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Michael Gerson: The risks of retreat

Published: March 19, 2013
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In addition, the Rand Paul right would have America abandon funding for economic development, democracy promotion, global health and education and the stabilization of weak states — the nonmilitary interventions that make military ones less needed in the future.

The Obama administration, mainly populated by internationalists, has formally resisted these trends, while sometimes informally aiding them. The president occasionally talks as if security policy were a diversion from the real work of health reform, gun control and the rest of “nation-building at home.” And American policy in Syria — Assad must go, but doing little to achieve it — has sent recent signals of impotence.

In many regions of the world, the convergence of these fiscal and ideological developments is creating an impression of retreat. America remains strong in absolute terms, but the trend is toward disengagement. This could easily shade or shift the strategic calculations of other nations. If you are the Chinese government, why not test America a bit on copyright protections, or even in disputed areas of the South China Sea? If you are the Iranian regime, you might wonder if America's nuclear red line is truly red.

A nation that is economically stagnant, weighed down by debt, politically congested, militarily retrenching and conflicted about its global role is not becoming safer in the process. These trends feed our rivals' destabilizing dreams of global realignment. This, in the long run, invites challenges we might have avoided.

It is a traditional American temptation. As the memories of Munich, or the Berlin Blockade, or 9/11 fade, domestic and economic issues seem primary, and the world seems distant. But the threats of the world still gather, indifferent to our current mood.

THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP