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Understanding the Battleground

Why America Must Remain Engaged Abroad

In More Detail

Some have suggested that US foreign policy should be one of retrenchment. America should withdraw its forces from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, reduce other military commitments to alliances like NATO, and shrink the presence of its forces overseas. The bywords for retrenchment are restraint and offshore balancing.

Retrenchment, supporters argue, would not only reduce costs, but also improve American security.

The argument for retrenchment is an archetype of strategic narcissism because it disregards the agency that other nations have over the future course of events. In this view, other states have no authorship over their future, no aspirations or objectives of their own. The most adamant advocates of disengagement believe that the United States is the principal cause of the world’s problems. Our presence abroad, they argue, creates enemies. Our absence would restore harmony. 

In this view, the United States, therefore, is to blame for antagonizing Russia and China. America, they believe, causes jihadist terrorism because Americans’ presence in predominantly Muslim countries generates a natural backlash. The United States drives nuclear proliferation, they feel, because states like Iran and North Korea need those weapons to defend against an overly aggressive United States.

But history makes clear that American behavior did not cause Russian and Chinese aggression, jihadist terrorism, or the hostility of Iran and North Korea. Nor would disengagement solve any of those challenges.

While retrenchers are correct that American military history contains examples of unwise or inept interventions, they fail to acknowledge cases where disengagement led to costlier interventions. 

For example, our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq set conditions for the rise of ISIS and a humanitarian and refugee crisis of colossal scale. Disengagement permitted the establishment of a terrorist caliphate the size of Great Britain and required a subsequent five-year-long military campaign to regain control of that territory.

There are other compelling examples in American history. It would have been far cheaper to maintain a military presence on the Korean Peninsula beyond 1950 than it was to fight a costly three-year war after the North invaded the South. Today it is much cheaper to deter Russia or China with strong alliances and forward-positioned American forces than it would be to bear the costs of a catastrophic war triggered by Kremlin or Chinese Communist Party aggression.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced a fundamental lesson of the September 11 mass murders: threats that originate abroad, if not checked, can move rapidly across our world. Once they penetrate our shores, the cost to the American people can prove difficult to bear.

The United States must possess the confidence to sustain a foreign policy based on the reality that American security and prosperity at home depend on sensible engagement abroad.

The retrenchers are correct when they argue that the American way of life or style of democratic government cannot be imposed upon others, but support for democracy and the rule of law is the best means of promoting peace and competing with those who promote authoritarian, closed systems. Free and open societies are a natural defense against hostile and authoritarian powers. The United States and other nations should continue to promote basic and unalienable rights while recognizing that they cannot be the guarantor of those rights.

It is clear that there is work to do at home to overcome the triple crises of a pandemic, an economic recession, and the social divisions laid bare by George Floyd’s murder. But our efforts to learn from those crises, improve our nation, and regain confidence in what Americans hold dear should not encourage retrenchment. Introspection should provide an opportunity to clarify what Americans stand for and what Americans must defend—individual liberty, the rule of law, freedom of expression, democratic governance, tolerance, and opportunity for all.