THE BLOG

Suppose America Retrenches -- A Thought Experiment

02/23/2015 07:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Critics accuse President Barack Obama of being a foreign policy minimalist seeking to do the least harm (or no stupid "stuff") rather than by choosing more effective if riskier solutions. In fairness, the president was dealt the most horrible hand on taking office dating back to FDR in 1933. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were disasters. And the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 was the worst since 1929.

While no existential danger (excepting an unpredictable catastrophe) threatening the U.S., the world is confronted with more complex, complicated and often intermingled regional and local crises than during the Cold War. The overriding causes of these crises and challenges are failed and failing government; economic despair, disparity and dislocation; rapid and ultra-violent ideological driven non-state actors; and environmental calamities. In these circumstances, a Washington, Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Churchill would find the going quite heavy.

What should be the role of the United States? It cannot be the world's policeman or even a regional cop and expect to succeed without the help of the locals. As wars in Afghanistan and Iraq painfully revealed, the best military in the world cannot defeat an adversary that lacks a coherent army, navy or air force and is armed with an idea and a movement. And the other tools for promoting governance, development and long-term stability from the outside have usually failed.

Responding to these realities, consider this thought experiment. Suppose the United States downsized its current international role reducing its overseas commitments and force posture. America would still be vitally engaged in commerce, business, finance, diplomacy, humanitarian and trade matters. And America would keep a measure of military presence abroad to protect its citizens and if necessary defend its larger security interests.

What might this new design be? First, assume change would occur over time. Second, assume it would be accomplished through discussions with friends, allies and adversaries to make certain any potential vacuums would not be filled by the wrong people. Third, a diminished security posture would be compensated for by greater diplomatic, business and trade presence and greater involvement by local states.

NATO, the most successful military alliance in history, is a starting point. Suppose any arrangement with Russia began along the lines of a substantial U.S. military withdrawal from Europe that in turn would require Moscow to take equivalent actions to reduce its military posture and aggressive behavior in Ukraine and other frozen conflicts. As strategic arms agreements demonstrated, these types of reductions would be in the mutual interest and verifiable.

The U.S. would not leave the military structure of the alliance as France did nearly fifty years ago. It does mean that U.S. presence with a quid pro quo would shrink. And possibly a European instead of the traditional American would become Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Obviously, Russia has a powerful voice and no such steps would occur without strict verification.

In the Middle East, the U.S. would strike offer alternative security arrangement to regional states. A NATO-type alliance for the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) to include Turkey, Jordan and possibly Iraq might be created underwritten by U.S. strategic guarantees. Regional powers would take the lead in defeating the Islamic State meaning less American involvement.

A similar arrangement could apply to Korea. Treaty commitments would be maintained. U.S. forces would still be stationed on the peninsula but at lower levels. And the ability to reinforce would continue.

About the spread of al Qaeda, IS and other Islamist terrorist organizations elsewhere, empowering local states is essential. Drones and other remote-type weapons might be transferred with proper safeguards. Information, intelligence and law enforcement sharing would be continued with great intensity and interaction.

The response to this experiment is predictable. Even an implied reduction of this "indispensible" nation's commitments abroad would provoke a tsunami of criticism and anguish. Many will howl that China and Russia would seize this opportunity to expand their influence with gusto and swiftness.

Others would predict that one or more Gulf States would obtain nuclear weapons. Jordan, Iraq could fall under the control of radicals or implode in civil war as befell Libya. And Iran would become even more aggressive. Chaos could follow.

Such fears and concerns cannot be discarded. The risks and possible dangers are unmistakable. But is also clear that current American policies and strategies are not working either. Because an American withdrawal would likely worsen conditions and because American policies today are not yielding good results, one conclusion is self-evident.

A new approach is vitally needed. Yet, who will heed this logic and lead in crafting effective rather than sound-bite-driven strategies?