Kevin Lamarque / Reuters Handover: Trump and Obama in the Oval Office, November 2016

Will Washington Abandon the Order?

The False Logic of Retreat

In This Review

Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order
By Robert J. Lieber
Cambridge University Press, 2016
152 pp.
Purchase
The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force
By Eliot A. Cohen
Basic Books, 2016
304 pp.
Purchase

Should the United States commit its unrivaled power to spreading democracy and cementing Washington’s leadership of the liberal international order that has provided decades of stability and security but has come under increasing strain in recent years? Or would U.S. interests be better served by less American intervention in world affairs—and, in particular, by less exertion of U.S. military force? Theorists and policymakers have argued over those questions for decades, especially since the end of the Cold War. During the past eight years, the Obama administration has changed the terms of the debate by pursuing a strategy of retrenchment. President Barack Obama has sought to reduce U.S. involvement overseas and has moved away from the interventionist strategy of preserving liberal hegemony, arguably shifting closer to something resembling “offshore balancing.” And President-elect Donald Trump could take U.S. foreign policy even further in that direction. That approach was recently advocated in this magazine by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who argued that “instead of policing the world,” Washington should “encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary.”

Obama does not use the terms “retrenchment” or “offshore balancing” to describe his strategy. However, he has made it clear in interviews with journalists and in his public remarks that he believes he has initiated a historic shift in Washington’s engagement with the world, liberating his administration from the orthodoxy of a foreign policy establishment that is hobbled by groupthink (“the Blob,” as one of Obama’s closest advisers called it last year) and that has led the United States into a morass of financially and morally costly overcommitment.

Robert Lieber and Eliot Cohen are two eminent voices of that establishment. Both have recently published important books that assess Obama’s approach and find it wanting. Both land devastating blows against the president’s policies and the assumptions and ideas on which they are based. And both seek

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