JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us.
Our guest today is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens. He is here to discuss the ideas put forth in his long-awaited book entitled America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.
If you're a reader of Bret's Global View column, you know that each Tuesday, as he responds to current events, he often argues for an America that is engaged with the world. His political commentary has been known to cause strong reaction in his readers, something which I've read that he welcomes. But whether you agree or disagree with Bret's point of view, like all good columnists, his arguments are always well-reasoned, presented with clarity of thought, and written with carefully chosen words that convey an underlying passion. As an avid reader of his column, I am delighted to welcome him here to this Public Affairs breakfast program.
You often hear Americans say that we are not, nor should we be, the policeman of the world. Yet, since the end of World War II, along with the promotion of liberal democracy, culture, and values, world peace has been enforced by the very notion that American military power was supreme, and that we were willing to use force if need be.
Today, however, America finds itself in a post-Cold War global order, under immense strain with many in our country, including the president, who are seemingly reluctant to accept the notion that America has an historic responsibility to be the world's policeman and can no longer afford to remain an isolationist. In America in Retreat, Bret makes the case for reengagement abroad, eloquently arguing that if we retreat from our global responsibilities, there will be devastating consequences affecting our national security and prosperity.
With a command of American history, a mastery of foreign policy, and a grasp of the conundrums of current events, Bret shows that for the world's sole superpower, defending our principles abroad will also advance our interest at home.
Now at this point I know that some of you may be asking why, others will be wanting to know what we must do to protect our interest. For the answers, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Bret Stephens.
BRET STEPHENS: Well thank you for the very warm introduction, the very generous introduction.
This is my first book and it's an interesting experience, going on a book and a media tour. Just the other day I did 15 radio interviews in succession, and it's an interesting experience to do American radio as you crisscross the country and go from one radio station in which you're introduced and the subject is, "We're here to discuss the foreign policy of our Muslim socialist president." And then go from that to the NPR affiliate in Burlington, Vermont, which begins with, "Mr. Stephens welcome to our show. Now you are pretty much arguing that the United States should invade every single country right away, for the sake of stealing their oil and killing their babies. Please explain." [Laughter] And you have to find an even tone.
So one of the great pleasures of speaking to an audience here is I feel like I can speak in my own voice, in my own tone, and hope to be understood.
I want to maybe explain my book by simply taking you through the title. It's a very, very long title. I assure you that this is a very fast-paced narrative, very fun to read. The working title was 49 Shades of Grey, [Laughter] but there was a copyright issue. It's because some things are black and white—that's why it's only 49 shades. But I want to take you through the title to explain what I'm getting at, and then maybe talk about some of the larger and more immediate things.
The book is called America in Retreat, and this was not meant to be simply polemical. We have been quite consciously, over the past six years, engaged in a foreign policy that explicitly calls for nation-building at home, and that implies that there's a choice between the nation-building that you do. We've been quite consciously embarked on this foreign policy. You can call it "retrenchment," you can call it other things. The president calls it nation-building at home, but it's a very conscious effort to move away from the model of American foreign policy that I think defined the post-War era from 1947 and the adoption of the Truman Doctrine in February or March of 1947, all the way up through the financial crisis of 2008, 2009.
So the foreign policy that we have here has done something rather radically different from past foreign policies, which is it put to the American people that our foreign commitments, that what we invest in foreign policy, whether it's military investments or diplomatic investments, it's basically an either/or proposition with our domestic policy. That's rather radical. A guy like Eisenhower was a Cold Warrior, but he also built the highway system. Lyndon Johnson fought the Vietnam War—not wisely, but he fought the Vietnam War—but he also made the "Great Society."
All presidents have understood, right up until this president, that we can do both. We can mend the frayed edges of society, but we also want to advance America's interests overseas. We understand that we are the ultimate guarantor of a relatively decent, stable, liberal world order, governed by a sense of rules, a sense of expectations, and the knowledge, both among our friends and our adversaries, that we have the will and the wherewithal to police, to ensure our interests and ensure our allies' interest, and to deter aggression, at least when the aggression is flagrant and requires a response.
That began to change in 2009, and it changed because we had a president who wanted it to change, but I think it changed also because we had an American people who wanted it to change. We have to face up to it, and I think this is especially true of those of us who are on the right side of the aisle.
In 2009, Americans looked at the world, and they said, "We've just fought a war in Iraq that, at best, was"—to use that wonderful British expression, "The game wasn't worth the candle." We had lost 4,400 troops in this country, first, for the sake of trying to find weapons of mass destruction [WMD] that were not found, then trying to bring democracy to the heart of the Middle East, which proved to be probably a fool's errand. We spent $700 billion, $800 billion dollars in this effort. What we got at the end of this extraordinary effort was a financial crisis, unprecedented in modern history, sharp recession. So it made political sense. There was a logic in saying "Let's have this nation-building at home" because it seemed that what we were spending abroad was costing us at home.
So when I say "America in retreat" I'm not trying to be polemical. I think this is consciously the choice that Americans made, and they made it for a variety of understandable reasons. Not necessarily right reasons, but understandable reasons.
The second point I want to make about America in retreat is that America in retreat is not America in decline. My colleague, my friend at The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer made a comment. He said, "Decline is a choice." I think, with respect to Charles, he's slightly wrong. Decline is not a choice. A country like Russia is in decline. Japan is in decline. Europe, or parts of Europe, there's a strong argument to be made, are also in decline. And decline is something that happens for reasons that are typically beyond the reach of any single politician to fix.
