I 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.
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.
The prescription of someone like Rand Paul, which is really in a sense the same as someone like President Obama, is yielding results in the kind of chaos we’re seeing unfolding at an increasingly rapid pace, not just in the Middle East, also the South China Sea, also Eastern Europe. These crises are going to spread so long as there is a perception that America just wants to look away, that we just want to look inside our own borders and pretend that we are not, in fact, the margin between civilization and barbarism for much of the world.
You have this very important data point in your book. You point to the date of February 18, 2009, which was the day that $787 billion was spent in one day for President Obama’s stimulus package. You contrast that with the amount that the Department of Defense spent in Iraq, not on one day, not over one year, but over ten years, and that amount is $770 billion, which is less than one day of Obama’s stimulus.
I just pointed that out because there is a cliché that we bankrupted ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t want to deny the fact that we spent a heck of a lot of money in those places and you can have a perfectly reasonable conversation about whether it was worth the money. But the notion that somehow we’ve become a bankrupt nation because of those two wars or because of our global commitments, doesn’t withstand simple scrutiny. We definitely have deficit and debt problems. Profound deficit and debt problems in the United States, but those have to do with the entitlement state and they can only be solved by trying to reform the entitlement state to put it on a more sustainable basis. We now have an age of retirement that reflects life expectancy back in the 1930s, right? But life expectancy has grown tremendously.
The experience of Europe tells us that if you try to balance your books on the back of your military, if you try to fund an entitlement state by constantly cutting your military, you end up with no military to speak of and, by the way, you still go bankrupt. The answer to our debt problem should not be borne by the Department of Defense.
You frequently write about these issues, for example, what’s going on with territorial aggression by China. Your book was released in 2014 and even since you’ve written this book, we’ve seen more troubling events happening with Russia. You wrote about Russia with Ukraine and now Russia is getting into Syria and we see so much more evidence for the thesis of your book.
Let me, if I may, make another claim for my book. I began writing this book before President Obama was reelected. I signed the contract for this book around the time of Hurricane Sandy, by the way, just on the eve of the election. If you go back to 2012, and, of course, I was thinking about these themes even before then. You had a president who was telling us Al Qaeda was on a path to defeat, we had reset relations with Russia. We had a good relationship and strategic partnership with China. We had turned a corner in the economic crisis in Europe. Obama was saying that the tide of war was receding. That was one of his signature lines that was offered not so much as a promise, but as a statement of what was happening. By the way, the administration was also claiming that Iraq was a stable state and a diplomatic success for the United States.
I delivered the manuscript to my publishers in the very beginning of June 2014, so about a little more than 18 months after I had signed the contract. Then you began to see a very, very different world begin to unfold. In the year and a half or so since then, just think of the accelerating pace of events. One funny thing about my book is I never mention the term Islamic State or ISIS or ISIL in the book. I still refer to it Al Qaeda in Iraq. It just gives you a sense of how quickly our world has changed that in June of 2014, people still didn’t really know what is Islamic State. We knew there were jihadis and there were various branches of jihadis but we didn’t understand the power of this particular group until it seized Mosul.
I think you’re now understanding that the subtitle of my book, The Coming Global Disorder, has become the current global disorder. So the claim I would make for the book isn’t that it’s making reference to the latest events, it’s that it’s explaining the latest events.
What surprised you most in writing the book given that you write about these issues all the time?
That’s a great question because I approached this book in two ways. One is as someone who thinks and argues and writes about foreign policy, but I also approached it as a writer, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the craft of putting words to paper or words to a screen, if you will.
I had a pretty good sense of the arguments that I wanted to make. What I found very difficult about the book is finding the right tone, finding the right level and finding the right pace. I don’t think I’m giving you the answer you were looking for, but this is more perhaps about advice to writers.
I wanted a tone that was energetic without being obnoxious. I wanted a level that is to say that was serious, that intelligent people would feel that I was addressing them at their level, but I didn’t want to write a dense academic book. I wanted to write a book for the intelligent non-specialist. Let’s say a real estate developer in Dallas, Texas, who is a smart guy, has a college degree, thinks about the world, doesn’t necessarily live to read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, but cares about the world. I was writing that book for that real estate developer or that lady in Chicago who is beginning to be concerned about what she’s reading every day in the paper. I wasn’t writing this for just 20-odd academic specialists so finding the level was very important. You don’t want to write a book that goes to too low a common denominator and at the same time, you don’t want to write a book that is essentially a book for specialists.
