As Washington Considers Multiple Wars at Once, Retrenchment Should be Strategy for the Future

During the Trump presidency members of the Washington foreign policy establishment, inelegantly labeled "the Blob," talked about the importance of having "adults" in the room when international issues were discussed at the White House. Blobsters meant themselves, of course.

Yet they believed that there was only one policy option: more. More interventions, more commitments, more wars. To them, making foreign policy decisions as if the American people mattered was beyond comprehension.

The same people are in charge today under President Joe Biden. They remain equally oblivious to real world limits on America.

The population remains badly divided, with a substantial section of the electorate believing that the last election was stolen and violence might be justified against political foes. Spending is running out of control, with the debt to GDP ratio nearing the record set after World War II. The level could hit nearly twice that, around 200 percent, by 2050, well beyond the levels which set off Europe’s Euro crisis.

And the US is juggling the possibility of at least four wars – conceivably at once. Washington is hopelessly entangled in Europe, as activists and legislators alike advocate military support for Ukraine against Russia. A handful of policymakers are actively pushing for war – nuclear war, in the bizarre case of Sen. Roger Wicker.

China remains the beta noire for many Republicans and Democrats alike. Support for defending Taiwan against Beijing is rising, with little apparent concern for the potential consequences of the war that could result. The main ongoing debate is whether Washington should replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity.

The Biden administration failed to move quickly to restore the Iran nuclear deal. Now even Israeli security officials acknowledge that Donald Trump’s "maximum pressure" policy was a disastrous failure. Instead of flying to Washington to surrender, Tehran’s leaders accelerated nuclear activities, while demonstrating their ability to disrupt commerce and more in the Middle East. The administration is attempting to make up for its blunder by talking about possible military action – after the US created the problem by pulling out of the agreement and assassinating a top Iranian leader.

Finally, North Korea lurks about. It has made seven shorter-range missile tests, the latest on Sunday, since the new year dawned. Kim Jong-un also has suggested that he may end his voluntary suspension of long-range missile and nuclear tests. Mid-month he ordered officials to "promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporarily suspended activities" and begin "immediately bolstering more powerful physical means, which can efficiently control the hostile moves of the US." Although he does not want war, challenging Washington directly would risk a "fire and fury" response. Conflict could start by mistake as well as intent.

Yet to suggest that perhaps America is carrying an excessive burden, that some other countries – like in Europe, Japan, Australia, Israel, Gulf States, and South Korea – should do more for themselves, is to trigger delirium in Washington. The collective reaction is a John McEnroesque "You cannot be serious!" The liberal order would end, a new Dark Ages would descend, the world as we know it would pass away.

Perhaps the premier hysteric is Robert Kagan, who contended: "Husbanding our power in an effort to slow America’s decline in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world would mean avoiding debilitating land entanglements and focusing instead on being more of an offshore balancer…. While this may be in America’s interest, the very signaling of such an aloof intention may encourage regional bullies…. [L]essening our engagement with the world would have devastating consequences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste of what is to come should our country flinch from its international responsibilities." In short, his message to the American people is: shut up, pay your taxes, and prepare to die when your betters send you off to war.

If would be a less offensive message if he had led a unit into battle. Of course, there is still time for Kagan to form an updated Lincoln Brigade and head for Ukraine.

Despite the Blob’s picture of doom and gloom, however, great powers can prosper from retrenchment, and do so without the world collapsing around them. Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent studied 18 cases of great power decline and discovered generally positive results. They had three general findings.

  • "we challenge the retrenchment pessimists’ claim that domestic or international constraints inhibit the ability of declining great powers to retrench. In fact, when states fall in the hierarchy of great powers, peaceful retrenchment is the most common response, even over short time spans. Based on the empirical record, we ªnd that great powers retrenched in no less than eleven and no more than fifteen of the eighteen cases, a range of 61–83 percent. When international conditions demand it, states renounce risky ties, increase reliance on allies or adversaries, draw down their military obligations, and impose adjustments on domestic populations."
  • "the magnitude of relative decline helps explain the extent of great power retrenchment. Following the dictates of neorealist theory, great powers retrench for the same reason they expand: the rigors of great power politics compel them to do so. Retrenchment is by no means easy, but necessity is the mother of invention, and declining great powers face powerful incentives to contract their interests in a prompt and proportionate manner."
  • "The rate of decline helps explain what forms great power retrenchment will take. How fast great powers fall contributes to whether these retrenching states will internally reform, seek new allies or rely more heavily on old ones, and make diplomatic overtures to enemies. Further, our analysis suggests that great powers facing acute decline are less likely to initiate or escalate militarized interstate disputes. Faced with diminishing resources, great powers moderate their foreign policy ambitions and offer concessions in areas of lesser strategic value. Contrary to the pessimistic conclusions of critics, retrenchment neither requires aggression nor invites predation. Great powers are able to rebalance their commitments through compromise, rather than conflict. In these ways, states respond to penury the same way they do to plenty: they seek to adopt policies that maximize security given available means."

Particularly important is the latter conclusion. Contrary to the Kagan thesis, the world did not end after retrenchment. Explained MacDonald and Parent: "Far from being a hazardous policy, retrenchment can be successful. States that retrench often regain their position in the hierarchy of great powers. Of the fifteen great powers that adopted retrenchment in response to acute relative decline, 40 percent managed to recover their ordinal rank. In contrast, none of the declining powers that failed to retrench recovered their relative position."

Of particular note in looking ahead for America is the inevitable reduction in military outlays. The authors reported:

"As predicted, great powers facing acute decline decreased the number of military personnel in their armed forces by an average of 0.8 percent over a ªfive-year period. By way of comparison, great powers not in decline increased the size of their militaries by an average of 2.1 percent across a similar period. Declining great powers also tend to spend less aggressively on defense than the average great power. In the five years following a shift in ordinal rankings, declining great powers increased their defense spending an average of 2.14 percent, compared with 8.38 percent for great powers not suffering from acute decline. These findings suggest that great powers do indeed slow or pare back military outlays in response to relative decline … . Moreover, the extent to which a great power reduces the size of its military tends to be associated with the magnitude of its relative decline."

Not only are these findings hopeful overall, but they suggest that the US could prosper by downplaying military competition with China. America’s decline is moderate and "the United States should be able to reduce its foreign policy commitments in East Asia in the coming decades without inviting Chinese expansionism," argued the authors. "By incrementally shifting burdens to regional allies and multilateral institutions, the United States can strengthen the credibility of its core commitments while accommodating the interests of a rising China. Not least among the benefits of retrenchment is that it helps alleviate an unsustainable financial position. Immense forward deployments will only exacerbate U.S. grand strategic problems and risk unnecessary clashes."

The latter point is critical. Blob members imagine that America must increase military outlays, commitments, and deployments, no matter how high the cost and disastrous the consequences. However, adjusting foreign policy to reflect available resources and international circumstances is the only way to avoid potentially catastrophic failure.

The world today seems full of danger. Retrenchment might not sound like a rallying cry. But it is the country’s best hope to salvage the future. Washington should adjust its foreign policy to reflect the interests of the American people.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.