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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT