National Voices

Tuesday, Mar 19 2013 11:00 PM

MICHAEL GERSON: The risks of a retreat from the world stage

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    Michael Gerson

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Declining national influence is a choice, and America seems to be making it.

What foreign policy practitioners politely call the "churn" of events is beginning to look more like chaos. Egypt teeters between the establishment of a democracy and the restoration of the caliphate. Syria melts away as an organized state and perhaps as a geographic fact. Iran is on the verge of building the Shiite bomb and igniting a sectarian nuclear arms race (and you thought a purely ideological nuclear arms race was scary). North Korea continues its bold experiment in proliferation and abnormal psychology.

And beneath it all, some large trends: In the Middle East and North Africa, a combination of economic stagnation, a youth bulge and a sense of historical grievance -- all the preconditions for radicalism and terrorism. In Asia, the rapid reversal of 250 years of Western economic and technological predominance, which is raising questions about America's future military predominance.

Barring the option of utter despair, these challenges would seem to require expanded, sophisticated American engagement in order to shape an economic and security environment favorable to our long-term interests. Do any of these problems grow easier with time and inattention?

But consider the actual American response: budgetary chaos and military cuts, ideological self-questioning and mixed leadership signals.

The sequestration of the U.S. military budget was a stunning geopolitical development. Defense cuts of this scale and irrationality -- shrinking the Marine Corps by 25 percent, reducing the size of the Army by 143,000 soldiers, undermining modernization, training and readiness -- were supposed to be unacceptable to Republicans. Until Republicans accepted them with minimal protest. The commander in chief -- who supports a different mix of military cuts -- did not seem particularly outraged, either. Military leaders are publicly predicting a serious deterioration of American capabilities, and one assumes that allies and enemies are listening as well.

At the same time, American politicians have begun an ideological debate on the country's global role. Elements on the right and left apparently believe that reducing military resources will constrain future interventions. This is perhaps true of a European country. For America -- with a set of unavoidable global interests -- it doesn't work this way. Constrained resources generally mean that interventions, when necessary, come at a later time, under less favorable conditions, from a weaker position.

In addition, the Rand Paul right would have America abandon funding for economic development, democracy promotion, global health and education, and the stabilization of weak states -- the non-military interventions that make military ones less needed in the future. And these conservatives define the war on terrorism, particularly the use of drones, as the leading edge of domestic oppression. A campaign conducted by American intelligence services and military forces with exceptional patience, restraint and care in targeting is vilified for political gain and ideological pleasure. Could there be a more potent symbol of the unlearning of the lessons of 9/11?

The Obama administration, mainly populated by internationalists, has formally resisted these trends, while sometimes informally aiding them. The president occasionally talks as if security policy were a diversion from the real work of health reform, gun control and the rest of "nation-building at home." And American policy in Syria -- Assad must go, but doing little to achieve it -- has sent recent signals of impotence.

In many regions of the world, the convergence of these fiscal and ideological developments is creating an impression of retreat. America remains strong in absolute terms, but the trend is toward disengagement. This could easily shade or shift the strategic calculations of other nations. If you are the Chinese government, why not test America a bit on copyright protections, or even in disputed areas of the South China Sea? If you are the Iranian regime, you might wonder if America's nuclear red line is truly red. Russian leaders are in constant search for power vacuums to fill. Even if doubts about American will are mistaken, we are making them more plausible.

A nation that is economically stagnant, weighed down by debt, politically congested, militarily retrenching and conflicted about its global role is not becoming safer in the process. These trends feed our rivals' destabilizing dreams of global realignment. This, in the long run, invites challenges we might have avoided.

It is a traditional American temptation. As the memories of Munich, or the Berlin Blockade, or 9/11 fade, domestic and economic issues seem primary, and the world seems distant. But the threats of the world still gather, indifferent to our current mood.

Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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