No, America is not in retreat

May 15, 2014

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Is America retreating from its global duties? That’s what a number of critics of the Obama administration would have us believe. In the wake of Washington’s alleged failure to respond to Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, critics charge that the United States is in “retreat” and getting “left behind.” John McCain accused President Obama of pursuing “a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” while others believe that the President lacks a foreign policy entirely. Most recently, The Economist joined the chorus, questioning America’s credibility in the face of its “retreats” around the world.

It’s certainly true that America is changing its role on the world stage. But that’s not the same as retreating from that stage altogether. In fact, the opposite is true: by many measures, the Obama administration has increased American engagement with the world. What has changed is not the amount of engagement, but its nature. Obama has sought to re-orient our foreign policy away from a military-first approach, and toward a more comprehensive approach that leans more on diplomatic and economic tools.

This new approach is hard to stomach for those who conceive of American strength and influence as military in nature. This conception assumes, incorrectly, that that “clashes across the planet are all about ‘us’ and that the dominoes of the world rest precariously on [our] every move.” But because this worldview is so unpopular, having yielded disastrous results over the years, its proponents prefer to cast Obama’s sensible re-orientation in a negative light, through the use of dirty words like “retreat,” “decline,” “weakness,” or “isolationism.”

Consider the case of Iran’s nuclear program. If you ask the naysayers, this is just another example of U.S. fecklessness: It has become an article of faith on the right that the weak, irresolute Obama has “given up” on pressuring Tehran and even that he “conceded the bomb to Iran.”

But the facts tell a different story. Not only has Obama aggressively pursued the Iranian nuclear issue, he has also produced concrete results. The administration’s groundbreaking diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement with Iran have meaningfully and verifiably limited the country’s nuclear program for the first time in a decade. And last year’s agreement in Geneva was the culmination of years of coalition-building by an administration determined to convince a reluctant international community to join in on pressuring Iran, including through the creation of a devastating international sanctions regime. There’s no way to credibly argue that Obama is disengaged from this issue, that he doesn’t have an Iran policy, or that this policy hasn’t achieved results. By contrast, under George W. Bush, any hopes of long-term diplomatic progress were dashed by the administration’s unrealistic insistence — described by one analyst as an “abstinence-only approach” — that Iran halt uranium enrichment altogether, coupled with Bush’s infamous inclusion of Iran within the “Axis of Evil.”

When critics say that Obama has failed to address the Iranian nuclear issue, they mean that he has failed to address it the way they want him to — that is, he hasn’t given enough credence to the military option. That’s a policy disagreement that critics should feel free to air (although they no doubt know that doing so will pit them against both American public opinion and the overwhelming consensus of security experts against military action). But to suggest that Obama hasn’t been a leader on this issue and many others is simply incorrect.

Similarly, critics are quick to point to Asia as an example of Obama standing idly by while a rising adversary threatens our allies. They decry his Asia “pivot” as little more than rhetoric. In reality, though, the pivot — conceived as a way to re-focus our resources on a region of increasing importance to U.S. security in the post-9/11 years — has produced some impressive results. Asia expert Ely Ratner recently chronicled the successes of the pivot, pointing out that we have increased our substantive diplomatic engagement with Asia, and garnered a number of victories in the areas of trade and development. Ratner, a former political officer on the State Department’s China desk, contends that contrary to the claims of “Pivot Deniers,” the administration has actually “accomplished more in Asia, and has a more coherent approach to the region than any other part of the world.” Researchers at National Defense University found that, if visits from high-level officials are any indication, the Obama administration has indeed paid more attention to Asia than its predecessor. Contrary to what the critics say, the pivot is not all talk.

The list goes on. On the Israel-Palestine issue, John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts are often characterized as “frenetic.” The pejorative use of the term indicates the widespread belief that Kerry’s initiative is going nowhere, but it nonetheless contradicts the idea of a disengaged White House that is not interested in leading. Even the Russian “reset” — which has taken its fair share of hits following President Putin’s aggression — was an ambitious, and in many ways useful, effort at increased engagement, and so cannot reasonably be marshaled as evidence of a lack of engagement. And that engagement has been beneficial: The current Ukraine crisis would be even more unstable without the transparency, predictability, and stability that the New START treaty brings to the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship.