The great challenge was the pace, because I was keen to write a book that a normal person could read from beginning to end. Not just dip into, buy the book and stare at it, but really read the book, and I needed to cover a lot of ground and I needed to cover it at, let’s say, 45 miles per hour. Imagine you’re driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s a beautiful view and you would so much like to stop at one point or another and take in that view, that photograph, but you’ve got to keep moving on. I was conscious of this especially because there are a lot of topics, like let’s say the military developments in China, and you could write a whole book on that subject or at least a chapter, but I really could only devote three to five pages.
So how do I engage that subject in a way that’s not superficial, a way that’s meaningful, and a way that’s intelligent, but keep the narrative rolling along. That was extremely challenging to do.
You did an excellent job and I think you demonstrate your thesis very well. I will mention that I shared with you my recent piece for The Hill where I advocate promoting American style democracy across the world. So I’m with you ninety-nine percent of the way, but I went back and reread your criticism of George W. Bush in his inaugural address when he said, “We want to end tyranny now, in our age.” I realize that maybe what people reacted to so negatively was the “now.”
The problem with the Bush administration is that I think it took what I call a Rousseauian view of human nature. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great French philosopher, says man is born free and yet everywhere he is in chains. The essential argument there is that man is basically a good person who is meant to live in a free society and, yet, for historical reasons, cultural reasons, he’s been enshackled. So the job of politics is to break those shackles so that he can be free.
Now, earlier contract theorists like Locke and Hobbes took a much more measured approach to human nature. They said, “Yeah, up to a point, but man is also in many respects, wicked, avaricious,” and so on. Part of the job of government is not simply allowing men and women to be free, but it’s also to curb those instincts and to govern them or to suppress them sometimes.
I think George W. Bush was a Rousseauian. He thought, you know what, if we get rid of the dictator and the institutions of dictatorship, if we hold an election, then people are naturally going to be liberal, in the best sense. Liberal instincts are going to come out. They’re going to play by the rules of participatory democracy, this is going to instill values of turnabout, fairness, respect for the rights of the minority, the political minority, perhaps religious minorities, and it doesn’t work that way. What we found out when we had elections throughout the Middle East is that the first parties to get into power were parties advocating religious fundamentalism, illiberal parties.
So democracy, or democratic mechanisms and procedures, can also lead very swiftly to illiberal outcomes, people who want to stay in power forever or parties that advocate the suppression of fundamental rights. We saw that with the Palestinian election of Hamas, the Egyptian election of the Muslin Brotherhood, and frankly, Russian support for a guy like Vladimir Putin.
There was a utopian aspect there and we need a conservative foreign policy that says we want a policy that is going to support other free societies. We want a foreign policy that is going to encourage movements towards reform, but is also going to understand that we live in a world where it’s not the natural instinct of everyone, every civilization, every culture, to want freedom and to want freedom now. We have to respect that and we have to shape institutions that may, over time, lead you to better outcomes.
South Korea, which I just mentioned, was under a dictatorship when we came to protect it in 1950. It was a dictatorship for more than 30 years, but it became a wealthier dictatorship and as wealth increased, people became more liberal — I’m using this in a classical sense — in their political viewpoints. Eventually the dictatorship fell. Now, South Korea is a blooming liberal capitalist democracy. So you have it all.
You need the liberal political culture through a combination of productive economies, stable rule of law, in order to produce, eventually, solid democratic institutions. But democratic institutions will quickly fail if people are prepared to elect autocratic or illiberal leaders.
So a little bit of the chicken and the egg problem? You work at the Wall Street Journal, which is focused on economics, free markets, free people. There are many businessmen who want to go into Iran, and they say, “Okay, we’ll ignore the political situation in Iran. We’ll go in with our iPhones and our entrepreneurship and all that and it’ll be a bottom up revolution that will end up changing, possibly, the political structure in Iran.”
That’s a view and a debate I often have with Fareed Zakaria. I rib him. I say he’s a hopeless neoconservative. It would be nice if it were true, but the evidence of that is fairly mixed. I mean the greatest argument in favor of that is to look at China. China maintained a political dictatorship, but it’s become wealthier, freer, more open to the world. Look at a country that continues not only to ruthlessly suppress dissent, has become increasingly aggressive in terms of its foreign policy towards all of its neighbors, but also a country that never did, in fact, make the transition from a kind of autocratic capitalism to liberal capitalism. On the contrary, at a certain point it went from being autocratically capitalist to sort of autocratically statist. More and more of the Chinese economy, one way or another, is under the control of the communist party. There is a great deal more corruption. This is part of what’s happening in China today. The evidence of that is not very good. When it comes to Iran, twenty percent of the economy and almost all of the major significant industries are run by the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The number one beneficiaries of liberalization in Iran, the guys who are — the Iranians sitting on the other end of the table from the Western businessmen are all going to be either IRGC Commanders in a former in life or a current IRGC Commanders wearing civilian clothes. So how much of this money trickles down to average people and how much of it simply enriches the ruling IRGC class? I would argue that part of the problem with this deal we have with Iran is that we are enriching precisely the elements of Iranian society that we would prefer to impoverish and we are not, in fact, empowering ordinary middle class, bourgeois Iranians who are not part of the power structures to gain more power.
On the contrary, we are benefitting precisely the people who are going to be competing with them. The private business against the IRGC connected business. Who is going to win there? Especially in the wake of sanctions relief and so on. So it’s just not so simple that you liberalize your economy and eventually you get more liberal outcomes. Truth is a complex thing and if you look at the experience of the world, there are no simple recipes. Certainly there is no simple recipe that says just open your economy somewhat and eventually you’re going to get the right political output.
This is my final question. The example that I loved so much in your book referenced a yacht moored in Manhattan. It was a really great illustration of some of the points that you made in your book. Can you share about that yacht?
My commute takes me up the West Side along the Hudson River. Staring out the window one day, I noticed there was this yacht that was unimaginably large. It turned out it was a yacht owned by Roman Abramovich, one of the richest men in Russia, although he spends a lot of his time in Britain. The yacht is called the Eclipse. It’s 533 feet long. That’s longer than an American naval destroyer. It has its own mini submarine. It has two helicopters and pools. At the time, the Eclipse was the largest private yacht in the world. I first noticed it in the winter. I think it was March and I thought, “Why is that yacht here?” That should be somewhere nice. It was tied up to a pier, on 45th or maybe 48th Street, but it was tied up to a pier week after week in really dreary weather. I thought, “What’s going on there?”
A few months later, Mr. Abramovich’s girlfriend had a baby and the baby was born in the United States. You might say she’s an anchor baby, if you will. Not long after the child was born, the yacht went off presumably to ply warmer waters. So I used that as an example.
Now, why would a guy like Roman Abramovich (one of the richest men in the world, owner of the Chelsea Football Club and he has a good relationship with Vladimir Putin), why would he be keen to have his child have the certainty of American citizenship? Why is it that so many Chinese billionaires, in a country that presumably is going to rule the twenty-first century, are trying to get out of China? Why are all these luxury, ultra-luxurious condominiums going up on 57thStreet here in New York? Who is buying these $30 million apartments? Increasingly it’s very rich Russians, very rich Chinese, rich Venezuelans, you name it.
All of them trying to get to the United States which is a country that is supposed to be in terminal decline, that sees its best days in its rearview mirror. Well, in fact, they know something about the United States that I think a lot of Americans have forgotten. That despite all of our problems, despite our genuine economic uncertainties, this still is the place where they feel that they have a future, where they can breathe the air. Where there is some certainty in terms of the rule of law. There is some certainty of property rights. There is a belief that in the long term, the United States is going to prosper. Shorter-term fluctuations we do go through. You find that there is a lot of belief in the United States. You just don’t find it in the United States.
I grew up in Mexico City and as a child we used to drive up to McAllen, Texas from Mexico. It was one of those very narrow Mexican roads, one lane going north, one lane going south and you drive for hours on end and finally after all this driving in Mexico, you get to McAllen. Now, McAllen is frankly not a lot to write home about. It’s not like a major tourist destination, but I remember you could turn on the tap and you could drink water straight from the tap. I always thought, “Wow, that’s amazing.” Then you go into movie theaters and it was air-conditioned and you could watch three movies and I remember as a child thinking, “Everything about McAllen is fantastic.” If a cop stopped you, it’s because you had, I don’t know, run a red light or something. It wasn’t because they were just trying to get a bribe out of you.
When you grow up in a place like Mexico, and, frankly, so many other places where there isn’t clean running water and where there aren’t honest policeman and when there isn’t a nice air conditioned multiplex, you suddenly realize that the United States has things that Americans take for granted, but are, in fact, incredibly special. I think it’s that perspective that informs so much of, not only what I write about in this book, but the way I think about foreign policy and the way I think about the United States.
People forget what a beacon this country has always been and still is and is going to remain. People forget how unique we are next to so much of the rest of the world. We ought to nurture that, preserve that, and at the risk of sounding maudlin, have a little more self-belief than we do now. I mean that both for Democrats as well as Republicans. My book is not about decline. It’s not called America in Decline. Decline happens due to huge civilizational forces. Europe is in decline, Japan is in decline, Russia is in decline. America is simply in retreat. That’s happening because of policy choices. Those policy choices can be reversed and this is an argument for why they ought to be reversed.
Thank you so much for your time, Bret.
Gayle, thank you.
First published in Townhall in October 2015