The Retreatniks

03/26/2015 09:04 am ET | Updated May 26, 2015

The new talking point for the Republican Party -- actually, it's an old talking point in expensive new clothing -- is "America is in retreat."

That's the title of a recent book by Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal columnist who believes that he's discovered a virus of "neo-isolationism" infecting the White House. His book is a full-throated defense of maintaining U.S. global dominance. And a number of Republican presidential hopefuls -- Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham -- are echoing the same rhetoric.

Stephens draws a distinction between decline and retreat. The first is a relative term that depends a great deal on what's happening around the world: the rise of China, military setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strength of the dollar, and so on. The second, however, is a matter of political choice. And Obama, he argues, is guilty as charged.

For the most part, critics like Stephens and their political allies like Graham focus on national security.

They're unhappy about Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Presumably they feel that the ongoing death of U.S. combat personnel and the failure to stabilize conflict-ridden countries reflects well on U.S. leadership capabilities. They also believe that the United States was so successful in these ventures that it should ramp up military operations against the Islamic State, intervene more directly in Ukraine, and even contemplate an attack on Iran.

Such is the selective amnesia of serial interventionists.

That the Obama administration has applied different strategies to different conflicts -- bombing the Islamic State, largely steering clear of the Ukraine conflict, and vigorously negotiating an accord with Iran -- is anathema to Stephens and his ilk. They believe, after all, in the Mordor approach to global relations: one stick to rule them all. They don't even bother to adhere to the Roosevelt corollary of speaking softly.

But the real hypocrisy of the Retreatniks can be seen in the congressional approach to restructuring the global economy. Here their real ideology is on full display. It has nothing to do with retreat or decline, and everything to do with cutting off their nose to spite their face.

This is, after all, the consequence of wielding sticks without adult supervision. You're apt to cause as much harm to yourself as to others.

Top Cop

Congressional hardliners are all up in the president's face about not projecting leadership in the world.

When President Obama didn't show up in Paris for the march of solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) wrote in The Hill: "If the world needs any further demonstration of America's decline, it is our absence at this potentially defining moment in rallying the nations of the world to defend our values and freedoms." In his first major Senate speech, neo-con coverboy Tom Cotton (R-AR) spoke repeatedly of the Obama administration's "experiment in retreat," suggesting that not only is the president stepping backward but he's doing so in new and untested ways.

It's rather easy to debunk the Retreatniks on the national security issue. As Mitchell Cohenwrote late last year in The Boston Globe:

Since Obama took office, he has sent nearly 50,000 troops to Afghanistan; initiated a war in Libya that toppled Moammar Khadafy; and sent American war planes and drones to drop bombs in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq. By my count that is seven countries that the United States has bombed since America took office. That even puts George W. Bush to shame.

Throw in heightened global surveillance, covert operations against Iran, and Special Forces missions all around the world and it's a wonder that the Retreatniks aren't lauding the president every night on Fox News.

Yet it's not neo-isolationism that bothers the Retreatniks. It's the energetic diplomatic internationalism of the Obama administration -- its negotiations with Iran, détente with Cuba, and efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

When the Retreatniks urge the United States to be the world's policeman, they forget that cops are supposed to try to solve problems non-violently and within the parameters of the law. The hardliners really want the United States to be the world's Dirty Harry.

America Absent?

But what's truly amazing is congressional stonewalling when it comes to appointments to international institutions.

If the Retreatniks are so worried about America showing global leadership, why exactly has the position of the U.S. government's representative to the World Bank been unfilled for nearly two years? It's not the Obama administration's fault. It submitted Matthew McGuire's name back in January 2014. Because the Senate never acted on the nomination, the administration had to resubmit this January.

The position remains unfilled.

Actually, the Senate has failed to confirm nominees to six top positions at the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other international financial institutions. Dan Coats is upset that Obama missed a march in Paris, and meanwhile the Republicans have made it difficult for the United States to be present in the most important institutions of the global economy?

Don't get me wrong: I'm no big fan of these institutions. Dominated by the United States, they've done a great deal of harm over the years, from appalling dam projects to the imposition of austerity straitjackets. So, the lack of U.S. presence doesn't bother me all that much. Rather, it's the hypocrisy of the Retreatniks that gets my goat.

I also marvel at their stupidity. Their obstinacy is producing the opposite of what they want: the decline of American presence in the world. Or perhaps I missed some big news, like massive Chinese contributions to the political war chests of right-wing American politicians. After all, it's China that has benefited the most from the ridiculous recalcitrance of the Retreatniks.

Redistributing Power

The confirmation battle is part of a much larger debate over the trajectory of the global economy.

In 2010, the IMF came up with a restructuring deal that, in addition to rationalizing the disbursal of short-term emergency lending, would finally give some of the larger economies in the world the voting power commensurate with their growing GDPs.

China, which is by some measures already the largest economy in the world, would see a modest increase in its share by 2.4 percent. Right now, China's controls 3.81 percent of the vote, while the United States, by contrast, has a whopping 16.75 percent. Indeed, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) only come up to 11.03 percent. Under the IMF plan, the United States would only lose .24 percent. Talk about modest redistributions of power.

And yet Congress has put up a fuss, refusing to pass the restructuring agreement. It has tried to squeeze concessions from the Obama administration -- on taxes, health care, etc. -- and it's also held up the administration's nominations to the top IFI jobs. For a party that has decried the supposed isolationism of the Obama team, it has systematically prevented the United States from taking leadership in restructuring the global economy.

But it's actually a great deal more serious than that.

Because of this taxation without commensurate representation, many powerful countries are gathering up their marbles to play somewhere else. The first gesture in this direction was the bank that the BRICS set up last summer. Each of the five countries has contributed $10 billion as part of the bank's initial capitalization. As The Washington Post observed, the bank is not a radical departure from global trends, but rather its culmination:

South-South economic cooperation has expanded dramatically in recent years. Brazil now has more embassies in Africa than does the United Kingdom. China has become Africa's most important trading partner. The value of South-South trade now exceeds North-South trade by some $2.2 trillion -- over one-quarter of global trade. Low-income countries have also seen unprecedented growth in "South-South" foreign aid -- with China, Brazil, and India all becoming larger donors.

The more recent development is China's creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which will focus on building up capabilities in China's neighborhood. The Obama administration asked its European allies not to join the new bank. They refused. Germany, France, the UK, and Italy are now all on board. South Korea is expected to follow suit.

The Wall Street Journal, Tom Cotton, and other usual suspects denounced the Obama administration's failure to corral its allies as yet another indicator of U.S. decline in the world. Another option would have been for the United States, a Pacific power, to graciously join the bank. But as journalist Jim Lobe points out,

A key reason why the administration did not seek membership in the new bank: there was virtually no chance that a Republican-dominated Congress would approve it. Indeed, one reason Beijing launched its initiative and so many of our allies in both Asia and Europe have decided to join is their frustration with Republicans in Congress who have refused to ratify a major reform package designed to give developing countries, including China, a little more voting power on the Western-dominated governing boards of the IMF and the World Bank.

You can call this decline, as The Wall Street Journal did. Given the rapid growth of China, India, and other major powers, the relative economic decline of the United States is a fact, not an opinion.

But the failure of the United States to help reshape the global economy is also a retreat. As Bret Stephens points out, such a retreat is a political choice. The difference, however, is that this retreat has been orchestrated by none other than the Retreatniks, who have been so busy calling the kettle black that they've neglected to check on their own color.

Crossposted with Foreign Policy In Focus