At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison has written a long, comprehensive description and defense of a principled non-interventionist foreign policy that manages to avoid the extremes of isolationism while retaining its coherence. How well does it succeed?
First, a general principle:
When a conflict or dispute erupts somewhere, unless it directly threatens the security of America or our treaty allies, the assumption should be that it is not the business of the U.S. government to take a leading role in resolving it. If a government requests aid in the event of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis (e.g., famine, disease), as Haiti did following its devastating earthquake in 2010, the U.S. can and should lend assistance—but as a general rule the U.S. should not seek to interfere in other nations’ domestic circumstances.
That sounds right. The rub is how broadly we construe “directly threatens the security of American or our treaty allies.” “Domestic circumstances” could threaten U.S. security interests if, for instance, a foreign government is sponsoring terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens. So let’s look at the details.
Larison argues that the U.S. should remain diplomatically engaged, for instance in arbitrating or mediating disputes at the request of the parties involved, but that this engagement requires taking an even-handed approach to international disputes. True enough, but this example is hardly one of the most important fields of U.S. diplomatic activity. Governments like Norway and Sweden have already established something of a specialty in conflict mediation around the world, and it is difficult to see the U.S. government often stepping into that role, given its strong orientation in favor of the international status quo.
Foreign economic policy plays no role in Larison’s essay, but trade and investment agreements provide one way for the U.S. government to engage constructively with the world. On the other hand, some noninterventionists lazily argue that the U.S. should use “diplomacy” to resolve human rights problems abroad. With what tools? Some of my undergrads who hate war hold forth “sanctions” as an all-purpose alternative to war. But sanctions can impose significant costs on the U.S. economy and inflame anti-U.S. opinion just like war. In some cases they are a prelude to war. Using “carrots” rather than sticks may not be in U.S. interests either. Incorporating human rights instruments into trade agreements is frequently just disguised protectionism. Noninterventionists must bite the bullet and concede that in some cases humanitarian crises require no response at all from the U.S. government. The closest Larison comes to acknowledging this point comes in this passage:
The U.S. would refrain from destabilizing foreign governments or aiding in their overthrow, and it would not make a habit of siding with whichever protest movement happened to be in the streets of a foreign capital. Likewise, it would refrain from propping up and subsidizing abusive and dictatorial regimes and would condition U.S. aid on how a government treats its people.
The last sentence, however, shows how Larison’s noninterventionism differs from realism. It may imply, for instance, that Nixon should not have gone to China. What if a brutal but externally nonthreatening dictator is fighting al-Qaeda? I do not see any reason the U.S. government should rule out sending military assistance to such a government. The condition for the assistance should be successful suppression of the transnational terrorist threat, not greater human rights.
Larison also implies that the U.S. would not abolish all foreign aid, which puts a little space between him and Rand Paul. Here I agree with Larison. If foreign aid can help serve a legitimate U.S. foreign policy interest, and is the cheapest of all the available options, then the U.S. should use it.
On these points, moreover, I am in full agreement with Larison:
Ideally, the U.S. would reduce its overseas military presence in the Near East to at most what it was in the years before Desert Storm in 1991, and continue to reduce its presence in Europe as European governments bear more of the costs of their own defense. To date, wealthy allies have been able to skimp on their military spending, on the safe assumption that the U.S. would be ready and willing to make up the difference, but this arrangement is neither sustainable nor in our best interests. It not only creates an unhealthy dependence that ends up dragging unwilling Europeans into U.S. wars of choice, but as we saw in Libya, it perversely pulls the U.S. into European wars of choice because Europe’s governments cannot fight them on their own.
NATO is outdated and unnecessary, but provided that it functions purely as a defensive alliance it wouldn’t necessarily have to be dissolved. If the alliance continued to exist, the U.S. should not use it or permit it to be used as cover for members’ wars of choice and “out of area” missions. It should go without saying that there would be no further NATO expansion, which does nothing except antagonize Russia to the detriment of regional stability.
This is a much-needed debate. With a prominent noninterventionist likely to run for president in 2016, the development of a substantive, coherent, attractive noninterventionist foreign policy platform is more necessary than ever. Larison’s “moral noninterventionism” might be more attractive to the electorate than my “liberal-realism.” It would also be a far sight better than what we have now — but whatever policy planks noninterventionists adopt, they need to be able to show how they will plausibly advance U.S. interests in the world now. That requires careful thinking and assessment of the evidence, not mere ideologizing. The American Conservative‘s new initiative on this topic is just what we need.