By Bret Stephens
A decade ago, I wrote a book with the subtitle “The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.” I’ve been wrong about a thing or two (or three) over the years. I wish I had been wrong about this.
Disorder comes in two varieties: disorder within a system (like a coup or revolution inside a sovereign state) or of the system itself (like the de facto collapse of the state system throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East). The former may be devastating, but it is usually containable. The latter can sometimes be a matter of quiet erosion before it becomes one of outright collapse. But its consequences are hard to predict, difficult to control and sometimes epochal in scope.
We are living in an era of dissolving systems. The Biden administration struggles to gain control over illegal immigration at the southern border. It’s failing. Beijing is gradually seizing control of the South China Sea, over which one-fifth of the world’s trade passes. Nothing stops it. Iran is enriching uranium to near weapons grade. The world barely notices. Ukraine is running out of munitions. Congress is too divided to help save an ally. Hezbollah’s attacks on northern Israel and Houthi attacks on international shipping risk a much broader Middle East war, potentially involving the United States. We seem to be careening toward it without brakes.
For each of these crises, you can point to a separate cause. The collapse of governance in much of the developing world. The power of drug cartels in South America and terrorist militias in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The increasingly close alliance between Iran, Russia and China, forming a new axis of resentment, repression and revanchism.
But there’s a deeper cause: the fading away of Pax Americana — the idea that the United States has a duty, rooted in values and interests, to police the global commons, defend embattled allies, deter anti-American dictatorships and punish major violations of international order, like Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait or Russia’s invasions of Ukraine. The thought that Washington should be the world’s cop is now considered, on a bipartisan basis, to be an idea whose time has passed. The Trumpian right wants an America that’s out only for itself; the progressive left wants to delegate the job to multilateral organizations like the United Nations.
But reality is that the world doesn’t police itself, and an unpoliced world is pandemonium. I suspect we are much closer to that world — months, possibly — than most Americans appreciate. What happens when Ukraine runs out of shells or when a Hezbollah rocket hits an Israeli school?
This is the context for the strange but telling story of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s unannounced medical absence — at first described only as for “complications from an elective procedure” — that landed him in Walter Reed’s intensive care unit while the president, the national security adviser, the chair of the Joint Chiefs and the deputy defense secretary (who was on vacation) were left unawares. Walter Reed officials announced on Tuesday that Austin had prostate cancer surgery on Dec. 22 and that he returned on Jan. 1 because of complications. His stay appears to have been much longer than first reported. We should all wish Austin a speedy recovery. Nonetheless, the dereliction of duty here is so serious that it ought to require Austin’s immediate resignation.
The job of secretary of defense is to be on the job. Imagine if the Houthis had put a hole in an American ship, requiring an immediate response. Hours could have been lost while combatant commanders tried to get direction from the Pentagon.
What’s astonishing here isn’t that Austin neglected to inform his staff or the White House. It’s the nonchalance with which the administration is treating the incident. Austin has described it as a matter of poor communication and promised to do better. The president says he has no plans to let go of his secretary. If this were, say, the defense minister of New Zealand, nobody would care. (Sorry, New Zealand.) But the fallacy of abandoning Pax Americana is that we don’t have the option of transforming ourselves into a larger version of New Zealand: faraway and inoffensive. A world we seek to turn our back on is likelier to stab us in the back than it is to turn its back on us. That’s why we have to preserve, and police, a global order.
Joe Biden understands this in his bones. But most progressives in the Democratic Party don’t, nor do the MAGA neo-isolationists who share the progressives’ “come home, America” mentality. And the president’s cautious execution of foreign policy hasn’t helped.
The dilatory arming of Ukraine allowed Russia to harden its defenses in the occupied territories. The refusal to get serious about border security has given isolationist Republicans political capital they don’t deserve. Pinprick attacks against Iranian proxies aren’t going to deter Tehran from its regional or nuclear ambitions. Failing to dismiss the secretary of defense sends a signal of unseriousness that Americans may not notice but our adversaries do.
The challenge of global order is that, hard as it is to preserve, it is harder and usually bloodier to piece together once lost. It bears repeating that we are much closer to losing it than most realize.