National Security & Defense

Where in the World Are We Going?

U.S. and South Korean navy ships off Seoul. (South Korean Navy/Reuters)
What would the world look like today if we had retreated to Fortress America after World War II?

It seems that everywhere we turn in the world America is there: in the South China Sea, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Cuba, South Korea, Mexico — the list goes on and on. And our role in all these places seems to go on and on, too. We hear more and more a relevant question: Do we have to be everywhere? Why can’t we just stick to our own business here at home?

We could withdraw our 28,000 troops from South Korea, we could let the Chinese Communists build their fake islands, we could let Ukraine become a Russian satellite, we could let Assad maintain his Syrian regime through the force of arms, we could let ISIS turn Libya into a secure haven for terrorism, we could withdraw from NATO and let the Europeans take care of their own security, we could let the Taliban continue to terrorize Afghanistan, we could put our drones in storage and decide not to rebuild our sorely antiquated military.

Of course, there would be consequences for the nations and the peoples left behind as we retreated to what we still think of as a mighty Fortress America, protected by two oceans and secure borders to the north and the south. But those consequences would inevitably come to haunt us in the not so distant future, because a Fortress America is no longer possible in our world. We are connected, economically, politically, strategically — irrevocably — with the rest of the planet. National interests can no longer be separated from international interests.

We can’t simply pack up and leave our friends and allies to get along without us. That’s why since 1945 we have taken on the heavy burden of the leader of the Free World, protector of the weak and powerless, resolute champion against Communism and now terrorism.

Consider the state of the world if we had not led. If we had not intervened in Korea in 1950, there would be no South Korea today, only one Korea united under an especially despotic form of Communism.

If we had not helped Taiwan in its transition from an authoritarian to a democratic country, the 23.5 million Taiwanese would be “citizens,” willing or not, of the People’s Republic of China.

If we had not initiated the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO in the 1940s, most if not all of Western Europe might well be part of a Soviet sphere of influence.

If there had been no Reagan Doctrine, the Berlin Wall would never have fallen, Mikhail Gorbachev would still be “president” of the Soviet Union, and the peoples of Eastern Europe would still be unwilling captives of Communism.

If we had not gone to war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would have retained its safe haven, Osama bin Laden would still be implementing a fatwa, and Islamic terrorism would be a far greater threat than it is today.

Certainly, not all the foreign-policy decisions taken by America since 1945 have been effective, but on balance they have kept the peace and guaranteed freedom in nations that otherwise would be under the ungentle yoke of Communists and worse. That is why we are protecting our vital national interests in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It is why we are wary of dictators, like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, in love with power and the cult of personality.

Some have criticized President Reagan for the $1.5 trillion national debt he left behind. To which the proper response is: ‘What price peace?’

For all their good intentions, the neo-isolationists are naïve in the extreme if they think that in today’s world we can build a wall tall enough and strong enough to keep out those who would harm us — indeed, would destroy us if they had the opportunity.

Some have criticized President Reagan for the $1.5 trillion national debt he left behind. To which the proper response is: “What price peace?” Isn’t $1.5 trillion a reasonable price to end a cold war that had lasted for four decades and taken a heavy toll in blood and treasure? Isn’t $1.5 trillion a fair price to free the many millions behind the Iron Curtain?

In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy admirably summed up our foreign policy: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Our sacrifices through the decades demonstrate that we are indeed an exceptional people who will do remarkable things not just for ourselves and our interests but for the peace and security and independence of our friends and allies and those who will be our friends and allies one day.

Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

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