Britain in 1945 was in decline. It had spent a quarter of its national wealth trying to win the war. It was spending 20 percent, or 19 percent of its GDP trying to maintain its military forces. It had this ongoing colonial enterprise, not just in India, Pakistan, Palestine, but also in Nigeria, much of Africa, Belize and so on. And no British prime minister, whether it had been Attlee, or Churchill, or some other prime inister could have staved off the decline that Britain inevitably was facing.
Japan is in decline. No Japanese prime minister is going to convince Japanese women to have lots of babies, which is what you need to do if you're going to stave off this really terrible demographic picture that they're facing. They're also declining for another, I think, more interesting and subtle reason, which is that they could grow their population if they accepted immigrants. But that would violate some very core notion of Japanese-ness. So you have a kind of a cultural fact, which obstructs the possibility of a political solution.
So these are sort of examples of decline. Russia's in a very steep decline, and I can go into that maybe in the Q&A.
I don't for a second believe that the United States is in decline. This is a point that's often made: We're a nation that's passed its prime. You look at the history of declinism, and it actually begins in 1788, with a Massachusetts playwright by the name of Mercy Otis Warren, who was a fierce anti-federalist. She opposed the Constitution, and she said something to the effect that we were soon going to see the country rushing into the extremes of violence and confusion. So declinism has a very long and historic history.
I'm 41 years old and I'm old enough to remember the declinism of the 1980s when we were convinced that Japan was going to take over. You had Paul Kennedy making a very interesting and in some ways compelling case about imperial overstretch.
Today also, there's another kind of bout of declinism with the idea that China is rising inexorably. Their GDP is growing by leaps and bounds. This, of course, all depends on actually believing Chinese statistics, which is kind of like believing in Bernie Madoff's returns. The Chinese say "This year we will grow 7.5 percent," and, lo and behold, an economy of 1.3 billion people grows 7.5 percent, and you think, "Whoa, how did they do that? That's amazing."
But I don't believe we're in decline, and if you ask an economic historian—and I imagine an economic historian in the year 2030, 2035—and say "What were the great innovations of the early 21st century that really defined the economy of the 21st century?" I would wager that he or she would say, "Well, there was the social media revolution, which completely transformed the way that we make our economies work, the way we network with people, and the way we communicate, the way we understand one another, the way we marry and date, and so on"—really a dramatic change from just 20 years ago. That was a "made in America" phenomenon, purely a "made in America" phenomenon. We keep thinking that, "Oh, this was just an accident with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard," and not someone at the Sorbonne, or someone at Moscow State University, but it tends to happen in the United States.
Another thing I would say connected to it is the apps revolution, brought about by iPhones and tablets. The apps revolution is an extraordinary thing because it creates the possibility for people who are at the very margins of a labor force to become members of the labor force. And some of you are probably already using Uber to find a car. I now use this wonderful thing called TaskRabbit. I hate setting up computer systems and stereo systems. I'm a useless husband. I don't know what wires go into where, and guess what? I go to this app called TaskRabbit and I will hire someone for $75 to go and set up the computer system that I don't know what to do with. And someone will come. So this apps revolution has consequences that are remarkable.
Third thing, I think much more importantly, is the fracking revolution. [Editor's note: For more on fracking, check out Gregory Zuckerman's January, 2014 Carnegie talk on the subject.] Think about fracking. Fracking is something that only could have happened in the United States. It's not like there is no shale oil in Europe, China, Russia, all over the world. But why did fracking happen uniquely in the United States? Well, a few reasons. Number one, only in America, do Americans own subsoil property rights. That is to say that you don't need to go and get a license from the central government to check out what's underneath your backyard. That's actually unique in the United States.
Second aspect is, in America we have federalism. So in Pennsylvania there's a fracking revolution with what we call the Marcellus Shale. It's not happening in New York, because New Yorkers, for a variety of reasons have made the choice not to frack. Okay, you can say that's a good choice or a bad choice. But that's what federalism is about. And so we're having this process of experimentation, and states are being able to make choices about the balance between economic development and environmental conservation. That's a purely American thing.
And the third thing is, we have this spirit of wildcatting. The spirit of adventure, in terms of our entrepreneurs. Think of a guy like George Mitchell—a father of fracking. George Mitchell is the son of a Greek sheep herder or goat herder who came to this country 100 years ago to lay track. Think of someone like Harold Hamm, who's the CEO of Continental Resources, one of the biggest companies to develop the fracking revolution. Harold Hamm is the 13th son of Oklahoma sharecroppers. He started his life pumping gas in Enid, Oklahoma.
I had an interesting conversation not too long ago with the CEO of one of the top American oil firms. I asked him, "Where was fracking on your prospectus 10 years ago?" He said "It was nowhere." That's interesting. Just even four, five years ago everyone was talking about peak oil in this country, and now we realize that we're very far away from peak oil. So America in retreat is not America in decline. This country still has resources, capabilities that are staggering.
And again, this is a wager—Niels Bohr said prediction is very difficult, especially about the future—but I would wager that America will be the dominant military and economic power for the rest of this century. I don't see us being overtaken by anyone.