So where does the meme of “retreat” come from? The answer is that America is retreating away from a particular type of foreign policy. This was the policy associated in historical memory with the Bush years, characterized by militarism, a “go-it-alone” mentality, and the seemingly endless war on terror. Obama came to office with a clear mandate to re-orient this policy, and this remains the best way to understand the President’s international priorities. Recently, Fareed Zakaria argued that while Obama has succeeded in rejecting the neoconservative model, he has failed to construct any new doctrine to put in its place. But in a number of trouble spots across the globe, there is, in fact, evidence that Obama is attempting to fill the post-Bush vacuum with a new model of U.S. engagement.

Critics who believe that Obama has pulled back from the world stage are confusing quantitative changes in the nature of U.S. engagement with a qualitative decline in that engagement.

One more point bears mentioning: Opponents inevitably trot out the tropes of “retreat,” “decline,” and “fecklessness” when a global crisis erupts that, they believe, President Obama should have been able to solve. But this is a canard that attributes too much influence to Obama, to the institution of the American presidency, and to America in general. As analyst Ali Wyne points out, the United States has “never been able to exercise anything approximating control over the course of international affairs.” And Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times reminds us that during the Cold War, presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan undertook limited, behind-the-scenes foreign policy maneuvers that seemed “weak-willed” at the time, and could even have been tarnished as “appeasement.” But these more circumscribed moves, Tanenhaus notes, often turned out to be more effective than belligerent shows of strength or outright confrontation.

It was using this logic that President Obama defended his foreign policy in Manila last month. In a speech concluding his tour of Asia, Obama characterized his opponents’ preferred course as long on bluster and short on substance. We cannot take an action, Obama argued, simply because “somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think[s] it would look strong.” Measures like targeted sanctions, trade and basing agreements, the mustering of international coalitions and sustained, behind-the-scenes diplomacy “may not always be sexy,” as the President put it. But neither are they signs of weakness or harbingers of decline.

Far from presiding over a reduction in U.S. global engagement, the Obama administration has sought to deepen, reshape, and re-orient that engagement. To be sure, this rebuilding effort has not been fully successful. For instance, James Traub argues that on Syria, Obama presented the public with a false choice between going to war and doing nothing, which would support Zakaria’s claim that the President has failed to find the middle ground between the two extremes that could form the basis of a new “Obama doctrine.”

But we can make these valid critiques at the level of individual issues, while still recognizing that broader progress has been made toward finding that middle ground — that is, progress toward a world in which U.S. engagement exists, but is not synonymous with military engagement. This is the larger problem that Obama, for all of his stumbles, has sought to solve through diplomacy, economic measures, coalition-building, and more. These measures hardly add up to a picture of retreat, and Obama’s critics should be honest in acknowledging that.


Usha Sahay is an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks. She is the Director of Digital Outreach at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World.

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13 thoughts on “No, America is not in retreat

  1. The author has confused engagement with the projection of strength. “Engagement” in east Asia has done nothing to discourage Chinese expansionism or militarism, reassure our allies there, or halt the region’s slow march toward an arms race. “Engagement” in Europe has done nothing to reassure eastern European NATO allies and has driven us away from our western European NATO allies while failing to deter Russia. “Engagement” in the Middle East has brought about a complete collapse of the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, a Syria fiasco of truly historical proportions, and a rising sense that there is nothing we can do to stop the Iranian regime from becoming a nuclear weapons state (and thus precipitating the collapse of the global non-proliferation regime). The author merely set up a few “critic” straw men to knock them down with this administration’s objectively meager foreign policy accomplishments, which is coincidentally similar to what President Obama did when he defended his nonexistent foreign policy. Praising the administration for its “engagement” in world affairs is somewhat like giving it a participation trophy.

    1. Yup. Should have looked for at least one country to invade and destroy, preferably a significant one like Iraq — which destroys the region for generations and severely limits America’s ability to use military force for a long time. Typical view of the American Empire First crowd.

    2. What does “projection of strength” even mean? We’ve got more than enough military strength in both the Pacific and Eastern Europe to defend our allies should it really come to that. Chinese and Russian revanchism is certainly worrying, but are we really ready to burn bridges with either of them, or is a wait-and-see approach more prudent? As for Syria, everyone talks about how horrible it was that the “red line” wasn’t enforced. But guess what, we got something better out of it…we got rid of Assad’s chemical weapons. And regarding Iran, sanctions, a bit of patience, and a president who doesn’t shoot off his mouth with chauvinistic comments have gotten us much farther than anything before. When George W. Bush kept reminding everyone about the “military option”, the world hated it, and Iranians hated it. When the insulting rhetoric stopped (courtesy of Bush leaving office), Iranians realized they didn’t want to be isolated from the outside world after all, and Khamenei found that he needed to make concessions to the will of the people. The nuclear deal is not ideal, and it remains to be seen whether such a deal is possible at all, but it’s the most progress we’ve seen in our goal to limit Iran’s nuclear program to civilian-only applications. Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole thing about how we have a moral obligation to use military force only as a last resort.

  2. Sometimes you can understand an entire column by reading its first sentence. “Is America retreating from its global duties?” is a perfect example. Imagine an article that began “Is America at last coming to its senses and reconsidering the maniac imperial overstretch that has succeeded only in wasting trillions of taxpayer dollars and creating new enemies for the U.S. throughout the world?” and you’ll see what I mean. Whenever the key words “retreat” and “global duties” appear in a theme sentence, I have an irresistible urge to spring to attention, salute, and charge up a hill. But I usually don’t need to read the story.

  3. Usha falls prey to ‘mirror imaging.’ Believing that the world is as you believe or as you want it to be, doesn’t make it so for our adversaries, competitors or allies. For her to believe that Obama’s “engagement” is having a lasting effect; one only needs to analyze the facts to realize that she couldn’t be more wrong.
    Iran’s negative influencing in the Levant is deteriorating decades of work laid by numerous previous administrations…and to assume they’ve stopped nuclear development is irresponsible if not downright wrong.
    Syria…an absolute debacle and failure.
    Libya…another disaster with 4 Americans dying and no explanation.
    China…surpassing the US economy this year…is that not decline?
    Poland…Israel…turning our backs on our long-time allies does nothing to assuage ALL our allies’ concerns about our resolve.
    Iraq…he left…Iraq is now a debacle.
    AFG…having served there and with many friends still there–it’s been a fiasco since 2010.
    Pakistan…he turned his back on the Doc who provided UBL information. Don’t think the world didn’t notice. No trust there.
    Suffice it to say that the author doesn’t understand the broader, global reality. “Speak softly; but carry a big stick.” Failing to understand that emboldens those who don’t belong–according to Kerry–in the 21st Century.
    The bottom line is that leading from behind is not a global prescription for success. A world devoid of any ‘real’ leadership is a dangerous one and I pray the results are less damning than those that Chamberlain left us in the 1930’s.

  4. strategic service has worded it very well. Oddly enough, I just read Charles Krauthammer on this subject this morning. There is no doubt we are in decline. Absolutely none.

  5. Results determine the success of foreign policy, and the record is miserable. Our fate and future as a nation and it’s standing in the world is at stake. All politics, all excuses are meaningless. America deserves inspired leadership to rise above the fray.

    1. Our fate and future as a nation and it’s standing in the world is at stake, unless we go too war in . . . Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, Bosnia . . . do us a favor, please, and stuff a sock in it. We’ve had enough of this idiocy.

  6. Well Usha if that’s what you want us to believe you’re wrong. The US is a joke to most of the rest of the world and yes we are not retreating but making our country vulnerable to anyone who wishes to attack us. The citizens of the US do not feel secure

  7. Totally agree with strategic service. That coupled with the fact that the author couldn’t say anything that has actually been “accomplished” with the Europe and Asian engagement efforts. He said much has been done, but other than meeting with people he gave absolutely no tangible results. Give us something to actually believe your rhetoric.