Lean Forward

In Defense of American Engagement

The details of U.S. foreign policy have differed from administration to administration, including the emphasis placed on democracy promotion and humanitarian goals, but for over 60 years, every president has agreed on the fundamental decision to remain deeply engaged in the world, even as the rationale for that strategy has shifted. During the Cold War, the United States' security commitments to Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East served primarily to prevent Soviet encroachment into the world's wealthiest and most resource-rich regions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the aim has become to make these same regions more secure, and thus less threatening to the United States, and to use these security partnerships to foster the cooperation necessary for a stable and open international order.

Now, more than ever, Washington might be tempted to abandon this grand strategy and pull back from the world. The rise of China is chipping away at the United States' preponderance of power, a budget crisis has put defense spending on the chopping block, and two long wars have left the U.S. military and public exhausted. Indeed, even as most politicians continue to assert their commitment to global leadership, a very different view has taken hold among scholars of international relations over the past decade: that the United States should minimize its overseas military presence, shed its security ties, and give up its efforts to lead the liberal international order.

Proponents of retrenchment argue that a globally engaged grand strategy wastes money by subsidizing the defense of well-off allies and generates resentment among foreign populations and governments. A more modest posture, they contend, would put an end to allies' free-riding and defuse anti-American sentiment. Even if allies did not take over every mission the United States now performs, most of these roles have nothing to do with U.S. security and only risk entrapping the United States in unnecessary wars. In short, those in this camp maintain that pulling back would not only save blood and treasure but also make the United States more secure.

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