So we've made this policy choice for retreat. And as I mentioned, it's being done in part because the president believes in it, and part because it was popular. When I started writing this book in 2012—I signed the contract two years ago, I started writing it about nine months later—one of the things that really concerned me was what I sensed was this new isolationism.
The president won reelection broadly popular on the foreign policy front. There was a view in the United States that we were living in a relatively benign international environment. The tide of war was receding. Core al-Qaeda was on a path to defeat, and the other affiliates of al-Qaeda were, as the president famously said, "the JV team of Jihadism." We had reset relations with Russia, we were pivoting to Asia. There was the sense that the world was in pretty good shape, and we could pretty much leave well enough alone. So attitudes about our involvement in the rest of the world began to change.
You started seeing surveys showing that for the first time, the majority of Americans thought that the job for the United States should be to mind our own business. The surveys had been taken since 1964. The data's in the book, and I've forgotten the exact figures, but for the first time there was a change in American perception about, "Well what should we be doing with the world? In the world? If the world is in good shape, we have problems at home, let's focus on those problems."
I want to be clear, just to say a couple of things about isolationism. I do not consider isolationism a dirty word. Isolationism is a proud tradition in American foreign policy. Isolationism begins with George Washington's Farewell Address. You have Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural, talking about friendship, peace, and commerce with all nations, entangling alliances with none. You could make the argument that this sort of isolationist view was more often honored in the breach than in practice, but that's been a long-held view. In the 19th century, when it took three weeks to reach the United States by a steamship or by a sailboat, it made eminent sense.
When you look at the history of isolationist thinkers, it's not a collection of bigots and xenophobes and anti-Semites and fools. There are great names associated with isolationism. And isolationism, by the way, it shouldn't be an "-ism." It's not an ideolology. It's a tendency. It's the general view that America should stand apart. People talk about American exceptionalism, and American exceptionalism shares some space with isolationism. If we're an exceptional nation, why do we have to muddy our hands in what the rest of the world may or may not be up to?
There were two great foreign policy decisions in the 20th century. One happened in 1919, 1920, and one happened in 1947. In 1947, we decided to become muscularly engaged with the world through the Truman Doctrine, then through our alliances in NATO, and so forth, and so on.
But the other great foreign policy decision happened in 1919, 1920, over the fight over the Treaty of Versailles. Think about the parallels: You had a president who was a crusading president, quite religious, went to war to make the world safe for democracy. Many lives were lost in this war, but the war came to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion. And then when Americans took a look at what had been achieved, they thought, "You know, this is not such a good idea. This is not such a good thing." So they retreated, and they elected a president from the other party who was promising what he said was normalcy.
There is more in common between the foreign policies of Barack Obama and Warren Harding than people typically will appreciate. Think: What was Warren Harding's great foreign policy achievement? It was the Washington Naval Conference, the Washington Naval Treaty. He was also a great believer in the disarmament agenda of his day, as President Obama is now.
So there are parallels between the foreign policy we are conducting now, and the foreign policy that we were conducting in the 1920s and 1930s. Again, it was about looking inward. It was about taking care of our problems at home. It was about saying, "Nothing we do in the world is going to make the world a better place. People should look after themselves. Our intervention is bound to backfire."
So this brings me to the third part of the title, which is "the coming global disorder." Again, when I started writing this book, I looked around the world, I think most Americans, as I said, looked around the world, and saw a pretty benign picture. What would I observe? I would observe that Europe was stumbling from one recession to the next, with no end in sight to the deep structural problems, not just of the eurozone, but of the EU as a political institution. And I say this, by the way, as the son-in-law of a longtime European Commission diplomat, so I say this with great fondness for what Europe has achieved. But Europe is in very deep trouble, and that's $17 trillion of global GDP. That's a serious issue.
Second thing is, you looked over at the Arab world, and the Arab Spring had quickly begun to fall apart in a very worrisome way. It wasn't just the disappointments of the Arab Spring, it was the unraveling of the Arab world. Think about it: In the just three, coming on four years since the Arab Spring began, four states have unraveled. Yemen, effectively doesn't exist; Syria, effectively doesn't exist; Libya, effectively doesn't exist; and Iraq largely doesn't exist, at least as we have known them as semi-Westphalian states. That's a rather remarkable thing. What's taking its place? It's very hard to see, very hard to forecast, but a system was being unraveled.
I looked at Iran's development of its nuclear capabilities; another very worrisome thing, because not only was it a question of whether Iran, a very difficult regime, was going to get a nuclear bomb, or at least a nuclear capability, but whether that would mean that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, perhaps Egypt, Algeria, would also look for nuclear capabilities. So the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] system, the non-proliferation system was coming under fundamental strain.
You looked at Russia, and already by 2012 it was clear that what Putin wanted to do was reconstitute, if not a Soviet empire, sort of a czarist empire. He wanted, in some fundamental way, to overthrow the results of 1989. And he was working very steadily to do that. You already had the invasion of Georgia, cyber war on Estonia, so it isn't actually surprising that he's now taken these next steps.
And then in East Asia, really very worrying questions about the East Asian order, as we've known it since 1945—a retreat of American military power, the absence of any real pivot, and these very interesting conflicts happening in very peripheral places.
Winston Churchill, in his history of the First World War, practically begins the book—by the way, it's a fantastic history of the First World War. I don't know if it's the best history, but for eloquence it's hard to beat Churchill's volume. But he writes about the crisis in Agadir. And where is Agadir? Agadir is this tiny little port in Southern Morocco. And one day in July, 1911, a German gun boat called the Panther shows up in the bay of Agadir, and Churchill writes, "All the alarm bells in Europe began to ring." It's a wonderful expression. A tiny little 200-foot gun boat shows up at a little port, at the very periphery of the world, as remote a corner as you could imagine, on a pretextual mission to protect, quote, "endangered Germans in Southern Morocco." It happens, by the way, there are no Germans in Southern Morocco.
A guy by the name of Her Wilberg had to come on horseback from Marrakesh for three days to get to Agadir, in order to be rescued by the Panther. I describe this here—there's a wonderful scene where he's standing on the beach waving to the Panther, which is anchored half a mile out in the bay, and these Germans on the ship are looking at him and saying, "Is he some kind of local here?" And finally it dawns on them, "Maybe he's that endangered German."
Anyway, Agadir nearly sent Europe into the First World War. It was a close-run thing that World War I did not begin in 1911 over Agadir. And the reason I mentioned that is it's a reminder that sometimes great conflicts at the center of civilization happen at the very periphery. They begin at the very periphery of civilization. When you look at the conflict like the Senkaku Islands conflict between the Chinese and the Japanese, and you begin to understand the kind of equities are involved, you see how these things can kind of bubble up.
So this takes me through where this began. Let me just talk a little bit about what I see happening, and what I think ought to be done.
It is not an accident that when you retreat from the powers and responsibilities that you previously had, you create vacuums. And power—this is a cliché—abhors a vacuum. So I don't think it is an accident that our adversaries, seeing what is happening in Syria, elsewhere in the world, seeing what is happening to American red lines say, "You know what? It's open season."
I said, "There's an analogy between what's happening today and what's happening in the 1930s." What happened in the 1930s is it suddenly dawned—actually this goes back to the Rapallo Conference of the 1920s—it suddenly dawned on the Germans, it suddenly dawned on the Italians, it suddenly dawned on the Japanese that the victors of the First World War had neither the will nor the wherewithal to enforce the peace they had imposed on the vanquished.
And so suddenly these countries realized they're knocking on an open door. They can walk right through. In 1930, Japan signs the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war forever as an instrument of national power. In 1931, Japan invades Manchuria. The League of Nations sends a commission of inquiry, which took a year to conclude somewhat ambiguously that Japan had, in fact, invaded Manchuria.
In 1935, Mussolini invades Abyssinia. The reaction of the Roosevelt administration, which was still in its early isolationist mode, was to impose an arms embargo on both sides of the conflict—Italy and the poor Abyssinians, Ethiopians, one of the most feckless gestures in American foreign policy history.
In 1938, it's the same story with the Sudeten crisis, and so on.
So there was a sense, clearly among revisionist regimes, those that wanted to revise their regional order, that they could act and no one was going to oppose them. And I think there's a sense today among the revisionist regimes of the present that they can act and no one is going to oppose them. It is a scary thing when I talk to diplomatic sources around the world, both countries that are friendly and countries that are less friendly, the sense that they don't think that America intends to oppose revisionist designs anywhere in the world.
In Iran, we have a policy which amounts to a a "kick the can down the road" sort of policy. I don't think any Iranian leader today believes the Obama administration when it says, "The military options on the table."
I don't think any Russian leader believes that they will be fiercely opposed if, say, Russia were, tonight, to invade Estonia. And I think there's an interest, if I were Vladimir Putin, in saying, "Well why not? Why not take Estonia?" Because this would break the back of NATO. This would show that American guarantees to NATO are hollow, because let's face it, Americans are not about to die in large numbers for the freedom of Talinn; or Vilna, if it's Lithuania; or Riga if it's Latvia.
So this is another worrisome thing. You have revisionist regimes that think that this is an opportunity to revise the global order because American red lines are probably meaningless. Just as worrisome, you have allied countries that are wondering whether the guarantees of the American insurance policy that they've taken out for the past 60, 70 years is a good insurance policy.
Something fundamental changed, not only in Israeli thinking, but also in Saudi thinking, after September of 2013 and the erasure of the red line over Syria. The Saudis decided they aren't even going to take a Security Council seat that was basically theirs for the having, simply to tell the Americans what they thought of their guarantees. The Israelis began to rethink those assumptions as well. I think we should be worried about the idea of an Israeli military strike on Iran because it will involve the United States, whether we like it or not, but it will involve us on terms and in ways that we don't have control. One of the benefits of Pax Americana is you get what in Hollywood, or I guess in real estate, is called a right of first refusal. Your allies come to you first, at least, quietly, before they act. And now that's no longer happening.
So we're entering a world of ambitious rogues who think it's open season, and nervous freelancers who are looking at other security arrangements. This becomes a world of dynamic unpredictability. You don't know what's going to happen next. If you look at the things that have happened in our foreign policy over the last two or three years, I think the quality is unpredictable. It's, "Who would've thought this was possible?"
You saw it in John Kerry's reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. He said, "This is 19th century behavior." He had a very pregnant expression. I don't know if he was conscious of just how resonant the language he used was, but it was just, we're entering a world in which this stuff isn't supposed to happen. And yet it is, because the old guarantees that had defined world order for the past 50 or 60 years no longer were present.
