Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Political Science

First Advisor

Alex Weisiger


What explains the variation in retrenchment outcomes when great power leaders attempt this course of action in response to relative decline? I argue that retrenchment fails when a great power is unable to extricate itself from existing commitments and, therefore, is unable to free resources to address more critical security challenges. In broad terms, a great power might extricate itself in one of three ways: by handing off responsibility to a like-minded ally, through rapprochement with a rival, or by abandoning a commitment regardless of the consequences. I use primary and secondary sources to conduct in-depth historical analysis and structured, focused comparison of two cases of United States retrenchment – from Southeast Asia between 1969 and 1975, and the Middle East from 2009 to 2015. My findings illuminate that ally availability, the outcome of rapprochement with rivals, and the ability of leaders to abandon a foreign interest provide a coherent explanation for observed outcomes. Moreover, I find that retrenchment is more likely to succeed than fail. These findings contribute to the literature by situating retrenchment within a larger foreign policy process and identifying the necessary conditions for retrenchment to succeed. More importantly, my findings deliver policy-relevant knowledge to decision makers by providing an analytic framework for assessing the utility of retrenchment.