*Getty Images: Mario Tama
All the cool kids are doing it.
There seems to be an unspoken competition among young people of all political stripes: that of who can be the most diligent non-interventionist. This crowd is known to singularly blame the United States for the state of turmoil in the world and go to any means to trace any of the world’s problems back to our nation, often ignoring international economics, complex regional histories and international failures of the past. Interestingly, many in the generation that has grown up in the most interconnected and globalized world in history are attempting to turn away from it in one way or another.
I encounter this trend quite frequently and in varying degrees among young Trumpists, libertarians and progressives alike. All three of these leading political factions among young people seek to make radical changes to the core focus of American foreign policy. This could alter international trade, as it does for the progressives and Trumpists; or, in all of these factions, to the military policy that the United States alone has had the capacity to wield as the single global superpower over the last quarter-century.
The greatest conflict in the American foreign policy discourse is no longer exclusively between Republicans and Democrats, or realists and idealists — but between internationalists, who largely blur across party lines; and non-interventionists, who reject either parts or the whole of a globalized world. These isolationists are readily found on the periphery of the political Right and Left and are especially eager for new converts. This trend baffles me, and it is one that we as philosophical liberals (that is, those who believe in free markets, free people, free speech, equality of opportunity, the rule of law and democracy) should be especially wary of.
But I suppose it shouldn’t baffle me, right? After all, we are the generation who grew up in the midst of two major and prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can vividly remember watching the news with my parents just about every night at the dinner table for years and hearing the latest reports from the Iraq War. The scale of the fighting was immense, the images were sometimes unsettling and there seemed to be new names added to the list of fallen soldiers each and every night. So I suppose, to a certain extent, that I do appreciate the non-interventionists’ concerns: we have spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to export freedom and democracy to those who may not even want it.
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so fresh on our minds, they offer a ready place to start this train of thought. The libertarians will first point to the trillions spent on foreign interventions, claiming it as unnecessary and thus wasted. The Trumpists will say that money could have been spent on rebuilding American infrastructure or securing the southern border. The progressives will say that it should have gone to single-payer health care or to any host of federal agencies.
I suppose that there is nothing wrong, on face value, with wanting to put your nation first as the Trumpists do. That is an admirable and understandable goal. However, such a sentiment will inevitably have unintended consequences that, rather ironically, do harm your own citizens. As our libertarian friends know, protectionist trade policies end up hurting the American people through higher prices on everyday goods. Trumpist and progressive policy goals on international trade — take the renegotiation of NAFTA, for example — would strain our relationships with long-time regional friends Canada and Mexico. American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the agreement is largely seen as a check against Chinese economic power — has likewise opened the door for China to increase its regional power and emerging global might. Nevermind the fact that international trade has the potential to bring millions, if not billions, of people out of severe poverty. The “America First” doctrine is furthermore prone to straining military alliances in the age of international terrorism, Russian aggression, Chinese expansion into the South China Sea and the North Korean threat.
The multiple flavors of isolationists will inevitably ask: “Why is this our responsibility?” Because, when we look at the world, we should see serious problems. But more importantly, we should see evil. We see dictators who kill1,300 of their own civilians in a single chemical weapons attack. We see terrorists who indiscriminately seek to kill innocent people at rock concerts, their work or on the streets of London. We see an autocrat in Moscow that invades his neighbors, props up war criminals and interferes in Western elections. When our eyes move to Asia, we see an expanding China looking to challenge and even surpass the United States for global hegemony in the next two decades and eager to export its system of state capitalism to developing nations in Africa and South America. And more immediately, the long ignored North Korean threat is no longer a regional one, but now threatens the Western United States and Canada.
But I don’t just see evil, I see a world full of opportunities for American leadership. Take, for example, the fight against Ebola that had many American doctors lead the way. Or George W. Bush’s extensive humanitarian work in Africa that has garnered praise from across the political spectrum and world. These fights against deadly diseases and global poverty do not know borders and are indiscriminate on matters of gender, race and ethnicity.
It is quite easy to look out and see problems in the world. But the decision to not seek solutions to these problems is simply not able sit on my conscience. It is obvious to me that the world is a much more dangerous place when the United States shirks leadership and global responsibility.
I have a ready answer avaliable for whenever someone asks “What is the biggest problem in the world?” My answer: those who reject modernity. In this instance, modernity is a social science concept that encompesses much of the way the world functions today. The laws, systems, alliances and institutions that we have come to know over the last quarter-century in an ever growing interconnected world — a modern one. The alphabet soup of important acronyms to know regarding the modern world order (UN, WHO, EU, NATO, GATT, WTO, NAFTA, ASEAN) extends ad nauseum. There are a few basic rules to follow in order to be a member of this world order:
- Respect for state sovereignty.
- Acknowledging universal human rights, as defined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- The abandonment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs for those seeking to attain them. Similarly, the depletion, or elimination of stockpiles for those already with them.
- A demonstrated willingness to push towards free trade and liberal democracy.
- The Intervention Clause: the only justification for the violation of sovereignty is if the state violates another state’s sovereignty or breaks any of the subsequent rules outlined.
This answer encompasses the young men who are drawn to the siren song of terrorist groups, who reject modernity, and are often harbored within other nations’ borders. It considers the autocrats like Vladimir Putin who reject the sovereignty of other nations and basic human rights, which are universal across borders. It too includes even those in the West who are upset with globalization and the modern world and thus find themselves able to be divided by the demagoguery that crosses party lines. And what is a chief part of that demagoguery? Tariffs,pulling out of international trade deals, affronting international institutions, underfunding humanitarian aid and seeking to end military engagements. Sound familiar?
Now, the best answer to those who reject modernity is to utilize the resources that the interconnected world possesses. Shortly after September 11th, the United States invaded Afghanistan where the terror group Al-Qaeda was being harbored by the Taliban regime. The NATO bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina lasted just two weeks but ended a genocide responsible for over 100,000 deaths. Not a single NATO soldier lost their lives. When Saddam Hussein violated the universally accepted notion of sovereignty with his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, he was met by an American-led coalition that included France, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and contributions from35 other countries. The world order was united, and the military phase of the war lasted little over a month. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi announced his commitment to abandon a nuclear weapons program only when the 2003 invasion of Iraq became imminent. (Though, we will need a full piece to handle everything related to the Iraq War.)
Vladimir Putin understands modernity and rejects it nonetheless. That is precisely what makes the former KGB agent turned President-for-life so treacherous. This is why Putin had spent the early 2000s convincing the world order that he was a part of them: a democrat; a reformer; and a friend to the United States, Europe and the world. Soon the G7 became the G8 and his friendship with George W. Bush seemed truly unbelievable after only two decades since the end of the Cold War. Putin knew he had won. He had gained the world order’s trust; most of foreign policy world, including Secretary Rice, began to see Russia as a friend. Thus, Putin’s exact moment to strike had arrived. First in Georgia, next in Ukraine, then in Syria and most recently in the American and French elections. To his delight, some still are committed to the fantasy that that Putin can be a functioning member of the world order. Or worse, they recognize his evil and attempt to form a repulsive and false moral equivalencybetween our nations. Dictators and strongmen thrive on appeasement and laugh at weakness. It is unfortunate for for us all that Putin has been shown so much of both by much of the world order in the last two decades. (This too requires more space than this piece can give it.)
More than any point in human history, we have an opportunity to stop the most heinous crimes against humanity and solve the greatest problems in the world. As demonstrated, these lofty goals are best achieved through the world order.
I furthermore believe that the United States should not just aim to be an important part of the world order, but be prepared to lead in every front, including science, medicine, technology, military and economics.
To the Trumpists, I am a dreaded globalist (though I am sure they have a worse word in mind too); to the libertarians, I’m a fiscal sell-out willing spend trillions of taxpayer dollars overseas; and to the progressives, I’m a dangerous neocon.
As stated, there is about as much foreign policy debate among the two major parties as there is between them. Those seeking isolationism make rational arguments, albeit ones I find rife with selfishness in some cases and tainted with the dangerous and oversimplified “America First” mantra in others. Consider this a call of action to people of any party registration or ideology: it is up to us to reject the demagogic rhetoric that seeks to end American leadership and turn us away from the world. It won’t always be easy. But it is certainly necessary.