One of the more interesting subtexts of the presidential campaign in the United States has been the debate over whether the nation should withdraw from most of its foreign entanglements. The issue has not been at the center of voters’ concerns, however it has hit a nerve among them, because the proposal comes at a time when the US is bogged down in Iraq and is uncertain about its role internationally.
The candidate who has gotten the most mileage out of this is the libertarian Republican Ron Paul. He has situated his foreign policy aims between the twin goalposts of the ideas expressed by America’s Founding Fathers and a defense of state sovereignty. As his campaign website explains: “Both [Thomas] Jefferson and [George] Washington warned us about entangling ourselves in the affairs of other nations. Today, we have troops in 130 countries. We are spread so thin that we have too few troops defending America […] We can continue to fund and fight no-win police actions around the globe, or we can refocus on securing America and bring the troops home. […] Under no circumstances should the US again go to war as the result of a resolution that comes from an unelected, foreign body, such as the United Nations.”
Paul’s “republican fundamentalism” — the partial return to the principles of the republic of the late 18th century — is hardly new. Partly that’s because the Founding Fathers sought to achieve the right balance between liberty and stability, and that discussion is ongoing in a country where state power has reached troubling levels. Foreign entanglements, the early leaders of the republic felt, would not only force the US to pursue the more authoritarian (and implicitly more corrupt) ways of “old Europe”; it would, in effect, oblige Americans to behave like a continent from which separation had been a major factor in forging the US national identity.
Much like the Europeans, the US participated in the race for empire at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s. With the US the strongest world power after World War II, the republic’s internationalists (after an initial period of American retreat) defended extended American participation in world affairs. That logic was used to justify the open-ended, global commitment to fighting Soviet power that developed into an international cold war.
Whatever one thinks of American “republican fundamentalists”, and they have long served a valuable role in defining the necessary limits to state power on issues of domestic civil liberties, it’s not clear how realistic their views are when applied to the world today. There is also something remarkably self-centered in their advocacy of liberty at home next to their abandonment of that principle — behind a wall of sovereignty — overseas.
The Middle East is the ideal place to test the theory of American retreat from foreign entanglements. One can make a good case, for example, that advancing democracy by force is a mistake, and that argument has been often used to condemn the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Yet at the same time, it is true to say that Arab authoritarianism has been one of the most significant reasons for the expansion of militant Islam — in some cases, as 9/11 showed, a militant Islam that can wreak havoc against the US. If so, doesn’t American respect for the sovereignty of its Arab partners risk provoking blowback against the American homeland?
Paul’s campaign argues: “Too often we give foreign aid and intervene on behalf of governments that are despised. Then, we become despised.” That’s true. But it’s equally true that the US is often despised for not intervening. One could paper the sky with articles written by Arab critics of the US who unfailingly urge Washington to resolve everything from the Arab-Israeli conflict to Arab economic underdevelopment. It’s a case of America being damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, and the republican fundamentalists have few real solutions to that conundrum.
There is also the matter of stability. Could the international system absorb the shock of a significant American retreat? What would happen in the Korean peninsula if the US pulled its soldiers out? Or Afghanistan? Or Iraq? What would happen if America’s refusal to “get involved” led to actions with a negative impact on global markets and the international financial system? As historians have long recognized, throughout history empires, good or bad, have helped stabilize the international system. As the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson has argued, the US is an empire, whether Americans like it or not, and must embrace its role as defender of a stable liberal political and economic international system, much as the British Empire did during the 1800s.
Not surprisingly, Ferguson is advising John McCain, Paul’s rival for the Republican nomination. That only shows the diversity of opinion within the same political party and how the destiny of the US continues to be a source of considerable national disagreement.