Skip to main content

What if U.S. stops policing the world?

By Stuart Gottlieb, Special to CNN
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Wed September 19, 2012
U.S. soldiers watch as the Bagram prison is turned over to Afghan authorities at the U.S. airbase in Bagram on September 10.
U.S. soldiers watch as the Bagram prison is turned over to Afghan authorities at the U.S. airbase in Bagram on September 10.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stuart Gottlieb: Americans are sick of war and ready to focus on domestic issues
  • Withdrawing troops, cutting military might be popular, but it is not without risks, he says
  • Gottlieb: Historically, each time U.S. drew back militarily, global challengers took advantage
  • He says Americans must believe in U.S. leadership; world must know U.S. is steadfast

Editor's note: Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and international security at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, where he is also an affiliate of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He worked as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter to two senior Democratic senators and has worked on presidential campaigns for both Democratic and Republican candidates. A second edition of his book "Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism" (CQ Press) will be published in early 2013.

(CNN) -- One of the areas in which President Obama has held a consistent lead in polls over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is in the handling of foreign affairs. Although the killing of Osama bin Laden surely factors into this, Obama's advantage stems from progress on his signature promises to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and reduce America's oversized, and overly costly, military footprint in the world.

Although the recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in the Middle East might have offered Romney an opportunity to broach foreign policy issues, the tensions only underscore the appeal of Obama's foreign policy to a war-weary public: "After a decade of war, the nation we need to be rebuilding is the United States of America," he said in an address last month at Fort Bliss, Texas. Even Romney, who has been harshly critical of the president's foreign policy leadership, seems unwilling to contest this political reality; he omitted any mention of Iraq or Afghanistan in his acceptance speech last month in Tampa, Florida.

But the question is not whether promises to bring home troops and reduce military spending can be sold in an election year -- the question is what impact would retrenchment have on future U.S. and global security. If history is any guide, the answer is troubling: Over the past century, each of America's attempts to reduce its role in the world was met by rising global threats, eventually requiring a major U.S. re-engagement.

This is not to argue that the U.S. should sustain its muscular post-9/11 global posture or continue its land war in Afghanistan. It is to urge caution against a growing belief that scaling back American power in the world will be without risks or costs.

Stuart Gottlieb
Stuart Gottlieb

History shows that in the aftermath of America's major wars of the 20th century -- World War I, World War II and Vietnam -- the American public and powerful leaders in Washington demanded strict new limits in foreign policy. After World War I, that meant rejecting participation in the League of Nations and receding into isolation. After World War II, it meant embarking on one of the largest voluntary military demobilizations in world history. And after Vietnam, it meant placing new restrictions on a president's ability to conduct overseas operations.

But in each case, hopes were soon dashed by global challengers who took advantage of America's effort to draw back from the world stage -- Germany and Japan in the 1930s, the Soviet Union in the immediate post-World War II period and the Soviet Union again after Vietnam. In each case, the United States was forced back into a paramount global leadership role -- in World War II, the Cold War and the military build-up and proxy wars of the 1980s.

Similar effects have also followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from global hot spots, as in Somalia in 1993. America's need to extricate itself from that calamitous humanitarian mission, in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed, was clear. But the withdrawal came at a huge strategic cost: It emboldened the narrative of the emerging al Qaeda network that America was a "paper tiger," setting the stage for the escalating terrorist attacks of the 1990s and September 11, 2001.

The Afghan war: When friends are enemies
U.S. steps up Mideast military presence
Military option for Pres. Obama in Libya

Obama's desire to withdraw from costly and unpopular foreign conflicts and refocus on domestic issues is understandable. And he is by no means an isolationist, as his intensified war on al Qaeda can attest.

But Obama's assertion that his recalibration of U.S. foreign policy -- centered on withdrawing U.S. troops from Mideast wars and leaning more on allies and the United Nations -- has awakened "a new confidence in our leadership" is without foundation.

Like Great Britain in the 19th century, America since the turn of the 20th century has been the world's pivotal global power. Fair or not, in moments when America seemed unsure of its role in the world, the world noticed and reacted.

There is no reason to believe now is different. Indeed, in many ways looming opportunists are more obvious today than the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s. These include al Qaeda and other Islamist movements spinning U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan as strategic defeats; an emboldened Iran on the cusp of attaining nuclear weapons; and a rising China flexing its muscles in the South China Sea.

To his credit, Romney has strongly warned against a world with more limited American leadership. He has also promised to reverse Obama's defense cuts and offer his own increases. But while Obama's approach may be shortsighted, Romney's would face an uphill battle against fiscal and popular sentiment. These issues must certainly be raised in the upcoming presidential debates.

Whoever wins in November will confront not just an increasingly dangerous world, but also an increasingly isolationist public. The great challenge will be to convince the American people that robust U.S. leadership in the world remains vital to their security and prosperity and convince the world it remains unwavering. History shows that doing otherwise only raises the stakes down the line.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stuart Gottlieb.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT