This is not a new idea. After World War II, some political leaders and opinion shapers encouraged President Harry Truman to follow American tradition and disengage from Europe and Asia. That pressure ended only when the extent of the Soviet threat became clear and North Korea invaded South Korea. After the fiasco of Vietnam and the economic stagnation that followed, there was widespread sentiment that America should "come home," particularly on the political left. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the idea of disengagement or a diminished American world role resurfaced once again. Having won the Cold War, the feeling was, the United States could downgrade its role in Asia, Africa and Europe.
In each of those cases, scholars and politicians floated the idea of major retrenchment, but it never happened. Instead, the United States tweaked its strategy and marched on as before. Following Vietnam, for instance, Richard Nixon found ways to shift some of the burden of regional security to allies and partners. A few years later, Ronald Reagan kicked the doldrums out of America's global strategy and renewed U.S. leadership of efforts to contain the Soviet Union. When the Cold War ended, the United States pursued what it called the “revolution in military affairs" to sustain domestic support for the use of military power by limiting U.S. casualties. But America's global role did not shrink. If anything, it expanded, as policymakers embraced the idea that the United States was "indispensable" to security around the world.
That was then. The current round of retrenchment may be different in large part because of the political forces driving it. One is weariness after a decade of constant conflict and a widespread attitude that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth the costs. Even more important is the economic crisis that the United States faces. An aging population is increasing the cost of government entitlements. Combined with sluggish economic growth and the massive expense of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the result has been growing government deficits that leave less to spend on national security and foreign policy.
Unfortunately, the methods used for strategic belt-tightening in the past may not suffice this time. Encouraging other nations to spend more on defense so that the United States can spend less is appealing, but probably a lost cause. America's most capable allies -- the members of NATO along with Japan and South Korea -- face the same sort of economic and demographic problems as the United States and even greater domestic opposition to increased military spending. New strategic partners like India can help, but only to a modest degree. Pursuing greater efficiency in America's defense establishment is worthwhile, but given the growing costs of major weapons systems and the type of people that the all-volunteer force needs, there is only so much fat to be cut without losing quality. And militaries, unlike businesses, need excess capacity and redundancy to avoid catastrophe when a conflict takes an unexpected direction.
Changes in the domestic political landscape add to the problem. In the past, skilled leaders like Reagan and Bill Clinton could count on support from their political parties to stave off pressure for strategic disengagement. Today the intense, nearly hysterical partisanship of American politics means that any action abroad that is less than a stunning success is used as a political cudgel against the president and his party. This lowers the incentive for bold actions and innovation and pushes the United States toward a risk-minimizing approach rather than a benefit-maximizing one. The growing populism in American politics and the role that pundits and media figures play in shaping the political agenda also adds fuel to calls for strategic retrenchment. Support for an active world role has always been weakest outside America's internationalist elites. Trends now empower nontraditional elites and weaken the traditional political leaders who are precisely the people most committed to global activism and engagement. During the Cold War, the U.S. Congress was full of powerful stalwarts with a deep understanding of foreign policy and national security and a commitment to find bipartisan ways to promote the national interest. This is no longer the case.
Given all this, the question is not whether the United States will undertake strategic retrenchment, but where and how much. Should the United States lower its level of engagement in some parts of the world or even disengage entirely? If so, where? Africa, with its growing al-Qaida presence and expanding economies? Asia, with an increasingly menacing China? Europe, with its shared political values and historical ties to the United States? Or is it enough for the United States to simply resist certain types of actions, especially large-scale counterinsurgency operations like Iraq and Afghanistan? This latter approach has deep support among advocates of strategic retrenchment. Rather than direct engagement in regional security, they argue, the U.S. military should remain offshore or over the horizon, to be used only to prevent a hostile power from gaining outright control of some important region. What is not clear is whether this will be enough either to assure U.S. security or lower the costs of American strategy.
Much remains to be done to turn strategic retrenchment from a concept to a workable plan. Clearly, military spending and force size must shrink. But if cuts are made precipitously or unwisely, the results could be disastrous, particularly if the United States military reaches a condition where all it can do is strike identifiable targets from afar and undertake short land expeditions. In the contemporary global security environment characterized by interconnectedness and information saturation, it is always better to prevent a war than to fight one. This is equally true whether the opponent is a hostile nation with conventional armed forces or nonstate enemies like militias, insurgents and terrorists. Today every major conflict has cascading effects, unleashing malignancy like transnational crime and terrorism, and hindering the global economic growth that Americans badly need.
If the United States is forced to fight, better to help shape a sustainable postconflict security system than to have to return repeatedly to destroy enemies that constantly rebuild themselves. And if a conflict occurs, better to be able to help neighboring states prevent its spread than to only be able to destroy targets that eventually pop up.
The ongoing conflict in Libya clearly shows that defeating bad guys without also building sustainable security is counterproductive. Hopefully policymakers will remember this as they adjust American strategy and not denude the United States of the military capability to prevent conflict and assure sustainable security in the hope that it will not be needed again.
Retrenchment, greater efficiency and cuts in military spending and force structure are necessary. But if not done smartly, a future U.S. president could face unexpected challenges without the military capability needed to protect and promote vital national interests.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday.