The Politics of Great Power Retrenchment


Concerns about America’s relative military and economic decline loom large in contemporary debates about United States grand strategy. The wisdom of policies of retrenchment occupies an important place in these disputes. Advocates argue that Washington should take proactive steps to avoid strategic overextension, including deprioritizing or even withdrawing from some regions of the world. Opponents contend that, at best, this will trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy that hastens American decline. At worst, it will lead to greater turmoil and threaten the interests of the United States and its allies.

In his International Studies Quarterly article, “Decline and Devolution: The Sources of Strategic Military Retrenchment,” Kyle Haynes (2015) contributes to this debate by asking a more basic question: what conditions lead declining powers to retrench from specific regions. He argues that “a declining state will choose to withdraw foreign military deployments and security commitments when there exists a suitable regional ‘successor’ to which it can devolve its current responsibilities. The degree of a successor's suitability and the strategic importance of the region to the declining state interact to determine when and how rapidly retrenchment will occur.”

In this symposium, four scholars engage with Haynes’ claims. First, Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent raise questions about how, for example, Haynes conceptualizes and operationalizes key aspects of his theory. Next, Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni argues that, among other things, Haynes downplays the importance of the “threat environment” in driving the security policy of declining states. She concludes by assessing the implications of his article for American grand strategy. Finally, Joshua Shifrinson worries that the article makes some problematic assumptions and also questions the policy implications that apparently follow from the theory. Haynes completes the symposium by responding to the rest of the contributors.
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