In their recent article “Don’t Come Home America: The Case against Retrenchment,” Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry and William C. Wohlforth (hereafter referred to as BIW) argue that the prevailing scholarly wisdom on U.S. grand strategy is wrong. This wisdom states that the U.S. should curtail or eliminate its overseas military presence and security commitments and minimize or eschew its efforts to lead the liberal institutional order. The costs of the United States’ strategy of ‘deep engagement’ with the world have been exaggerated, according to BIW, and its benefits neglected. Their article is an important contribution because it is the first to make a strong case for deep engagement that is grounded in International Relations theory. In claiming that deep engagement is the cure-all, however, BIW go too far. It is one thing to claim that the costs of retrenchment would be too high, and another to claim that deep engagement and only deep engagement could have caused the outcomes attributed to it. The second claim may not be correct and does not follow from the first.
In recent years, a number of leading security studies scholars including Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, Barry Posen, and Stephen Walt have come out in favor of U.S. strategic retrenchment overseas. The fact that this list of scholars reads like an honor roll of prominent academic realists makes the current trend all the more interesting. ‘Offshore realism’ would seem to be the order of the day. This trend, moreover, is hardly limited to the academy. The case for strategic retrenchment and offshore balancing fits with large sections of popular and congressional opinion, tired as American citizens and politicians they are of foreign wars and given that they are consumed with domestic economic difficulties. Indeed, it could be argued that the Obama administration is implementing a modest form of strategic retrenchment which will only accelerate in the next few years.