Politics & Policy

The New Isolationism

The world is getting more dangerous by the day. So why has Ron Paul joined Barney Frank in an effort to slash defense spending?

Anything Reps. Ron Paul (R., Tex.) and Barney Frank (D., Mass.) both support should give the rest of us pause. Their proposal to slash defense spending by $1 trillion over a decade — only the most recent joint effort by the new isolationists on the Left and Right to curtail American military strength around the world — is as foolhardy as it is unrealistic. Were such a policy enacted, the nation and the world would be set on a path not toward peace, but toward instability, conflict, and a lessening of freedom in many corners of the world.

As the deteriorating situation on the Korean peninsula reminds us, the security concerns of the United States do not disappear in times of economic distress. America’s interests, whether economic, strategic, diplomatic, or moral, cannot be set aside when Congress tires of them. The United States and the world paid a severe price for the ostrich-like behavior too many democratic nations exhibited during the 1920s and 1930s. Reps. Paul and Frank appear determined to repeat this mistake.

The United States continues to face an array of global challenges that require a modern, technologically superior military. It is very much in the interests of the United States to uphold the territorial integrity and economic independence of much of Asia, maintain the security of critical waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz, and protect American trade from pirates and terrorists worldwide. Rather than regard the nation’s defenses as a ready source of money available for diversion to domestic concerns, Congress and the president should identify the challenges America faces and assure that its military is able to meet them.

At its core, the Frank-Paul effort appears to be an attempt to prevent repetitions of wars the two congressmen regard as either unnecessary or faultily executed. But the United States has broader and more important long-run national-security concerns than Iraq and Afghanistan. As the U.S. became bogged down in those two countries, it began feeling strains elsewhere, precipitated by China, Russia, and potentially toxic menaces such as Iran and Venezuela.

Counterinsurgency warfare and Predator-drone strikes against transnational terrorists certainly defined much of the last decade. But the next decade will witness increasing competition among nation-states for control of valuable resources and the exertion of influence worldwide.

Russia, through its control of vital energy pipelines, seeks to draw Western Europe more closely into its orbit, thereby weakening the latter’s historical ties to the United States. By taking a similar approach to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, the Baltics, and Moldova, Russia is on the verge of re-colonizing economically many of its former satellites. 

China, while continuing to upgrade its naval capabilities, grows increasingly assertive. In pursuit of its own Monroe Doctrine for East Asia, Beijing has proclaimed its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, menaced neighbors from India to Vietnam, used its economic muscle to intimidate Japan, and increased its threats against Taiwan. China’s leaders have been studying the writings of the 19th-century American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who demonstrated the connection between sea power and economic strength. At the turn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt found in Mahan the blueprint for achieving unprecedented American influence in world affairs. His efforts to build both a strong navy and a sound economy ushered in the “American century,” the period in which the United States became a force for good throughout the world and a beacon of hope for those yearning to breathe free.

In pursuing a “blue-water” ocean-going navy capable of supporting their expanding global economic ambitions, the Chinese are acting from a desire to defend their nation’s trade and access to world markets, with a focus on energy supplies. It is critical that the Chinese — who are closely studying both Mahan’s writings and the history of the Monroe Doctrine — and Americans who see Chinese hegemony over Asia as either inevitable or a price they are willing to pay in exchange for slashing defense spending not draw the wrong lessons from history. Both sides should understand that it was not American might that gave the Monroe Doctrine force, but the then all-powerful British navy. For much of the 19th century, Great Britain had reasons of its own for keeping other nations out of the Western Hemisphere and for wanting to see the United States develop internally.

If appropriately funded, the United States Navy has the capacity to play a similar role in China’s rise — perhaps, in the process, influencing how China develops. Should China conclude that the United States intends to remain a visible and active presence in the region, it will respond accordingly. Acting together, the two nations might embark on a series of cooperative ventures designed to help assure a steady flow of trade and an unimpeded exchange of people, goods, and ideas. They can also work together to combat a rise in piracy and terrorism in Asia and elsewhere and to respond to humanitarian crises, like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. For its part, China, should it continue to hold North Korea in check, will achieve some of the status it seeks as a rising world power, with commensurate influence on the world stage. 

Should China conclude, on the other hand, that the United States intends to turn inward, it may grow even more ambitious and assertive in its region and beyond, potentially menacing world peace. Its smaller neighbors nervously wait to see how the United States will respond to China’s growing assertiveness. Should they come to believe that the U.S. is in retreat, they will make their own accommodations with Beijing. That result would wreak irreparable damage both to America’s economy and to its security. 

Messrs. Frank and Paul and their supporters have taken it into their minds that a reduced American presence in world affairs, particularly where the military is involved, would be a good thing. They had better think again: World politics, like nature, is hardly prone to respect vacuums. Iran and Venezuela remain as bellicose and destabilizing as ever, in spite of two years of Obama “engagement.” Iran squats beside the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s energy supply travels. Iran has also, the original Monroe Doctrine be damned, extended its military cooperation with Hugo Chávez’s authoritarian regime. Evidence is strong that Venezuela is providing sanctuary for Hezbollah terrorists in South America. The alliance of these two anti-American and increasingly menacing states could pose a threat to the United States of a kind that would make us nostalgic for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Faced with such challenges, the United States can ill afford military retrenchment as advocated by the new isolationists. While waste in the Pentagon’s budget can and should be cut, the new isolationists want to do it with a chainsaw when a scalpel is needed. In the last decade, the U.S. Navy’s fleet has shrunk to its smallest size since the 19th century, just as potential rivals such as China have not only expanded theirs but have begun to target perceived American maritime vulnerabilities. The U.S. Air Force is fielding an aging and shrinking force, while China is developing an advanced fighter for sale to adversaries of America, including Iran.

A world in which the United States willingly ceded power and influence would both be more dangerous and prove less receptive to values that most Americans share, such as respect for human rights, the need to restrain governments through the rule of law, and the sanctity of contracts. By reducing its military strength to alarmingly low levels, the United States would create dangerous power vacuums around the world that other nations, with entirely different values, would be only too happy to fill. That, as history shows, would make war more, rather than less, likely. Congress and the president would do well to reflect on those lessons and remember their duty to provide a dominant American military presence on land, at sea, and in the air.

— Alvin S. Felzenberg, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and at Yale University, is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. Alexander B. Gray studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the war-studies department of King’s College, London.


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