Skip to main content

What if U.S. stops policing the world?

By Stuart Gottlieb, Special to CNN
September 19, 2012 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT