The Folly of Retrenchment

Why America Can’t Withdraw From the World

For seven decades, U.S. grand strategy was characterized by a bipartisan consensus on the United States’ global role. Although successive administrations had major disagreements over the details, Democrats and Republicans alike backed a system of alliances, the forward positioning of forces, a relatively open international economy, and, albeit imperfectly, the principles of freedom, human rights, and democracy. Today, that consensus has broken down.

President Donald Trump has questioned the utility of the United States’ alliances and its forward military presence in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He has displayed little regard for a shared community of free societies and is drawn to authoritarian leaders. So far, Trump’s views are not shared by the vast majority of leading Republicans. Almost all leading Democrats, for their part, are committed to the United States’ traditional role in Europe and Asia, if not in the Middle East. Trump has struggled to convert his worldview into policy, and in many respects, his administration has increased U.S. military commitments. But if Trump wins reelection, that could change quickly, as he would feel more empowered and Washington would need to adjust to the reality that Americans had reconfirmed their support for a more inward-looking approach to world affairs. At a private speech in November, according to press reports, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, even predicted that Trump could pull out of NATO in a second term. The receptiveness of the American people to Trump’s “America first” rhetoric has revealed that there is a market for a foreign policy in which the United States plays a smaller role in the world.

Amid the shifting political winds, a growing chorus of voices in the policy community, from the left and the right, is calling for a strategy of global retrenchment, whereby the United States would withdraw its forces from around the world and reduce its security commitments. Leading scholars and policy experts, such as Barry Posen and Ian Bremmer, have called on the United States to significantly reduce its role in Europe and Asia, including withdrawing from NATO. In 2019, a new think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, set up shop, with funding from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and the liberal philanthropist George Soros. Its mission, in its own words, is to advocate “a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint.”

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