The Making of Is America in Retreat?

We took a few moments to sit down with Free To Choose Media’s Executive Editor Johan Norberg, Co-Director/Producer Kip Perry, and Writer/Co-Director Elan Bentov to discuss some of their thoughts about filming Is America in Retreat?


What drew you to making this documentary?

Kip & Elan: What is America’s role in the world? That is the central question of the project, and it was very exciting to have the opportunity to hear the answers of people around the world.

Johan: I found Bret Stephens’ book fascinating and in this era, when lots of people are challenging or undermining the liberal international order, I thought it was important to examine America’s role in it.


In how many countries did you film for this documentary?

Kip: Seven countries: England, Estonia, Germany, Israel, Sweden, Ukraine, and the Philippines.


Given the examples in the documentary, do you believe America is in retreat?

Johan: Yes, I think it’s fairly obvious that America is playing a more limited role in many places, and is also reconsidering many of the alliances that made the post-WWII era so stable.


In making the documentary, did any of your opinions about Pax Americana change?

Elan: Pax Americana is a reality which is easily taken for granted—particularly in the United States. As much as the documentary made us realize how integral the U.S. is to the world’s economy, culture, and foreign affairs it also made us realize how tenuous American influence is. Russia and China both seem to want to have the next Pax named after themselves—and why shouldn’t they? Bret Stephens points out that Pax Americana is, first and foremost, about American interests.


Should the U.S. continue to be the world’s policeman?

Johan: I don’t think the U.S. should have to shoulder all of this burden, but I think that the U.S. should, together with its partners, act in the limited role of the policeman—to stop breaches of international law and make sure that violence does not spiral out of control.


What do you think America should do, faced with Russian aggression, China’s expansion and continued trouble in the Middle East?

Johan: America cannot be everywhere, but I think it’s absolutely essential to uphold international alliances and commitments to other countries. The U.S. should not be unpredictable, that’s a way of inviting mischief. Instead, it should be incredibly predictable and say that it will stand by its commitment, so that big powers don’t try to confront and undermine those places.


Any interesting behind-the-scenes stories?

Kip: Prior to our shoot in the South China Sea the Philippine government had banned unauthorized travel to any disputed areas. This was bad news because “disputed areas” were exactly why we were going there. Our goal was to hire a local fishing boat to take us out to see the Chinese base at Subi Reef and also attempt to bring us to the Sierra Madre, the dilapidated Filipino Navy vessel which is grounded on Ayungin Shoal and is only accessible by sailing past a Chinese Coast Guard blockade. Boy, our local fixer, had finally found a young captain who was willing. There was a catch: the boat and her crew hailed from a small village in the southern Philippines which was known to be the territory of Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist/pirate group.

Elan: These guys have a reputation for kidnapping westerners to hold for ransom. From time to time they behead their victims when ransom is not paid. In fact, they had just beheaded a Canadian the day we arrived. So we flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, drove three hours through the rural backroads of Palawan Island, into a tiny fishing village and straight out onto a spindly dock where the boat waited. Boy and the captain rushed us on board with balaclavas covering our faces.

Kip: You can imagine the surprise of the fishermen when they found the balaclavas contained Americans—and one of us was a blonde woman!

Elan: We were at sea for a week and all the boat’s crew were absolute gentlemen and—best of all—not a single person lost their head…


Was there any footage that was particularly meaningful to you?

Kip & Elan: The eastern Ukrainian city of Krasnohorivka saw quite a bit of conflict between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatists of the D.N.R. We met with a Ukrainian couple who had only just finished building a new home when it was destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades. The husband, Alex, bore the scars of a severe beating at the hands of the separatists and broke into tears on camera while recounting the violence he witnessed. While he (and his wife) seemed quite strong you could tell the conflict had broken something inside him…and we saw it break again on camera.


Was there any particular part of shooting this documentary that made a specific impact on you?

Johan: It was fascinating and worrying to spend time in Ukraine, and meet the soldiers who are, right now, fighting against a Russia that wants to destroy their democracy and dissolve their country, and their chances are dependent on moral and direct help from the West. It really showed me what’s at stake in our world. This is not just theoretical.


What is your next documentary?

Kip: Our next project is heavily influenced by the work of Victor Davis Hanson, and it explores deterrence in military strategy and national policy.