Updated: Dec 21, 2019
Laura Grove –
Pulitzer-prize winning writer Bret Stephens’s recent novel
Since its conception, the United States has not only profoundly developed and flourished, but also grown in its influence and sway on an international level. The world has become Pax Americana; the ideals of the United States have, because of its prominence, spread around the world and helped maintain international peace. However, many believe that America’s dominant position in the world is deteriorating. In Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat, Stephens critiques President Obama’s foreign policy strategy, arguing “no great power can treat foreign policy as a spectator sport and hope to remain a great power.” He uses both examples of current and historical issues concerning foreign policy to stress his belief that President Obama’s passive actions threaten the Pax Americana-order to which the world has grown accustom. Though Stephens powerfully underscores the shortcomings of President Obama’s foreign policy, he uses history selectively and hypocritical reasoning to present an idealized image of Pax Americana.
Stephens frames the Pax Americana world order in a positive, patriotic light by defining February 21, 1947, as the day it began. At this time Greece and Turkey faced severe challenges, making them susceptible to Communism, and Great Britain no longer had the sufficient funds to intervene as it might have before World War II. Ultimately the Truman Doctrine was put into effect, and aid was given, establishing the United States as a world policeman. The doctrine promised to help any people “‘resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’” The United States extended support to countries seeking to avoid Communism, thereby promoting the valued American ideal of self-determination. The Pax Americana-world Stephens presents, in which the United States took an active role in securing the international order, in this way, comes to be associated with a sense of patriotism and duty. However, this is only one reading of history.
A comic embodying Roosevelt’s diplomacy in Latin America
One can also argue that Pax Americana began with the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904 and dollar diplomacy, casting a much more imperialistic shadow over this idea. The Monroe Doctrine came about in 1823, effectively dividing the world into two spheres. As the dominant power in the west, the United States would not tolerate European involvement in this hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine, in essence, committed The United States to promote its own ideology in the Western hemisphere. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine took this one step further asserting the United States’ position as a policing power and giving it the right to intervene wherever its interests were at stake. This was first applied in the Dominican Republic, marking another potential beginning of Pax Americana. When the Dominican Republic defaulted on loans to its European creditors, the United States intervened, negotiated a treaty between the nations, took control of customs houses, sold bonds, and provided loans to the people. This tied the two nations economically through the concept of dollar diplomacy and constituted a more imperialistic form of Pax Americana. In this context the negative implications of Pax Americana are much more prevalent. Though through the implementation of Pax Americana, the United States preserves international peace, it also effectively strips the Dominican Republic of its independence. The United States involvement does secure peace in the area, but largely at the expense of the Dominican Republic’s independence and to the benefit of American expansion. Thus, this depiction of Pax Americana, much more so than Stephen’s example, reveals more of the adverse aspects of Pax Americana.
Stephens additionally argues that President Obama makes too many decisions based solely on his since of morality, ignoring the critical impact of foreign issues on national interests and thus undermining Pax Americana. He cites President Obama’s call for nuclear arms reduction shortly after taking office as key evidence for this. As the only country to actually use nuclear weapons in warfare, President Obama believes it is our moral obligation to spearhead the reduction of these weapons. However, in doing so, Stephens believes President Obama threatens America’s standing as a global power and leader. By reducing its nuclear arsenal, the United States willingly gives up some of its persuasive power abroad. The success of Pax Americana requires the United States to be actively involved in international affairs. If the United States continues to decide major issues of foreign policy based purely on morality, it will continue to retreat and Pax Americana cannot prevail.
While Stephens does make a valid point about the negative repercussions of basing decisions on morality, he fails to acknowledge that morality often aligns itself with national interests and thus supports Pax Americana. The Obama administration is not unique in its use of moral justifications. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States established colonial rule in the Philippines, thus extending its influences and fostering national interests. Though the decision to withhold Philippine independence was mired in controversy, those in favor sighted a moral concern that the Filipinos were not yet equipped for self-rule. If the United States did not fulfill its moral obligation by establishing colonial rule and teaching proper methods of self-government, another country might invade and conquer the islands. In many ways this led and was limited to the preservation of American interests thereby fostering Stephens’ idea of Pax Americana. Just after the colonial rule was established, Filipino resistance broke out in the Philippine-American War, yet even during the fighting, the United States worked to prepare the Filipinos for independence. Ultimately, their moral obligation complete and the cost of maintaining an active presence growing, the United States pulled out. Here, both moral and national interests align with the establishment of international peace. Withdrawing from the Philippines cannot be classified as a moral retreat, and thus a threat to Pax Americana, as Stephens might assert, for the draining cost of maintaining a presence made this action within the United States own interests.
Perhaps the most damaging feature of his argument is Stephens’ failure to address and understand President Obama foreign policy, choosing to oversimplify his views. He emphasizes the real and potential negative consequences of President Obama’s decisions, but never examines his justification for his rejection of Stephens’ Pax Americana. Stephens asserts, “the Retreat Doctrine was being proposed as a measure of frugality by the president with the most ambitious social agenda since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.” He further predicts that President Obama’s focus on domestic issues will cause the national defense budget to shrink by several percentage points. With defense spending down, the United States becomes less equipped to act as a world policeman and maintain Pax Americana. According to Stephens’ simplified understanding, President Obama’s retreat from international affairs jeopardizes not only our standing abroad but also the world order and peace. While this does highlight the key drawbacks in President Obama’s foreign policy strategy, it oversimplifies the strategy and avoids addressing the reasoning behind this policy.
President Barack Obama walking to deliver remarks on defense strategy going forward
President Obama primarily defends his stance on foreign policy by discrediting Pax Americana, arguing that it is impossible for the United States to act as a world policeman. He recognizes that practically “‘there are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.’” It is not that President Obama disregards the United States’ interests by retreating from international affairs, as Stephens seems to imply. Rather, he examines each incident individually, evaluating its threat and judging whether it “pose[s] a direct security threat to the United States” before deciding whether it warrants American action. In this way, he hopes to avoid situations similar to Vietnam in which the United States became entrenched in an unwinnable conflict with little immediate relevance to national interests. President Obama’s current retreat-like policy stems not from weak convictions, but rather his belief that the United States’ involvement would not produce a favorable outcome, nationally or internationally. Thus refraining from addressing this discrepancy in option and commenting on this point weakens Stephens’ argument. There is a fundamental difference in the ways both men believe foreign policy decisions should be decided. For President Obama, Pax Americana is not necessarily the solution to international issues. Stephens fails to identify the flawed logic behind President Obama’s thinking, thus weakening his own argument.
Though Stephens’ presents a well thought out critique of President Obama’s foreign policy strategy in his book America in Retreat, his omission of several counter perspectives and points leaves his argument wanting. He uses history selectively, choosing to focus on events and perspectives that further his argument and disregarding or ignoring many that might challenge his ideas. This furthermore leads him to appear contradictory in parts of his argument. While Stephens’ views President Obama’s concern for morality in foreign issues, he fails to recognize that historically morality has played a large role in the success of Pax Americana. Additionally Stephens fails to examine the differences in perspective between himself and President Obama. He methodically explains why Pax Americana produces the best results. However, he does not take into account President Obama’s understanding of what constitutes effectual foreign policy. Collectively, these oversights work to weaken Stephens’ claim that Pax Americana offers the greatest security and prosperity not only for the United States but also the world.
Stephens, Bret. America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. New York: Sentinel, 2014.
Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
“The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902.” U.S Department of State: Office of the Historian. Accessed March 30, 2016. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/war.
Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic. April 2016. Accessed March 22, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/.