US Strategy is Now Selective Retrenchment? How Humiliating…


As usual, Walt nails it with an incisive critique of US foreign policy. (If you don’t read him, you should.) He argues that the US grand strategy has become ‘selective retrenchment.’ That is a good term that captures well the post-Bush hangover US power is enduring. After W’s dreams of global democratic imperialism, we have crashed into reality. W overreached and infuriated the world. In 2000, the US was the ‘indispensible nation.’ Today, we talk about the coming of non- or multi-polarity, or the ‘post-American world.’ For all W’s strutting machismo about defending and strengthening America, he left us far worse off than the pot-smoking draft-dodger did.

For Americans, this should be rather sad, especially if you think that US hegemony is more benevolent than any others would likely be. Consider the possible list of other leaders: The EU is paralyzed and inward looking, India is too weak, China is undemocratic and culturally arrogant, and Russia is too mean. In short, the list of replacements for global US power are unappealing. For all that US arrogance and messianism under Bush, the US has by and large supported good, liberal things like human rights and democracy. (Compare Chinese and US behavior in Africa, e.g.) Don’t expect the realist Euros or nationalist Chinese to advocate this way. (For the longer version of this argument, read this.)

So, once again, you can blame W for this. Under Clinton, for all his personal shenanigans, US power was relatively secure. Foreign respect for the US was reasonable, US overseas commitments were manageable, the US budget – the long-term foundation for US power projection abroad – was improving. In just 8 years, W did astonishingly damage to US power, and now we must retrench, as Walt says. We must increasingly give up important projects (possibly even AfPak) and share leadership with others in some flimsy multilateral collective effort more likely to induce free-riding and buck-passing than joint leadership. Obama has to run around the world telling to telling foreigners we are not a bully. How humiliating. Andrew Sullivan said the Bush administration was one of the worst presidencies in US history. Any American should be embarrassed at this low ebb of US power. Like the overstretched and widely perceived as imperialist British in the 50s, we now have to start to pull back. It did not have to be this way.

But so hath W wrought. He convinced even a lot our allies that the Pax Americana didn’t have much pax  in it. The notion that the US was a gentle giant, a benevolent hegemon flew out the window; we became Thucydides’ Athenians  – right down to our own Sicilian expedition in Iraq and Melos at Abu Ghraib. Under the preemptive war doctrine, the US became something unheard of in IR – a revisionist hegemon. IR theory doesn’t even know what that means – hegemons, by definition, are supposed to be status quo seeking. It’s an oxymoron. Yet the Bush people pulled it off. We looked like we wanted to rewrite global rules – the very ones that we helped build after WW2. To the rest of the world, we became imperialists. I spend enormous amounts of time here in Asia trying to convince Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese that we are not in fact global imperialists. It’s terribly embarrassing.

To boot, W broke the bank. The budget flew out of extremely out of balance; W added 50% onto the national debt in just 8 years ($6T to $9T). No rainy day fund for crises like the Great Recession was ever even contemplated. The Clinton-Rubin opportunity to place US power on a durable financial footing was squandered. Now we borrow $20B a month from the Chinese. If you think we can hang on at the top doing that, go take Econ 101. We are, literally, selling American preponderance to the PRC – ast0nishing,  heartbreaking. No ‘empire’ can survive very long when it becomes a debtor; yet the Bush people pursued a costly foreign policy while simultaneously stripping the government of the resources to pay for it (through tax cuts we could not afford). This was simply insanity, and the pain of the Great Recession is deserved because we brought it on ourselves. For an example of serious budgeteering, including cuts and tough choices, try Korea, instead of US fantasies that we can spend without worrying about where it comes from. What a waste, what a squandered opportunity to make the world a better place…

28 thoughts on “US Strategy is Now Selective Retrenchment? How Humiliating…

  1. This post seems a little schizophrenic to me. I agree with most of what you say, but if W pushed us in an aggressively and arrogantly imperialistic direction, how is it humiliating and embarrassing to simply stop being arrogant, aggressive, and imperialistic? (I’m simplifying things a great deal, I know – changes under Obama have been almost entirely ones of tone, not substance, yet.)

    Al Qaeda’s strategy was to goad us into an unwinnable war in Muslim lands that would alienate ordinary Muslims, divide us from our allies, and drown us in debt. Check, check, and check. Of course, Al Qaeda is also on the ropes, proving merely that wars can be lose-lose.

    My sense is that we have a great deal to apologize for, and while Obama is not actually apologizing to anybody about anything but torture (that’s a baseless rightwing meme, as far as I’m aware), he has softened his tone and vowed to rebuild alliances and improve our contributions to international institutions.

    I think even talking casually about Russian hegemony is questionable, given their Finlandian GDP – all they have is a recent history of imperialistic glory and a bunch of rusting nukes.

    If we are to pull back from mortgaging our entire country to the Chinese, we have to spend less money, and the defense budget is a great place to start. You and I have agreed for a long time about the great danger posed by an out-of-control military-industrial complex; its mere existence creates a need for war and finances many of the Very Serious Political Commentators that must always advocate for more and more war to be taken seriously by anybody.

    Also, do you think the Chinese are more culturally arrogant than the US?


  2. I agree with Al Roker Martyrs Brigade that this post is schizophrenic.

    Also, I would say that the Chinese are more, if not just as culturally as “arrogant” as the US. Just examine their colonization of Africa. A year ago China directly influenced the elections in Zambia to go their way. They openly told the Zambians that if they didn’t vote for China’s most favored candidate that they would pull out of Zambia. And there is more.

    Also, when will Europe apologize to Africa, especially the Brits, French, Belge and ESPECIALLY the Portuguese. In fact, French president Sarkozy stated that France had nothing to apologize for, really? What about Rwanda (1994) or Cote d’Iviore (2003-present)?

    As far as AfPak, the current situation has nothing to do with Bush W., but with US domestic policy and the Afghan elections.


  3. Mostly what I got out of this post is that just as there are some republicans (and one ex-democrat Bill Morris) for whom their entire reason d’etre revolves around yelling at Bill and hillary Clinton, we are seeing the same derangement with democrats vis a vis Bush W. Without Bush W. they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. They should take President Obama’s advise and move on.


  4. Kind of hard to move on when we’re still suffering through the catastrophes of Iraq, Afghanistan, the collapse of the US financial system, the explosion of the federal deficit, and endless torture revelations.


  5. I didn’t say move on, President Obama did. Don’t shoot the messenger. Look forward not backwards, whatever it was. Also, isn’t the US on the right track now, that President Obama is in office? The US media sans Fox, has stated that the US is on the right track. Right. A couple of weeks ago Newsweek ran a cover story that stated that the recession was over. Now, I am really confused. In fact Veep Biden said that we are on the right track and that the stimulus is working.

    Dr. Bob, you used to be an Africa expert, so what do you think of the fact that Bush W. played very important role in ending the Angola War in the early stage of his Presidency? The longest running war in Africa until that time. Something very specific happened.

    Also, what do you make that President Clinton had two opportunities during his presidency to avert disaster in Africa, but in fact ended up facilitating one civil war and turning a blind eye to another crisis (I am not counting Somalia). I will be willing to elaborate further.

    Also, isn’t it ironic that so many African newspapers say that Bush W. has done the most for Africa than any other US President? I know Africans are stupid, what do they know? Didn’t Bush W. put an end to Chuckie Taylor? Don’t even say the UN. Taking out that idiot in turn helped to defuse rebel activity in La Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone. Remember Chuck sent some of his boys to help out General Guei in La Cote d’Ivoire?

    What is the present administration’s approach to Africa? Anybody?

    Also, does anybody know how many WARS have taken place around the world since 1990? Even more, how many involved the US? Was the US military industrial complex at cause to all of those conflicts? Colonel Gaddafi, stated that he wanted to know why the UN hadn’t stopped the sixty-five wars. I wonder if he included his support (as well as training) of Chuckie Taylor, Foday Sankoy, Prince Johnson and their crew in during the late 80’s to early-mid 90’s (maybe in the case of Chuck up till 2003). Is Colonel Gaddafi party to the US military industrial complex? Were the Hutu Rwandan genociders party to the US military industrial complex or France’s? I could go on and on and on and on and on?


  6. I’m not talking about Clinton. I’m not talking about Bush’s AIDS relief in Africa. I’m not saying that the US military industrial complex started all wars. I’m not referring to Qadaffi’s support for Chuckie Taylor. Not only could you go on and on, you already have.


  7. “You and I have agreed for a long time about the great danger posed by an out-of-control military-industrial complex;”

    I thought that Dr. Bob said that he did know who you were? How can Dr. Bob have agreed for a very long time with someone that he didn’t know?

    I knew that if I rambled correctly that I would figure you.

    Anyway, back to my point, it was rhetorical. Don’t take it personal.

    I am surprised at your take on the President, though. Interesting.


  8. Dr. Bob:

    When are you going to blame Bush W. for Chicago?

    This had nothing to do with President Obama either. Had probably to do with the fact that the Olympics has never been hosted on South American soil. Since 1980 alone, how many times has the Olympics been hosted on American soil?

    Of course in the US, it is all about President Obama and President Bush W. Check this out:


  9. It is humiliating that the US must explain that is not a bully or global imperialist. Since WWII the US led a reasonably liberal global order. We generally showed restraint and pursued reasonably good global governance. The contrast with the Soviets was so striking that all of Eastern Europe rushed to join NATO, and even China is operating within the US-led order today.

    W damaged a lot of that. At the same time he pursued a neo-imperial US hegemony (that saw the allies as ‘transaction costs’ to, rather than legitimizers of, US power), he stripped the Treasury of the funds to support such an expansive view. Americans should be embarrased at how W wrecked the legitimacy of US power and humbled by the looming prospect of our imperial overstretch.


    • I thought that China was just piggy-backing for now until they are ready to jump off and establish their own order, counter to the US’ order?

      How can you call the US an imperial power? When we speak of Empires, like the Brits and French, they lasted way, way, way longer and have left a real lasting impression on the world, for good or ill (BTW, they have yet to apologize and their citizens don’t seem to care either). If one man can come close to destroying the “US Empire” in eight years doesn’t say much for this country does it?

      The legitimacy of US power wasn’t wrecked until the 2000s? I would imagine that if you asked peoples other than Westerners (and maybe your SK friends) that they would differ with your timeline. I suspect that they would start a lot earlier on the timeline.

      More and more, I think that last year’s Noble Prize Committee was correct when they passed on all US writers. Their reasoning was that writing in the US was insular and that Americans writers had nothing to add to the global dialogue.


    • That makes sense. I think as Chinese civil society matures and is given more breathing space over the next years and decades, the differences between their attitudes toward the world and ours will diminish. I’ve been reading a lot of James Fallows’ articles on China in the Atlantic; he lived there for several years and just returned. I was not terribly worried about China before, and am less so now after hearing what he has to say.


  10. Dr Bob, you wrote:

    ” (that saw the allies as ‘transaction costs’ to, rather than legitimizers of, US power)”, the saying that the US doesn’t have allies only Friends of Convenience predates Bush W., by decades. I am truly amazed that you would write the above. I am very surprised/amazed that you didn’t hear this while you were studying in Europe.

    In fact Lech Walesa recently stated: “The Americans only cared about their interests. They used everybody else,” said Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and revolutionary leader. “It wasn’t that the shield was that important, but it’s about the way, the way of treating us.” (Guardian, UK 9.17.09)


  11. I think Bob’s characterization of allies as legitimizers of US power acknowledges that we have national interests in mind – namely, the legimization of our power. The idea that liberals (or really any sane non-Hannity conservatives) are not interested in national interests but in singing Kumbaya ’round the campfire is a tiresome and transparently false smear. The question isn’t whether we pursue our interests but how effective and durable our efforts are.


  12. You have missed my point completely, and once again this is not a Liberals vs Conservative argument, it speaks to the American character. America under both parties has been selling out allies when they have no longer served the interests of the US. I can go back to Hungary 1956 and work my way up.

    The saying “America has no allies but only friends of convenience” is very powerful (you would have to have lived outside of the US to have heard/comprehend this). It goes all the back to the 1980s when a Republican was in office and it applies now, as it did in 1956, Hungary and before. It has applied for every American presidency post WWII.

    How did you get this: “The idea that liberals (or really any sane non-Hannity conservatives) are not interested in national interests but in singing Kumbaya ’round the campfire is a tiresome and transparently false smear.”, is besides me.

    Let’s take for example the the British and French Empires. Real Empire. Regardless of all the crazy crap that they did, they Brits for example establish their Common Wealth. Even though they are no longer a super-power or an Empire, their Common Wealth is a strong union of countries once under the British yolk that still share deep affinity to Britain. Even Robert Mugabe didn’t want Zim to be kicked out of the Common Wealth. And this speak volumes. Next, take for example the France’s “L’Alliance Française” or whatever. As messed up as the French colonization of Africa was, their league of Francophone Africa is still a viable institution. When the US “Empire” is gone, who will stay around? Probably only Liberia.

    I have no idea what this has to do with Hannity or a campfire smear? The saying in question predates Hannity was originated by non-Americans. Good grief! The saying “America has no allies but only friends of convenience” was not started by Hannity or any American, but non-Americans. Why? Why don’t you imagine why some non-American would say that? Lets start here. Or….

    interest are all that matters, which is also a fair argument, and I understand that. But lets leave Hannity, Maddow et all out. That is showbusiness, WWF stuff. But, I can’t stop you from dragging them up in your argument. We operate from different plains.


  13. So to reiterate, the saying, “America has no allies but only friends of convenience”, was not invented by US Right Wing Extremists or Hannity or O’Rielly. It wasn’t even invented around a campfire in the US. Nor was it invented in the US.


  14. I remember a Globalization Prof. that I had at THE Ohio State University teaching us about “National Favorites” such as Air Nairobi, Trans Luxemburg Airways, etc. I just returned from a trip that involved my riding Korean Air back across the ocean to the U.S.

    This plane was freaking amazing! It seemed to be brand new – there were none of the usual “were and tear” issues such as worn out armrests, stained seats or carpets, etc. I think that we spent 12-14 hours on the plane and I was so comfortable that I had to fight to stay awake. They kept coming by, without being asked, and refilling my coffee! The seat was more like Lazyboy in a a pod, cubicle or as I called them “Eggs”. The seat extended into a full bed and it had thin cubicle like walls that came up and surrounded you so that you couldn’t even see the person next to you. The computer/TV/communication center was new and everything worked as well. And oh ya….. the headsets were Bose and the food was good although I’m still not sure what I was eating.

    Anyway, If I wasn’t already convinced that Korea had it’s feces coagulated, I am now!

    Is this what happens when a country doesn’t need a military budget? I’m curious, how many dollars (real ones, not Canadian) do you suppose enter the economy through U.S. military bases, personal and dependants? And how many Kia’s and Samsungs are exported over here?


  15. I don’t understand all the confusion. It is impossible to miss the terrible damage W did to both American power and prestige, especially if you leave the US for any meaningful time. Partisanship should never cloud judgment, and suggesting that the Democrats are in some important way a part of this is dishonest and diverting. I have little love for the Democratic party. I vote in Republican primaries, and the Congressional leadership is weak and silly. But an interest in Democratic foibles and interest groups misses the larger issue, because W ran a highly partisan and closed White House. He wrecked US power; he is the reason I must endure Asian scholars at conference after conference telling me that the US wants to run the planet. This is not ‘derangement syndrome’ or some silly pop-psychology whatever. Read this post, which summarizes what I encounter overseas constantly – and not just in Asia, but when I travelled in Europe too.

    Obama’s difficulties pale in comparison to the disaster W visited on the US. And selective retrenchment simply recognizes the reality of the position we have landed in. W is a great irony: he exploited the prestige and fiscal space Clinton left him, and now Obama, another Democrat must put it back together again. Funny how the Democrats, who are supposed to be terrible managers of bloated government seem to get the unhappy duty of cleaning it up. Don’t let Fox News blind you to the reality that both Clinton and Obama have actually been better stewards of the daily business of US government. I find this bizarre too, as GOP ideology tells you it is the party of business and managerial seriousness. I very much want that to be true actually; I support the ‘new public management.’ But the only function of government the ‘MBA president’ took really seriously was the military, and even that he almost broke.


  16. Goodness, Dr. Bob, when I lived in Europe over two decades ago people were saying that the US wanted to rule the world. And I lived there for a lot, lot longer than you. The French called the US the Hyper-Power and virtually refused to take US direction during the Kosovo operation, because they thought that the US was too powerful.

    I lived in Europe when Europeans were demonstrating serially against the US for the deployment of the Pershing Missile System, so I don’t really feel sorry that you have to endure what you are going through.

    When I was stationed on the Island of Okinawa, my base was twice surrounded by around 10,000 Japanese telling us to get out, and this was during Clinton’s presidency. You write about enduring? In fact I think that the US should get out of Okinawa and SK. When I was in Oki, just about every Marine that I knew thought that we should split. Move the base to Australia.

    Also, I have proof that the Chinese have thought that the US wanted to rule the world long before Bush W. got on the scene*. In fact they fought us in Korea to stop, impart, American domination of their backyard. Right? And we never left, have we? Why should the US stay in Korea? Why?

    I am not saying that Bush W didn’t mess up.

    I would have addressed your next paragraph but you mentioned Fox News. I just can’t entertain any discussion that hinges on Fox, MSNBC, et.

    *PS: read “China Debates the Future Security Environment” (2000) translated into English.


    • 1. I was usiing ‘you’ in the colloquial third person sense, not second person. I was not speaking directly to you, Julio. I was speaking generally. Sorry for the misconception.

      2. I think it is undeniable that the W changed the tenor of the debate about US imperialism. Before him was only cranky allies like the French, or Noam Chomsky who said this sort of stuff. But 2005, the IR field in political science was deeply worried – more than at any time since Vietnam – and truly excellent, respected IR theorists were saying the US was tilting towards imperialism (try this:

      3. I see no problem using Fox News as a proxy for conservative thinking today. It, along with talk radio, has become the major organ of conservative opinion in the US since the Bush defeat. It has pulled the “Weekly Standard” in its direction as well. Read David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan on the rise of the Fox News right to predominance in US conservatism today.


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