By Matthew Mai
Last week Charles Koch and George Soros, activist billionaires whose political affiliations are polar opposites, decided to fund the creation of a new think tank whose stated mission is to explicitly advocate for a non-interventionist foreign policy. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, an isolationist and ardent anti-war advocate, recently published an article where he decried the “warmongers in Washington” who, in his view, “are itching for conflict” with Iran. In the first night of Democrat debates, Tulsi Gabbard lambasted fellow presidential candidate Tim Ryan for suggesting that the United States remain engaged in Afghanistan to deny the Taliban the rights to the country. Commentators subsequently celebrated Gabbard’s pitch to end “endless wars” and withdraw troops from the region entirely.
There is clearly an appetite for isolationism among pundits, politicians, and policy advocates alike. They like to portray themselves as underdogs and anti-establishment thinkers. In their view, America’s foreign policy has been a blundering disaster since the Second World War. However, after hearing their rhetoric and proposals, is isolationism the best path forward for America?
Starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, modern isolationists on both sides of the political spectrum critiqued America’s role in the world as the primary enforcer for peace and security. They viewed global commitments and interventions as a drag on the country. In contrast, liberal internationalists rested on the idea that with the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of history was upon us. An eternal international order could be established through the combination of free trade, diplomacy via transnational bodies (EU, UN, ICC), and Western notions of humanitarianism.
The advocates of withdrawal saw America’s role in the world as a decreasing one given the victory it had obtained over communism and the new opportunity to focus all productive energy on improving the American way of life. The idealists thought our affluence and values could be spread around the world for the betterment of humanity and ultimately by extension, “American-ize” the world. Evidently, the internationalist vision won out and the post Cold War consensus seemed to believe that the primitive, tribal nature of man had been conquered by liberal democracy, economic liberalization, and a rule-based global order. Yet, any student of history knows that global peace is temporary no matter who establishes it.
Even at its peak, the liberal order could not prevent genocide in Rwanda or a brutal civil war in Somalia. The West still engaged in conflicts ranging from Serbia to the Falklands, crushing despots in an attempt to maintain peace and stability. Over the last 20 years, the United States has watched as Russia metastasized into an authoritarian power by annexing Crimea, encouraging ethno-Russian separatism in countries on its southern border, and militarily meddling in places like Venezuela and Syria. Even more alarmingly China, once considered a developing nation, has become the world’s second largest economy with a jingoistic and neo-mercantilist plan to create a global economic infrastructure apparatus called the “Belt and Road Initiative”. They have also aggressively made inroads in the South China Sea by building military installations and threatening to invade the sovereign nation of Taiwan. Iran and Saudi Arabia have become competing power brokers in the Middle East with the former funding terror groups around the world and the latter taking up the mantle of Gulf supremacy mainly by exporting oil. Iran’s ambition to Shia-ize the Islamic world and develop nuclear capabilities has resulted in a calculated bellicosity designed to force concessions from the West. In short, the idea of a rule-based international order has proven unsustainable in the face of humanity’s tribal nature. For it is important to recognize that the American experiment is an exception, and a rather virtuous one, while authoritarian systems have been the norm for the majority of civilizations throughout history. It is more the case that republican democracies like the United States spend their time fighting off authoritarian regimes in an effort to preserve cherished constitutional freedoms than simply sitting back and watching the world burn.
The mistake isolationists make in critiquing America’s role in the world is that they assume withdrawal to our coasts would create less trouble for us. For them, American hegemony is just not worth the cost in blood and treasure. Some isolationists propose a complete withdrawal of American forces from our bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Others suggest America should let Iran develop nuclear capabilities and remain entrenched in the so-called “Iran Deal”. However, most isolationists view American intervention and action overseas through one dimension, failure. This is where the majority of isolationist energy stems from and how their narratives materialize. They largely ignore the context of history and draw a straight line from “then to now” without any regard for what happened in between, denying military and political victories their due and substituting cynical cliches for historical reflection.
