As more Republican candidates enter the 2016 presidential campaign, some are accusing President Obama of isolationism. It is more accurate to describe Obama’s policy as “retrenchment.” Retrenchment is not isolationism, but rather an adjustment of strategic goals and means. Presidents who followed policies of retrenchment since the end of World War II included Republican heroes like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Both were strong internationalists.
A credible case can be made that periods of maximalist over-commitment have done more damage to America’s place in the world than periods of retrenchment. The domestic political reaction to President Woodrow Wilson’s global idealism produced the intense isolationism that delayed America’s response to Hitler; John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam produced an inward-oriented decade in the 1970s; and domestic reaction to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq created the current mood of retrenchment.
There are two major debates going on about American foreign policy: what to spend and when to intervene. Some argue that the U.S. has no choice but to cut back on its foreign and defense policy, but this is not the case. As a portion of GDP, the U.S. is spending less than half of what it did at the peak of the Cold War years when the century of American leadership was being consolidated. The problem is not guns vs. butter, but guns vs. butter vs. taxes. The Republicans want a strong defense, but they do not like taxes.
The second debate is about intervention. How, and in what way, should the United States become involved in the internal affairs of other countries? President Obama has said that America should use military force, unilaterally, if necessary, when its security or that of its allies is threatened. When not, but conscience urges the country to act such as a dictator killing a large number of his citizens, the U.S. should not act alone and only use force if there is a good prospect of success. These are reasonable principles, but what are the thresholds?
The problem is not new: John Quincy Adams wrestled with domestic demands for intervention in the Greek war for independence nearly two centuries ago when he famously said we “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
But what if forbearance in a civil war like Syria’s allows a terrorist group like ISIL to establish a safe haven? And how many troops should be sent to Iraq? Even most Republicans see Bush’s 2003 invasion as a mistake.
The U.S. should stay out of the business of invasion and occupation. In an age of nationalism and socially mobilized populations, foreign occupation is bound to breed resentment. Eisenhower wisely reached that conclusion in Vietnam, but what takes its place? Particularly in the Middle East, where revolutions are likely to last for a generation, smart application of hard and soft power instruments will be difficult. The debate is just beginning.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Is the American Century Over?”