Strategic Horizons: Strategic Retrenchment the Smart Way

Strategic Horizons: Strategic Retrenchment the Smart Way

Strategic retrenchment is all the rage among America's national security experts. There is increasing agreement that the global strategy of the past two decades is politically and economically unsustainable, so Washington must cut its security commitments and scale down engagement around the world, particularly when it involves the U.S. military.

This is not a new idea. After World War II, some political leaders and opinion shapers encouraged President Harry Truman to follow American tradition and disengage from Europe and Asia. That pressure ended only when the extent of the Soviet threat became clear and North Korea invaded South Korea. After the fiasco of Vietnam and the economic stagnation that followed, there was widespread sentiment that America should "come home," particularly on the political left. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the idea of disengagement or a diminished American world role resurfaced once again. Having won the Cold War, the feeling was, the United States could downgrade its role in Asia, Africa and Europe.

In each of those cases, scholars and politicians floated the idea of major retrenchment, but it never happened. Instead, the United States tweaked its strategy and marched on as before. Following Vietnam, for instance, Richard Nixon found ways to shift some of the burden of regional security to allies and partners. A few years later, Ronald Reagan kicked the doldrums out of America's global strategy and renewed U.S. leadership of efforts to contain the Soviet Union. When the Cold War ended, the United States pursued what it called the “revolution in military affairs" to sustain domestic support for the use of military power by limiting U.S. casualties. But America's global role did not shrink. If anything, it expanded, as policymakers embraced the idea that the United States was "indispensable" to security around the world.

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