One premier isolationist narrative is the one concocted in the aftermath of the Iraq War which says that American arrogance and an appetite for “democracy projects” lit the fire that still rages today in the Middle East. This narrative does a tremendous injustice to the resounding military victory and solidly upward outlook after the overthrow of the Saddam regime. Putting the war in context, America’s decision to invade was based on a combination of post-9/11 anxiety over the possibility of another attack on the homeland, years of aggression and regional terror from Saddam Hussein, and a sense of urgency on the part of the Bush administration to take action against a regime that had the possibility of harnessing WMD capabilities, a concern going back to the Clinton administration. President Bush’s troop surge in 2007 eliminated the terrorist insurgency that had been frustrating American forces and all but eliminated the rampant sectarian violence. The Iraqi economy had a chance to open up to global markets after decades of international sanctions, regional conflict, and internal oppression from the Baathist regime. Politically, Iraq was far from perfect but it is without question that if American troops had remained, the parliamentary system we see today would be an ally in the region and not under duress from Iran. Ultimately, it was President Obama’s decision not to renegotiate the status of forces agreement and the consequent withdrawal of our forces that left a nascent country vulnerable to terrorist groups and Iranian influence. If American troops remained in Iraq, the ISIS caliphate would not have existed and the people of Iraq, and by extension Syria, could have been spared years of suffering. In short, Iraq post-Saddam had the strong possibility of an overwhelmingly positive outcome, something that isolationists ignore completely.
When America withdraws opportunistic powers fill the void. This is where isolationism breaches utopia, it assumes that if we mind our own affairs the world will leave us alone, another severe miscalculation of human tribal nature. The reality is that America has enemies who are ideologically motivated and relentless in their pursuit of interests that run contra to our sovereignty and security.
The United States cannot not accept a bilateral or trilateral world order with China and Russia as co-equals. They are nations which free to pursue their own interests, interests that are ideological, political, and economical, will undermine American security through new alliances and spheres of influence. Additionally, our “allies” will abandon us if they sense a new alpha dog in the international order. One only has to look at the collaboration between Germany and Russia with the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline, a project heavily criticized by the United States and conducted in direct defiance to American economic and security interests. The United States must be globally engaged economically, politically, diplomatically, and if need be, militarily. This means we leverage our allies to meet our interests, restore deterrence abroad, and operate largely independent of any other nation’s concerns. The key is to embrace unilateralism, a course of action which has allowed for the most flexibility and assertiveness in the past. Ronald Reagan once summed up why America must not shy away from addressing the threats our adversaries present when he said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same”.
At the current moment, the American experiment cannot thrive in a global environment obscured by Chinese communism, Russian authoritarianism, or a radical Iranian theocracy. It is because we have enemies who wish to subvert us at every turn that the United States cannot embrace the isolationism proposed by Tucker Carlson, Tulsi Gabbard, and others. Our adversaries are ambitious and this requires that the United States engage their behavior in the most prudent and assertive manner possible. As a real-time example, Iran is fighting to gain a seat of power in Iraq as the dust settles from the fight against ISIS, something the United States will not stand for. Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to support Iraqi sovereignty and the renewed presence of American troops moves toward that end. This week, the Iraqi government announced that all Iranian-backed militias must integrate into the armed forces by July 31st or be considered illegal.
Sovereignty and security must be primary concerns in American foreign policy. Isolationism by nature requires a withdrawal from global prominence and as history shows us, provides the quickest route to appeasement, a violation of sovereignty, and ultimately, conflict. Being a realist means recognizing the global environment as it is, an endless cycle of tribal warfare where countries, driven by a combination of political objectives and ideological goals, will use any means necessary to solidify their interests.
Despite their best intentions, the rhetoric and proposals stemming from the neo-isolationists on both the left and the right threaten American security and supremacy. Rejecting their credo is crucial if we are to remain an independent global superpower and protect the American way of life.
Matthew May is a Public Policy student at Rutgers University