Citing polling data that shows a majority of Americans want the U.S. to be less engaged in world affairs, believe our influence on those affairs is declining, and feel we're doing too much to help solve the world’s problems, New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that while "at first blush, this looks like isolationism," the data shows Americans are not turning inward economically or socially.
So what's going on?
"What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs," Brooks hypothesizes. "They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation—that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do."
What on earth is "amazing" about that?
There are, in fact, "severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do." How could anyone argue otherwise, much less express surprise at that assertion? U.S. political efforts cannot induce North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. military could not prevent sectarian violence in Iraq during the aughts.
The War on Drugs cannot defeat the cartels.
Is the reality of these severe restrictions really in dispute? And is perceiving them really something Americans have just started to do? The World War II generation, darlings of national-greatness conservatives and neoconservatives alike, showed that they "sensed" the "severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do" at Yalta, and later at the 38th parallel. A generation later, the limits of political and military efforts were on display in Vietnam and Cambodia.
"There has been surprisingly little outcry against the proposed defense cuts, which would reduce the size of the U.S. Army to its lowest levels since 1940," Brooks writes, citing an egregiously misleading metric that ignores the reality of U.S. military supremacy relative to other countries, an elision that permits Brooks to say, "That’s because people are no longer sure military might gets you very much." Actually, even the people actively defending the reduction in size want the United States to spend significantly more on the military than any other country on earth. That would be a strange outcome, indeed, for a polity that didn't believe that they were getting an important return on that huge investment.
What Americans are actually sensing, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan reminded them about the limits of military force*, is that the law of diminishing marginal returns holds, even if, left to its own devices, the Pentagon would spend without limit.
Says Brooks, "It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional." But no one actually believes that!
Elsewhere at The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently pointed out that, viewed through the eyes of Vladimir Putin, the United States hardly seems like a power in retreat:
Under Ronald Reagan, the frontier of American power in Europe was Berlin. Then, in February 1990, as East Germany began wobbling, Secretary of State James Baker journeyed to Moscow to discuss German unification. According to James Goldgeier, author of Not Whether But When, the definitive history of NATO expansion, Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if the Soviets allowed Germany to reunify, NATO—the U.S.-led Western military alliance that took form after World War II—would not expand “one inch” further east, not even into the former East Germany itself. But as the year progressed, the White House developed different ideas, and by the fall it was clear that a unified Germany would enter NATO, no matter what the Russians thought.
The idea of admitting other Eastern European countries into NATO, however, was still considered recklessly provocative toward Russia. The New York Times editorial board and its star foreign-affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, strongly opposed the idea. The eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote that, “[H]istorians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.” George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, was skeptical of the idea, as was Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, William Perry.
For his part, Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that extending NATO violated the “spirit of conversations” between Baker and Gorbachev, and would produce a “cold peace” between Russia and the West. It didn’t matter. In 1995, NATO went to war against Serbia, and then sent peacekeepers to Bosnia to enforce the peace agreement that followed. This new, Eastern-European mission paved the way for further expansion. By 1997, it was clear Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic would enter the alliance. In 2004, NATO admitted another seven former Soviet bloc countries, three of which—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—had been part of the USSR. In 2009, Croatia and Albania joined the club. Six former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—now link their militaries to NATO’s via the “Partnership for Peace” program. All five former Soviet republics in Central Asia—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan—provide NATO countries with some basing, transit, refueling, or overflight rights for use in the Afghan war.
From Putin’s perspective, in other words, the United States hardly looks in retreat. To the contrary, the post-Cold War period has brought one long march by America and its allies closer and closer to the border of Russia itself.
Americans who want the U.S. less engaged in world affairs are saying no more than what Brooks, for reasons I can't fathom, finds "amazing": that there are limits to the changes that American politicians and soldiers can bring about, and that those limits ought to be obvious to anyone looking at Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Ukraine.
This point is being made with increasing insistence by the American public because they perceive, correctly, that there is a cadre of Washington, D.C. insiders—bureaucrats, military contractors, think-tank fellows, editors like Bill Kristol, writers like Max Boot—so oblivious to America's limits that they can't even see the last military intervention that they successfully advocated as a mistake, even though, in that case, the catastrophic results have already played out.
Brooks is a much more subtle thinker and insightful writer than any of these people. On matters of foreign policy and what he would call "national greatness," he is still unduly influenced by them, despite the fact that, more than any other actors in American life, they've destroyed the trust in leadership that Brooks himself values. Leaders that blunder into wars and subsequently lose them, at great cost in lives and treasure, forfeit their ability to lead. Their ideas lose esteem.
How could it be otherwise?
*Brooks once found it reasonable to draw sweeping conclusions about American power based on the Iraq War, predicting, during the brief window before quagmire, that it would inspire young Americans to be national-greatness interventionists.