Now let me just finally finish with a few thoughts about where we head next.
We're here in New York City. Twenty-five years ago in New York City the murder rate was 30 murders per 100,000 people. This was a city where crime was just totally out of control. When I was a kid, when I was a teenager, there was this—I loved it, and I still love it—very much a B film with Kurt Russell called Escape from New York and the premise of Escape from New York, for those of you who don't watch late-night movies, is that by 1997 crime in New York is so out of control that they just decide to turn Manhattan into a gigantic Alcatraz. They just blow up the bridges, blockade the tunnels, and then you have this ridiculous movie. In the early 80s, that was actually not a crazy supposition that if crime rates, the trends kept going in that direction, that's where we would end up. One of the points that I make in this book is, "Trend is not truth."
Just because you have a trend that China's growing at 7, 8, 9 percent annualized growth, doesn't mean that it's going to continue forever. Simply capturing the trend line tells you nothing. And in the case of crime what we discovered is these trend lines, which seem to be becoming ever more worrisome and more violent, suddenly were erased.
Today in New York, the murder rate is about 5 murders per 100,000. So it went from 30 to 5. It's a historic drop. How were we able to transform disorder into order? There are a number of reasons. One is the crack epidemic crested, another is we had something called CompStat, computerized management of crime. But what we had, and what was really quite striking, was broken windows policing. What's broken windows policing? It is the notion that the business of police isn't simply to react to crime, to react to disorder. The business of the police is to create and enforce order.
So one of the things that Commissioner Bratton did, and then Commissioner Kelly, is he started putting cops on the street. [Editor's note: For more on Ray Kelly, check out his 2012 Carnegie talk.] So if you're a little old lady, and you come out of your house, and you want to go to the bodega to do some shopping, well, there's a cop right there, just looking at you. And he's telling you, "You can go and do your shopping, and it's going to be okay." And if you're a young thug or an aspiring young thug and you see a cop there, you're going to say, "I'm going to skedaddle somewhere else." And from time to time there will be a crime committed, and the policemen will have to step in.
It's very different to be a cop. The roles of being a cop and being a priest are very different. One of the things that went wrong in Iraq for the United States is we went in there on the theory of being a cop, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world order, that he had weapons of mass destruction, that we had to get rid of him. And that was actually a view I still embrace and endorse.
But suddenly we went into Iraq, we discovered there were no WMD, or at least WMD that would threaten us, and we decided to adopt a new mission, which was to be a priest. We stopped being in the business of enforcing order, and went into the business of trying to change hearts and save souls. That's what priests do. And so we went from a war in which we got rid of this tyrant, to this mission to turn Iraq into something that I don't think it ever could be. We went into Iraq to make an example of Saddam Hussein, and we ended up staying in Iraq to make Iraq exemplary. The difference between example and exemplary is measured in about 4,000 lives and from success to fiasco.
I talk about this with the respect to what it means to be a policeman, which is that the job of a policeman is simply to enforce order. It's not to transform societies. It's not to make your dreams come true. The last 20 years since the end of the Cold War, one of the deepest failures of American foreign policy is that we got into this business of trying to make our dreams come true in foreign policy. Let's have a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, dream-come-true type of foreign policy, or peace process in, I don't know, Africa, or throughout the world, East Timor.
There's a lot more in common between the Clinton foreign policy and the Bush foreign policy, Bush two, than people realize. It was Rousseauian. It was the idea that man is essentially good, and the business of American power is to bulldoze the way towards bringing out the goodness in man. Very different, by the way, from the view of our founders on human nature, which took a distinctly dimmer view.
So we had this kind of foreign policy of trying to make dreams come true. The foreign policy that we really need to have is about how to keep our nightmares at bay. How to think about, "What are the things we must not allow to happen?" Iran with nuclear weapons, Russian seizure of Estonia, a war between China and the Japanese, or between one of our treaty allies in East Asia. Let's focus on that. Let's be a policeman. Let's think about the things we need to do to enforce order. Let's not try to be in the business of changing hearts and minds, but simply be in the business of trying to maintain certain rules of the road, certain expectations about behavior. That's what policemen do, and that's actually a worthy role for the United States.
I would conclude with just this thought. People say, "Oh, we don't want to be the world's cop." There's a great cost to being the world's cop. I didn't grow up wanting to be a cop. But none of you would want to live in a neighborhood, or a world, where there is no cop. What are the alternatives? Is collective security the alternative? It would be nice if collective security were the alternative, but everywhere it's been tried, it generally tends to fail or not work as we would like.
Would we like a balance of power? Well, a balance of power with whom, and are we really ready to say to the Chinese, "East Asia is your zone"? Or to the former Soviet states, "Russia will be your master"? I don't think we're ready to do that. It's perfectly okay if the balance of power is between common civilization, but even the balance of power failed on the eve of the First World War
So a balance of power doesn't seem to work, and then there's the Fukuyama vision, which is also Immanuel Kant's vision of perpetual peace through democracy and capitalism. But don't forget that 100 years ago, on the eve of the First World War, the two countries who were the world's largest trading partners were Germany and Great Britain. These countries traded with each other, these countries were highly advanced European civilizations, and guess what? They spent four years murdering and butchering one another in the First World War.
So the alternatives to Pax Americana, the alternatives to the world's policeman, I don't think really exist. This is a role that we ought to embrace.
Last point I want to make, this is not necessarily a heroic vision, and I think that if I were reviewing my book, I would say, "The problem is how you sell Americans who are, by nature, idealists, on the very pragmatic thing, 'your job is to be a cop'?" That's a tough thing to do. But what I do want, and what I finally hope this book achieves, is the kind of pedagogy for Democrats, but especially, I have to say, for Republicans, about what a sober, responsible, conservative foreign policy should look like, one that is statesman-like, one that understands what our priorities need to be, one that doesn't fall prey to an Utopian belief that America can redeem the world on the one hand, or equally Utopian that we can remove ourselves from the world on the other hand, and find our security that way. We can't.
So this is, I think, a counsel of realism, and I hope that lots of people read this and say, "This is the right foreign policy that finds the middle road between the excessive overcommitments of the Bush administration, and the caution, perhaps the excessive caution, and reactiveness of the ObamaaAdministration." So what I'm hoping is that this is the "Goldilocks" recipe for some kind of middle road foreign policy. Thank you.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
Policemen need resources. For us to be policemen in the world, we need to have a very robust defense budget. Right now our deficit's about 3 percent of our GDP. Everybody knows that in the next couple of years, as the baby boomers go into retirement, with Medicare and Social Security and all that, entitlements will increase significantly. Is it realistic to expect the American people to finance the entitlements and finance a robust defense budget that's necessary for us to be policemen of the world?
BRET STEPHENS: That's a wonderful question. We also now spend a historically low percentage of our GDP on defense. In 2014, we will spend 3.5 percent of GDP on defense. The 45-year average between 1962 and 2007, so both the Cold War and the post-Cold War era, was 5.5 percent.
It's a very serious question. But I would argue, if you look at the experience of Europe, that you're never going to be able to balance your books on the back of your defense budget. Europe right now has a problem, which is that they have almost preposterously small militaries. The entire German Navy fields one functioning submarine. This is a country with a $3.7 trillion GDP. So you can't imagine that you can simply say, "We're going to radically cut defense because we want a more balanced budget picture."
We do have a problem with entitlements. That is the main source of federal spending, federal outweighs it. It explains most of our structural debts and our deficits. Reform entitlements. That's something that you're going to have to do.
But this is a point I make particularly to the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party, that they are fools to believe that by simply cutting defense budgets, they are having "savings," in a Republican sense. That's just money that will go from a defense budget to some kind of entitlement budget, or some other federal outlay.
But the deeper point is this: People make, sensibly, the argument that in order for us to be strong abroad, we need to be strong at home. I would also argue that in order for us to be strong at home we have to be strong abroad. We will not save money if we simply wait on crises, or wait for crises to continue to emerge and worsen in Syria, Northern Iraq, in East Europe, in East Asia, and then as these crises involve us more, think, "We're just going to stay away from them." You don't stay away from them. At some point they involve you.
One of the things you'd like to do is involve yourself when these crises are manageable, when it's a stage one cancer, not when it's a stage four cancer. I don't know now how you go about solving the problem of Syria. I do know that if the United States had intervened in say, mid-2011, ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] would probably not have come into existence. You wouldn't have had 200,000 dead people. You wouldn't have had the explosive refugee crisis you have on all of Syria's neighbors. Jordan would not be at risk of profound destabilization.
What I would argue is that a proactive, preemptive, forward-leaning foreign policy that tries to prevent crises from exploding is actually a more cost-effective policy for us than simply radically shrinking military budgets and saying, "At some point we'll have to deal with it." That was the prescription of the 1920s and 1930s, and then World War II—because we had to fight the war, our federal debts went to well north of 100 percent of GDP.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
In light of what you've been saying, for example, fracking is giving the United States greater energy independence. After the Arab Spring, Egypt has returned to a more authoritarian regime. You mentioned ISIS and so forth.
What should America's role be in the Middle East? If we're energy independent then we don't have to worry that much about oil from Iraq and Iran, and so forth. But on the other hand, it's such a unstable situation, what should our role be?
BRET STEPHENS: Thank you, that's an excellent question.
A couple of points: the term "energy independence" should be banned. There is greater energy security from fracking, but anyone who knows oil markets knows it's a global market. Imagine a bathtub with various faucets. We are now pumping more oil than we did before. We are not energy independent. We will never be energy independent.
The price of oil is essentially a global price. So Middle Eastern oil will always be a large part of that equation, not least because the cost of lifting oil from Middle Eastern states is much lower than than the cost of lifting oil from some of our tight mineral resources. It costs about $5 or so to lift a barrel of oil in Saudi Arabia. It costs about $60 to lift a barrel of oil from Bakken, and now one of the great questions for the frackers is, how quickly can they improve the technology so that the cost goes down, and oil becomes profitable at $55, $50, even $40 a barrel?
Second point is, the Middle East matters to us because of its energy resources, but it also matters because right now it is one of the great volcanoes of political radicalism in the world. And it's radicalism that we all know affects us quite directly. Nine-eleven was not a multi-trillion dollar operation. Nine-eleven was a $500,000 operation conducted by 19 guys who were really intent on causing a lot of mayhem. The possibility that Middle Eastern regimes, whether they're somewhat more prosperous because of oil revenues, or somewhat less prosperous, the possibility of some of these Middle Eastern regimes becoming nuclear-weapon states should worry us, irrespective of what oil markets tell us.
