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The American Choice in International Affairs
If we step back from the world stage, our adversaries will fill the vacuum.


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‘It’s a civil war, it’s a proxy war between regional powers, and it’s a religious war,” Representative Tom Cole (R., Okla.) told the New York Times on Friday. “Is there any direct security threat to the United States here? No. There’s really not.’’

One day earlier, Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.V.) had released a similarly skeptical statement, saying, “I believe that we must exhaust all diplomatic options and have a comprehensive plan for international involvement before we act.’’

Buried beneath the passion and the posturing, the Syria-intervention debates in Congress are illustrating another dynamic: the retrenchment of American foreign policy into a posture of perpetual hesitation, on the part of both the Left and the Right.

It’s clear that the legacy of Iraq is front and center here — the American people have about as much appetite for another conflict as they do for Bashar Assad. And yet the political aftershocks of Iraq aren’t simply fostering non-interventionism; they’re inducing a profound change in the way that American politicians view our nation’s role in the world.

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On the right, we’re witnessing the redefinition of America’s global role as conservatives defend ever-narrower interests, ones that are easy to articulate.

On the left, we’re witnessing Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism reimagined as multilateralism, but without American leadership.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the appeal of these ideological stances. For a start, they both would make for a simpler foreign policy in an increasingly complex world — a foreign policy that would be less active and supposedly less entangling. Comfortingly, they allow the pretense of American resolve, but in a manner that excuses the decision to avoid using hard power. Finally, they conform to present currents of public opinion.

Unfortunately, these views are also fatally flawed. Unbound from strategic resolution, a new American isolationism will cripple the core interests that it seeks to protect.

If conservatives retreat behind American borders, reverting to Senator Jim Risch’s baseline for intervention (“if they had attacked one American person with weapons of mass destruction, any American interest or any of our allies . . . ”), American power will entail a foreign policy of reaction rather than one of influence. American interests will then live subject to the bolder actions of others.

This isn’t sensible. Threats unchallenged are dangers left to metastasize. Absent the threat of American action, dictators across the world will find plenty of opportunities. Iran will complete its nuclear-weapons program unless Israel puts a stop to it. Kim Jong Un will feel free to resort to nuclear blackmail. China will note the opportunity for a Pacific imperium, and Putin will know he has cover for his Mafia-style foreign policy.

Is this the future that American conservatives want? Is this stability?

The approach favored by the anti-intervention liberals would similarly endanger U.S. interests. Many of them, such as Representative Alan Grayson (D., Fla.), are reasserting the old idea that American humility, much touted by Obama earlier in his presidency, will lead to international peace. They suggest that multilateralism can flourish without American leadership.

If this is the case, why did the EU require American leadership in Kosovo? Where was the international intervention during the Hutu genocide of the Tutsis? Why was it that America led the international effort to ameliorate the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa? Where was the U.N. in Sudan? Where are all the non-American humanitarians clamoring to support Syrian refugees?

Where is multilateralism without America?

In New York. More precisely, the multilateralists are pontificating from within their alcohol-lubricated citadel of hedonism.

This isn’t to say that foreign states and NGOs haven’t made substantial contributions to humanitarian causes. They most certainly have. Even so, the defining evidence is clear: Just as American military power provides the cornerstone of international security, so too does American diplomatic power sustain the advancement of global civil society.

It’s tempting to believe that America can take a back seat in international affairs, but it’s also terribly misguided. To exercise a positive influence, a nation must have consistent willpower. Ultimately, American well-being and international well-being are one and the same; both depend upon American leadership.

To be sure, it doesn’t always seem just that America must carry the weight of international security and stability. But there’s a reason for our indispensable role: We are an exceptional nation. Our colors mean something. Without America, the world would be left to a foursome of competing deficiencies: the absurd impotency of the U.N.; the delinquency of China and Russia; the hyperbolic faux moralism of the EU; and the chaos of extremist totalitarians. If we’re willing to tolerate that level of global conflict, then it’s our democratic right to step back from the world stage and accept the consequences. But we mustn’t fool ourselves about what our isolation would mean. Choosing retreat will provide the space for our adversaries’ advance.

It’s all about choice.

On the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States stands a simple inscription: Novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. America will always have two choices: to abandon our “order” to others, or to preserve our order as a shaping force for justice, for stability, and most of all, for good.

— Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to TheWeek.com and the Guardian.



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