. An American withdrawal from Asia would ratchet up tension by removing a check on China’s appetite for regional dominance.

The authors aren’t convinced that a pullback would save much money, either. If the United States opted for “offshore balancing,” as some scholars advocate, the price tag would still be high. Stationing troops aboard ships is costly. Pulling U.S. forces back home comes with its own problems, and, as Brooks and colleagues remind us, American allies “generally cover many infrastructure costs of U.S. forces and bases” overseas.

Pullback advocates also argue that deploying American GIs in so many places pulls the United States into unwise wars or tempts American leaders into rash interventions. They cite Iraq as the prime example.

Iraq was a major exception to what has been a sound grand strategy for some 60 years, the authors respond. Deep engagement hardly means that the United States is destined to repeat such mistakes.

Grand strategies must evolve, Brooks and his coauthors allow. The United States is right to “pivot” to Asia in anticipation of China’s rise. The Pentagon’s budget can afford to shrink somewhat. But abandoning deep engagement would tempt fate. “A world with a disengaged United States,” they write, “is the devil we don’t know.”

THE SOURCE: “Don’t Come Home, America” by Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, in International Security, Winter 2012–13.



More From This Issue