The Myth and Danger of Non-Interventionism

When it comes to analyzing non-interventionism, it's helpful to identify the two extremes of the spectrum of debate.  On one hand, the United States could mind its own business, withdraw its troops entirely from military bases worldwide, cash in the savings, and live prosperously as America once did in its infant years.  On the other hand, the U.S. can continue the advancement of freedom and democracy through its imperialistic ideals, spend money into oblivion, and dominate the world in a fashion indicative of a hegemony.  The friction between these two paradigms has been present for many years, and more so recently in light of the U.S.'s economic situation.

Simply put, the first approach of returning to a period of isolationism is not an option for the United States, and no reasonable person should argue for it.  Yet non-interference is a proposed and advocated position that draws upon the history of prosperity in the U.S. when it adhered to the founding fathers' wisdom and did not get involved with foreign affairs.

According to Huntington1, the most recent period of isolation the United States ever experienced was between 1815 and 1914.  The reality of the matter, though, is that while the United States may have seemed "isolated," it was actually incredibly active in the world theater.  Its activities included developing relations, interfering fairly regularly in other nations' affairs for various reasons, and establishing trade that would lead to globalization.

Contrary to the labeling of an isolated period, the actual presence of the U.S. is captured most accurately by Meade in his book Special Providence:

As early as 1832, the United States sent a fleet to the Falkland Islands to reduce an Argentine garrison that had harassed American shipping. The Mexican War was, of course, the greatest example of American intervention, but by the Civil War, American forces had seen action in Haiti (1799, 1800, 1817-21), Tripoli (1815), the Marquesas Islands (1813-14), Spanish Florida (1806-10, 1812, 1813, 1814, 1816-18, 1817), what is now the Dominican Republic (1800), Curacao (1800), the Galapagos Islands (1813), Cuba (1822), Puerto Rico (1824), Argentina (1833, 1852, 1853), and Peru (1835-36). Between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, marines were sent to Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Columbia, and Haiti.2

This is by no means an exhaustive list of America's presence in other countries during the "isolated" time period, either.  The intervention into Guangzhou (1843), Liberia (1860), Japan (1863), Panama (1863), and China (1900)2 only add to a long list of foreign endeavors illustrating that the U.S. has never been isolated or a nation of non-interferers.

So the belief in the myth of a past "non-interference America" is not a very sophisticated or educated one.  Some relatively quiet periods do exist in U.S. foreign affairs from time to time, but these hardly characterize the history of America in these matters at all.  

Over the course of history, the myth of isolationism has snuck its way into increasing popularity and belief, evolving into the current paradigm and school of thought that is non-interventionism or non-interference.  A number of politicians in the U.S. today wish to switch U.S. foreign policy to this framework.  Ron Paul, a devoted non-interventionist, has been notorious for his inaccurate claims that the U.S. has been subject to terrorist attacks because of the many U.S. bases throughout the world.  According to this belief, if the U.S. followed a non-interventionist policy, 9/11 would have never happened.

Yet Paul and others who subscribe to this view have serious facts to wrestle with.  First is that these other nations, such as Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, that are very much non-interferers in our modern world, are also subject to terrorist attacks.  These countries are not "occupiers," in Ron Paul's parlance, but somehow they fall subject to attacks nonetheless.  Secondly, the U.S. leaving its bases and involvement in Beirut as well as Somalia after suffering losses in attacks and conflicts has only encouraged radical Islamists rather than caused them to cease.  In the theoretical framework of non-interventionists, this should have appeased those wishing to visit harm upon America.

In light of 9/11, however, it is highly probable that radical Islamists had already been at war with the U.S. since before any base went up in Beirut or Somalia.  Said Islamists would sooner declare a fatwa than accept a withdrawal of troops.  In the specific cases mentioned above, the U.S., in their eyes, was perceived to lack the resolve to fight after lives were lost and the stakes were raised.

The power-projection that the U.S. possesses is what aids so greatly in protecting America, freedom, and democracy throughout the world.  If the U.S. withdraws its troops everywhere, it sacrifices an important role in shaping the world in a positive way.  This does not mean that interference is always the answer, however, It requires good judgment and prudence to choose from the forms, quantity, and variations of statecraft.  This includes the "use of assets or the resources and tools (economic, military, intelligence, [and] media)"3.

If the U.S. steps aside as the principal shaper of the world, who will step up to fulfill the role?  China is already on the rise, advancing its economy greatly in the past decade.  Its military, already quite large, is growing in its diversity of logistic capability and mobility.

China already possesses nuclear weapons and now its first aircraft carrier.  It did not take long for China to move from a coastal force to having a small fleet.  How long will their "good will missions" last until they want to further expand their own power projection?  The possible foundation for this is already in the works.

By constantly undermining the Western powers on the U.N. Security Council, the Chinese have also sent messages in the new scramble for Africa that they do not care about the state of a developing country as long as it benefits them.  Namibia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are but a few of these nations that have seen significant investments and loans enter their country while their resources leave to China.

It is a strong trend in history that a nation that is democratic before economic prosperity tends to keep its democracy and improve upon it.  Likewise, a nation that economically attempts to stand up before it lays the foundation for democracy faces high likelihood of having its resources exploited by the foreign investors, and by its own leaders.  In addition to this, the power of the government lies in the hands of a few, and the majority of the people suffer bitterly as a result.

Take a look at oil-rich nations such as Nigeria, Turkmenistan, and now Syria that have been unable to achieve democracy or substantial freedom.  How long will it take for these nations to achieve any form of democracy or basic freedoms if they are constantly exploited by un-democratic countries such as China?  The foreign policy of China is the antithesis of the U.S.'s own when considering the fact that China is unresolved and apathetic when it comes to pressuring Syria to stop killing its own people.  A regime that has killed five thousand is likely supported by Iran and has not received hard sanctions against it on account of China possessing veto power in the U.N. Security Council.

Should it come as a surprise that the 1989 protest in Tiananmen Square is censored in Chinese textbooks and, until recently, was also censored by Google?  The People's Republic of China has even censored its American Idol knock-off because the people voted for a winner.  The presence of the underground church and its endured suppression cast doubt upon the future of freedoms in China, as evaluated by Freedom House.

No, the U.S. must maintain its role in the world, not stepping down or backing away from its important part.  The number-one problem the U.S. faces, though, is the challenge of the economy.  This is a very valid point and a dark reality that the U.S. must come to terms with.  The military and the defense department should not be the first to be put on the chopping block of funding cuts.

If frivolous spending is occurring, then yes, of course, get rid of it, be wise, and invest well.  However, there already exist many ways to cut spending significantly and bring certainty back to employers and the economy.  The Heritage Foundation lists 10 of these examples, in which there is significant government waste and flexibility already within the budget to make cuts (not to mention repealing ObamaCare), and not one of them includes the military.

Being a responsible steward of money is good not just for the U.S., but also for the world. The successes of the U.S. become the successes of others in the world; in the same manner, so do the failures.  Those who advocate for billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid can take lessons from this; many occurrences take place in which the foreign aid that is given does more harm than good.  This requires a true understanding of the reality of a problem, including the willingness to work through NGOs and appropriate forms of statecraft.  Simply throwing money around is not enough.

Another point of criticism of interventionism comes in opposition to the notion of nation-building and the failures that are "guaranteed" in this regard.  Iraq and Afghanistan are the most recent examples of this.  Perhaps the first time a nation seeks freedom and just governance, it will fail, but nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and the United States have all taken their own unique routes to achieve a form of freedom and governance -- none of which worked the first time.  To that effect, past failures and present challenges should not prevent the U.S. from supporting other nations that have an opportunity to achieve freedom.  It takes leadership and calculated risks to pick and choose battles while exercising the wisdom to know how and when to intervene.

Yet another common rejection to the U.S.'s involvement in foreign affairs comes from non-interventionists invoking the founding fathers' warnings of foreign entanglements.  Interestingly, the Constitution gave the basis for the U.S. to engage in foreign affairs to begin with.  The Articles of Confederation did not allow for a unified diplomacy, effective foreign policy with other nations, or even the ability to make war (more accurately, it did not grant the power to levy taxes, making the ability to raise and maintain an army very difficult).  Jefferson, who warned of entanglements, could not avoid foreign policy altogether himself.  He simply urged caution, as Washington did, when it comes to foreign entanglements.  This was the placement not of an absolute to never be involved with the world, but rather of an absolute to seek a higher standard than others.  And when the U.S. falls short, be encouraged by the fact that the U.S.'s aims are higher than the rest.

The modern world is globalized, connected, and increasingly dangerous.  The U.S. should be careful but not timid, while being willing to engage oppression and tyranny whenever and wherever they may appear.  Circling the wagons would be unjust for freedom, democracy, and humanity everywhere.  Missed opportunities and failed attempts have happened in Somalia, Rwanda, Iran, Bosnia, and most recently in Iraq with the Christians.  Responsibility, good judgment, and a resolve to learn and adapt to new challenges -- not the neutrality of non-interventionism -- should be characteristic of the U.S.'s foreign policy stance.

To sit back and watch genocide occur is of the same neutrality that led to Hitler's rise to power.  As Elie Wiesel said, "[n]eutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."  A belief in practicing non-interference is indicative of the appeasement which Reagan warned about; it is perilous, and just as foolish as devastating an economy and weakening a country from within.

Josh Holler served as an Infantry Marine with 1st Battalion 7th Marine Regiment on two tours to Iraq.  He is currently on the board of directors for Uganda N.O.W. Outreach and is pursuing a degree in international relations from Wheaton College. You can follow him on twitter @Josh Holler.

1Ross, Dennis. "Preface: X." Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.

2Huntington, Samuel P. "American Ideals versus American Institutions." Political Science Quarterly 97.1 (1982): 1-37.

3Mead, Walter Russell. "Chapter 1: The American Foreign Policy Tradition." Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. New York: Knopf, 2001. 24-25.