Jeong Lee’s article “A Case for A Sustainable U.S. Grand Strategy: Retirement without Disengagement for a Superpower” advocates for the United States to adopt the “role of exemplar over that of crusader” to rejuvenate its national strength and to bolster its legitimacy abroad. Lee goes on to encourage a U.S. grand strategy that focuses on homeland security, because “setting one’s house in order does not necessarily mean isolationism.”
However, the argument for a reduced or “retired” role for the United States is not new and is often broached in times of fiscal constraint and more often after completing ‘adventures’ overseas. The failure in most of these arguments is to expect it would be in the interests of the rest of the global community to maintain the peace and rule of law established by America’s engagement. To be a leader in the world, the United States must not “retire” and pass the responsibility entirely onto our partners, but instead roll up our sleeves and work alongside our partners to defend international norms.
In short, the American commitment to new horizons for ‘happiness’ does not die out, it is rejuvenated by each new generation and adapted to their times.
Since the birth of the United States, a key goal of our foreign policy has always been to ensure market access (or free/open markets) and uphold the rule of law to support our economy. In the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers called it “the pursuit of happiness.” In the Monroe Doctrine, it was stated as the “United States [shall] cherish sentiments the most friendly in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellow men.” Before World War II, the Atlantic Charter phrased it more directly: “all states [shall have equal access] to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity.” After World War II, in Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s address at Harvard University in 1947 advocating for theMarshal Plan he reaffirmed that “the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” In short, the American commitment to new horizons for ‘happiness’ does not die out, it is rejuvenated by each new generation and adapted to their times.
Back in the present, Lee suggests “the United States should first withdraw its military presence from both” the Middle East and East Asia for two different reasons. On the one hand, as Toby Jones argues in his 2011 Atlantic piece“protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to global markets is far less necessary than it once was” since the world has plenty of oil. This ignores the fact that oil is a globally traded commodity and the U.S. would still be impacted if events reduce oil production anywhere around the globe.
And the other reason for withdrawal? “A continued U.S. military presence may not be necessary because Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are fully capable of defending themselves without U.S. military aid.” Even though reports from East Asia show the contrary with the debate on Taiwan adopting a “porcupine strategy” to raise the cost of a Chinese invasion, Japan is ‘militarizing’ because they want to be able to defend themselves in case the United States is committed on another front, and South Korea has continued to delay taking over wartime leadership. ‘Retiring’ from these regions could lead inevitability to destabilization and by passing the security responsibility to local allies the United States would be interpreted, by friend and foe alike, as retreating.
The world faces many challenges, and if the United States ‘retires’ to our corner, there is little to be shown that others will be able to maintain the peace.
After the removal of U.S. forces from the Middle East and East Asia, Lee argues that “the United States Armed Forces should reorient their focus towards homeland security.” It goes on to say with the cost savings from reduced global military presence “the United States [should] bolster its homeland security apparatuses to counter the threat of terrorism at home. And the U.S. can contain threats posed by non-state actors through multilateral police action with the cooperation of its allies.” There is always an argument for the savings from reducing U.S. global military presence to be used in other areas to benefit the greater good. The reality, however, is our partners and allies are not just asking for more FBI agents in the fight against terrorists — they are asking for even more U.S. military engagement in Iraqand now Libya. The world faces many challenges, and if the United States ‘retires’ to our corner, there is little to be shown that others will be able to maintain the peace.
‘Retirement without Disengagement’, is summarized as a renewed focus on “diplomacy to accommodate [U.S.] admirers as well as its rivals.” Because “the fewer wars the United States fights, the more money and lives it will save. Even better, the fewer wars the United States fights, the more likely the global community will appreciate its restraint and sober humility with which it approaches relations with other nations.” Diplomacy should always be our first option, though there is a difference between fighting less and retiring from the world.
Unfortunately, our near-peers and rising powers have shown they will test how far they can stray from the U.S. backed liberal world order. They are trying to see if they can replace the U.S. system with a world order more in their favor without going to war and risking total economic ruin. The ‘retirement’ case highlights the need for greater focus on diplomacy and a reduced role for the U.S. Armed Forces, but it is suggesting an over-correction; the risk is going too far towards irrelevance while passively hoping that we have been a good enough of an example to others who might pick up the burden of protecting the international order. Our history — and common sense — shows that if we expect others to fight for the pursuit of happiness, we must be there alongside our friends doing the work.
Leo Cruz, is a former U.S. Naval Officer who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a Partner with the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. military or the Department of Defense.
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