Third point, and I think this is perhaps more fundamental, when democracies suffer from economic contractions, they tend to become more risk-averse when it comes to foreign policy. Look at American foreign policy after the financial crisis. When dictatorships suffer from economic setbacks they become more risk-prone. Argentina was in a dreadful economic state in 1982 when they said, "Hey, let's invade the Falklands." Why? Because it was popular, and it was a way of essentially escaping from their domestic travails.
People won't often say, not just with respect to the Middle East, but say Russia—"Putin is going to have to be much more cautious with his foreign policy because his economy is now in really a bad way." I would say Putin is likelier to become much more ambitious in his foreign policy precisely because his economy's in a bad way, and he needs something to distract Russians from their worsening economic circumstances.
Think about it: Putin has rarely been more popular than he is today. And yet the Russian economy is almost, or is moving towards a situation which is almost as bad as the one that Putin found when he came to the presidency in 1999, 2000, after the economically devastating Yeltsin years.
So look for dictatorial oil dependent regimes to become more aggressive as the price of oil goes down, and they have to find other ways of legitimizing their role.
QUESTION: David Musher.
There are great similarities between the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana.
BRET STEPHENS: Latin, most of all. [Laughter]
QUESTION: And we all know that there was a decline of the Roman Empire. Your thesis is that America is not in decline. How do you see the relationship between the two? Is there a relationship between the two?
BRET STEPHENS: You know, I use the term Pax Americana because it's convenient, but it's also, in a sense, misleading because the United States is not the Roman Empire. The United States is not an empire. We do not control as Britain did, other nations. Britain directly ruled India, directly ruled what is now Pakistan, directly ruled what is now probably two thirds of the African continent, directly ruled Malaysia, with British colonial administrators coming up and ruling these places. The United States has interests around the world, but we have to appreciate that there's a great deal of difference. We do not have restless native populations seeking national self-determination against American rule. It's just a fundamental difference.
I sometimes hear Rand Paul say, "We have military deployments in 130 countries." And it's just staggering how he gets away with this because we have military deployments in 130 countries only if you count our Marine detachments at embassies. So by his logic we're currently occupying China, Russia, Mongolia, and so on. In fact, American overseas military commitments—I actually made a table—are at a historic low. Just remember, 20 years ago we had 10,000, 12,000 troops in Panama. We had 15,000 troops in the Philippines. We had 250,000 troops in Germany. Today we have 50,000. So it's fundamentally different.
And yes, by the way, the Roman Empire did eventually decline, but that took 700 years or so. We're in year 238 of this republican experiment. So even if you think the analogy with the Romans is a relatively good one, if you take that analogy seriously you'd say, "Well, we have some breathing space." And hopefully we won't have dreadful emperors who make their horses senator, although that's happening in Illinois at any moment. It's a good thing Illinois is not the model.
QUESTION: Byung-oh Kim. I work for the Korean consulate general.
About a decade ago, Professor Thomas Christensen at Princeton University wrote an article about the rising China: another USSR or a global partner So I'd like to hear your opinion about United States and the possible policies against a rising China. Do you think the United States needs to have a hawkish or an active engagement with the rising China? Or do you think cooperation is preferred for U.S. interests?
BRET STEPHENS: Thank you. First of all, just a quick word about Korea. I mentioned at the beginning I'm doing all of these radio shows, and the difficult thing to persuade your audience is that this thing called Pax Americana is a good thing for Americans. It's not something we're doing for the sake of people on the other side of the world. And one of the things I often say is, "Many of your listeners have a Samsung phone right now, in their pocket. And 60 years ago, South Korea was an impoverished country with a dictator, with a lower GDP than Zaire had at the time. And here is this extraordinary, thriving democracy, which is one of our largest trading partners, 10th or 11th largest economy in the world, and all of us benefit from the genius of the Korean people producing goods that we want."
So I'm just taking the occasion of talking about this from your question.
Now about the Chinese—look, since 1976 the Communist Party of China has based its legitimacy on two pillars. It's obviously no longer Marxism-Leninism or even Maoism. It's on the one hand, prosperity—the Chinese Communist Party is making the country richer. On the other hand, it's nationalism. And because China has prospered over the last 40 years, the Chinese have been able to soft-play the nationalist card because they don't need to use it. So a lot of the issues that would otherwise have roiled the Chinese under different circumstances have been postponed.
What worries me most is if China's economy begins to slow in a very traumatic way, as I believe it will. I think there are very, very worrying signs in China's economy, not the least of which is a massive real estate bubble. We saw what that did to Japan after the Japanese real estate bubble burst. They will have to find a new pillar for legitimacy and that pillar will be nationalism. Already you're seeing very muscular Chinese activity in East China Sea, South China Sea, with a number of their neighbors; the use of resources, rare earth materials to try to bully the Japanese. We will see much more aggressive Chinese behavior.
I think American policy should be structured around two things. We should continue to strive to bring China into the global economy every way we can. And we should resist nativist, protectionist measures to keep out Chinese companies from competing on equal terms with all of their competitors around the world.
