In his first book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal surveys the tumultuous international scene and calls for America to do what great nations have always done: Lead.
By any objective measure, writes Stephens, the United States is not in decline. We’ll be the world’s leading power for decades to come, the chief adversary for the likes of China, Russia and Iran, and “the preferred target for any ambitious terrorist group.” For the past 10 years, however, the nation has been in retreat, shrinking from international responsibilities. In this mostly persuasive polemic, the author outlines the persistent tension in our history—in both major parties—between the impulse to retire entirely from the world or to try to save it. Stephens rejects isolationism outright, but he also warns against the messianic foreign policies that have motivated presidents as different as Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush. Instead, he calls for America to accept a much more pedestrian, if absolutely necessary, role: to keep order. He realizes that war-weary, recession-battered Americans won’t want to hear it, but necessity obliges us to resume the burden we shouldered during the Cold War as the world’s policeman. This middle course—America as the world’s “stop-and-frisk” cop (and Stephens is fully aware of the opprobrium his argument will generate)—dispenses with fanciful notions of redeeming the world, of winning hearts and minds, in favor of more modest, still difficult, aims: shaping behavior of would-be foes, deterring our enemies, acting forthrightly in our self-interest, and seeking incremental rather than transformational change. Fending off international disorder, he concedes, will require increased defense spending and wider deployment of more assets for the protection of our friends. More than anything, halting our retreat requires a political will currently not much in evidence.
A provocative, carefully reasoned argument, anathema to politicians as disparate as Barack Obama and Rand Paul.