Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment – Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent

MacDonald and Parent argue that decreased military spending and less ambitious foreign policy is the best course of action for a major power in decline. By following a policy of retrenchment, a state can mitigate the effects of its decline and, in some cases, even regain its former status. Retrenchment is defined as a policy in which a state moderates and draws down its foreign policy ambitions in order to respond to a relative decline in power. Military spending cuts, reduced foreign commitments, and moderate foreign policy goals are characteristic of retrenchment.

Our Notes

The authors present three main arguments:

  1. When declining in power, most states go into “peaceful retrenchment,” drawing down military commitments and relying more on allies.
  2. In the majority of cases, knowing a state’s rate of relative economic decline explains the degree to which it retrenches.
  3. The rate of decline also dictates what form the retrenchment takes for a country.

Opponents of retrenchment believe that nations must continue to support their overseas commitments in order to retain credibility. However, they overestimate the importance of such credibility.

Declining great powers should not attempt to engage in war to stave off their decline, this would only hurt them even further as it incurs more debt.

The argument that retrenchment is hard to achieve due to domestic opposition is flawed because it assumes special interest groups always lobby for more expansive foreign policy and actually have the power to control policy.

As great states feel their power fading, they tend to involve themselves less in grand strategic interests in order to mitigate that loss of power.

States facing decline should adopt a policy of retrenchment within a short time frame. The rate of decline should dictate the degree of and characteristics that the retrenchment takes.

The data set used by the authors starts in 1870 and involves eighteen cases of decline. The subject countries in these cases are Russia, France, the UK, Germany, and Japan.

In at least eleven of these cases, and at most fifteen, the country facing acute decline adopted retrenchment. They decreased military personnel, spent less aggressively on defense, and were less likely to initiate militarized disputes. The more severe the decline, the more aggressively the state pursued alliances.

When these findings are applied to U.S.-Sino relations, it suggests that the United States will draw back its military spending and rely more on allies to take over regional leadership. In East Asia the U.S. should be able to decrease its presence without emboldening China due to their important economic relationship. Adopting a strategy of retrenchment will lead to fewer American troops in East Asia and less provocation relations, lowering the risk of conflict with China.

Our Response

The most glaring flaw in the paper’s argument is the lack of diversity in its research. Only five countries make up the list of retrenchment examples, the United Kingdom alone accounts for seven of the eighteen examples. It is possible that UK policymakers learned from the past mistakes of their predecessors and decided to take the retrenchment approach. This could provide support for the claim that retrenchment is the desired path, however it hurts the assertion that retrenchment is how states in decline usually react to their situation.

Four out of ten instances where a state undertook a policy of medium to high entrenchment are examples taken from the UK. If, as this suggests, a small group of states were indeed learning from policy errors, then the degree to which states actually entrench is less than the authors claim. Therefore the statistics in this study may have more to do with a few states learning from past mistakes rather than a natural trend towards retrenchment for declining states.

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