So when we are trying to screw Japanese tire-makers—this is, I think, dreadful thinking and it persuades the Chinese that they could never win on a level economic playing field because we will always tilt the rules against them. So I think that's very foolish.
On the other hand, we also have to persuade the Chinese that they will not be able to win an arms race against the United States and our allies in East Asia. And that means a much greater—this is one of the points to make on behalf of a larger military. In 1989, the United States had nearly 600 ships in the Navy. We have fewer than half that number today. Generals often talk about this idea that quantity has a quality all of its own. And right now we are not just there in sufficient quantities, in the kind of quantities we need to be in Asia. And so that becomes a temptation for the Chinese to probe and to push against American power.
It becomes a temptation to say, "Let's see if we can get into a naval arms race with the Americans because America, of course, has a naval commitment in three oceans." They only have a naval commitment in one ocean.
Again, looking at the analogy of the First World War, if China is the new Wilhelmian Germany of pre-World War I looking for its place in the sun, how do we make it unequivocally clear to Chinese leaders that we will never allow them to win a naval arms race in East Asia? By maintaining numbers that they know they will not be able to match.
So it's that mix of policies, which is on the one hand, welcoming China every way we can into a global marketplace, and into a fair, non-tilted marketplace, to encourage Chinese economic growth. And on the other hand, to make them think very carefully about this attempt to take over South China, or bully their neighbors.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.
Ostensibly, we are opposed and very concerned with the nuclear area of Iran. Ostensibly, we are opposed to Assad in Syria. However, we seem to be cooperating with Iran, and Syria, in fighting ISIS, which is being funded in part by our Arab allies. Do we know what we're doing out there? [Laughter]
BRET STEPHENS: I'm probably not the person to whom you should address this question, but it seems not.
And I think this is one of the reasons that explains Chuck Hagel's resignation. I was no fan of Hagel, but Hagel had pointed out, sensibly, that we have an incoherent Middle Eastern policy. Our official policy is we want Assad gone. And by the way, that should be our policy. He's a bad guy. We would benefit from his departure. Our official policy is that Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable.
Our de facto policy is that we are perfectly happy with Assad there, as a counter balance to ISIS, and in part because we've never invested sufficiently in finding a third way in Syria. Maybe there isn't a third way. Maybe there was, but no longer is.
In practice, I think that if you were to scratch the surface with most administration officials they'd say, "A nuclear Iran is bad, but we live with a nuclear Pakistan, and a nuclear North Korea. The world will go on. It's not going to be devastating to our interests." So this is a policy caught between what it actually believes and then what it says. That's not a good place. The administration should either have the courage of its statements, or the courage of its convictions. At the moment it has neither.
Fine, let Obama come out and say, "Look, you know what? Frankly anything that we would do to stop Iran from getting a bomb would be much worse than Iran with a bomb. And I'm just going to come out and say it, I've got nothing to lose, all right? So just live with it. We don't want Iran to have a bomb, we're going to give it the old college try through diplomacy, but I'm not about to start another war to stop the Iranians from getting a bomb." Now at least that would be an intellectually respectable position.
But right now he says, "An Iran with a nuclear weapon is unacceptable," much in the way that I tell my 11-year-old daughter that her behavior is unacceptable. My 11-year-old knows perfectly well that I don't mean it. And the Iranians know perfectly well that we don't mean it. It's okay for me to lose credibility with my 11-year-old, because she's not threatening—occasionally she threatens to annihilate, or wipe her brother off the map, but that's another story. [Laughter]
What you have here is a problem of strategic incoherence in the administration. Until they resolve that problem, we are going to stumble from crisis to crisis because what the administration will allow itself to say and do, is very different from the goals that it is seeking.
I cannot see the negotiation with Iran reaching an acceptable conclusion. We are really simply just postponing this problem to the next president.
I'll say one thing, I once had a meeting with Bush, late in his presidency, and it was an interesting meeting. He was clearly meditating on the nature of the presidency. Bush could be extremely articulate, especially when he was not feeling like he was about to start World War III the next day. He spent a lot of time meditating on the importance of giving his successor a menu, options.
I wish Obama would spend some time thinking about offering his successor—whether it's Hillary Clinton, or Jed Bush, or Elizabeth Warren, or god knows who—a menu. Right now in our Iran policy, the menu is essentially we're going to accept Iran with a nuclear weapon, or the next president's going to have to come in and almost immediately bomb the Iranians. I think that's a shabby set of options and we should be doing more.
What we should be doing to the Iranians is saying, "We will put you to a fundamental choice. Keep your regime or keep your bomb. And we will hit you with devastating sanctions." One of the things I've learned is that targeted financial sanctions are much more effective than I ever thought they would be. We can really hurt the Iranian economy. We can really squeeze them in a way that they really need to be serious about a negotiation. Right now we're not doing that.
I'm worried about the next two years. I'm worried that our adversaries think that they have two years with a feckless American administration. That's not a place you want to be. I hope that when Obama considers who his next secretary of defense is going to be that he's not going to choose just a political fixer, or a technocrat factotum, that he's going to choose a heavy-hitting, serious foreign policy person, who's going to add ballast to this listing ship. He needs that person. I don't know who it's going to be, but this administration needs ballasting.
JOANNE MYERS: I thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and making us think.
BRET STEPHENS: Thank you so much.