J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Is America in Retreat? Johan Norberg Asks the Question

The term “world’s policeman” is often used in a derisive, Keystone Cops sort of way, but couldn’t this world use a bit more law and order? Maybe America does not necessarily have to fulfill those duties, but who else has the sufficient wherewithal? China? We have seen how they police their own people and it is highly problematic. Johan Norberg, Cato Institute Fellow and Executive Editor of Free to Choose Media chronicles America’s recent trend towards international disengagement and assesses the long-term implications in Is America in Retreat (trailer here), directed by Kip Perry & Elan Bentov, which airs throughout the week on select PBS stations.

If there is one single pivotal event in recent history for the commentators in Retreat, it would undeniably be the Obama Administration’s dangerous decision not to enforce its own “red line” prohibiting Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people, meekly accepting a “Russia deal” instead. Retreat explicitly links the “red line” capitulation to the subsequent refugee crisis, as well as the Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine. As Bret Stephens argues:

“Bashar Assad crossed that line by killing a thousand people with Sarin gas in Damascus. There were no consequences. Vladimir Putin observing what happened in Syria took Crimea in the space of a couple of days. Even then, there were almost no consequences.”

Norberg travels (as near as he can to) to three geopolitical flash points, where the lack of American leadership can be directly felt. The first two are indeed Ukraine and Syria (represented by recently arrived migrants in Germany), which receive plenty of media attention. However, the third flash point, the South China Sea, is arguably the most critical, but under-reported.

One of the big take-aways from Retreat is the role first Britain and then the U.S. have played ensuring safe navigation during their respective Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. Throughout the last seventy years, the U.S. Navy has frequently mounted “Freedom of Navigation” operations through international waterways that overreaching nations have claims in defiance of international law, much like the British did during the prior century. In each case, the British and Americans have been the only nation powerful enough to do this kind of maritime policing, but we also stood to gain the most by maintaining the unfettered flow of international trade.

However, American foreign policy now officially takes no positions regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is obviously an open invitation to China to bully its neighbors. Norberg shows us the human cost of our deference to the PRC, traveling with a crew of Filipino fisherman who are chased out of their own waters by the Chinese Cost Guard.

Another big takeaway from Retreat is its application of James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows Theory to foreign policy. It makes a convincing case we have reaped greater international instability and human rights catastrophes by ignoring smaller ones, like the poison gas attacks in Syria or Beijing’s island grabs. Unfortunately, it does not leave viewers feeling optimistic. Despite talking like an internationalist, Obama followed a policy of reckless retreat more often than not. Yet, rather perversely, he has been succeeded by a President who frequently falls back on “America First” rhetoric.


It is rather ironic the generally libertarian Free to Choose Network and the “Classical Liberal” Norberg would make this case for a more engaged U.S. foreign policy, but it also makes their arguments harder to ignore. Provocative but soundly reasoned, Is America in Retreat is highly recommended for all American citizens concerned about our position in the world. It airs in various cities throughout the week, including this Thursday (3/30) on Baltimore’s WMPB and Saturday afternoon (4/1) on New York’s WNET.

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