In a recently published interview with the Spectator, Glenn Greenwald outlined what he understands to be an “America First” foreign policy. In response to questioning on why he believed we should not support the ongoing protests in Cuba, Greenwald argued that the United States should avoid any level of interference with the politics of other nations that do not pose a direct national-security threat. He went as far as to claim that not only are U.S. efforts to influence other countries self-destructive but also that we also have “no right” to violate their sovereignty.
Greenwald’s perspective exemplifies a developing trend toward isolationism on the right, as leading figures ranging from media populists to the libertarian Rand Pauls capitalize on Trumpist rhetoric to further their worldviews. Ascendant as it is, this sort of reaction to the disastrous democracy-building efforts of the Bush and Obama administrations is a misguided overcorrection.
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Today, most people who initially supported the Iraq War can admit that, in hindsight, it was a mistake. It represents one of the greatest displays of hubris in American history — one in which U.S. forces blindly attempted to bring free elections to a country that had essentially no democratic tradition, in a region historically engulfed in ethnic and religious conflict. We waged war in Afghanistan simultaneously, too, a country with many of the same problems. And we intervened again in Libya, and again in Syria. We destroyed nations, we built few, and we should have learned our lesson — most of us have heard this story before. But only this incredibly limited sample of world history can justify an isolationist approach to foreign policy.
First, we have to dispense with the notion that a superpower can — and should — refrain from acting against hostile regimes. Sure, the Cuba we know is a midsized island country that could not even dream of launching a military assault on our borders. But, then again, the Spartans thought the same thing about the members of the Delian League. When nations grow indifferent to the increasing strength of their enemies, they will inevitably fall behind. Imperial China scoffed at Western progress, eventually leaving it open to European subjugation and partitioning. The haphazard withdrawal of French occupying forces permitted Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, which in turn enabled the fall of France less than 15 years later. That is not to say that Miguel Díaz-Canel will ever approximate the strength of the führer — he will not. But when we ignore governments that constantly wish for and work toward our downfall, the more dangerous America’s position in the world becomes. Have we already forgotten about the missile crisis?
We need, therefore, to be proactive, because a regime that we might overlook today may advance (China) or band together with our other enemies (Cuba) tomorrow. Isolationists like Greenwald have a response to this, however. In words that may as well have come from Noam Chomsky, Greenwald attempts to psychologize the antipathy the United States faces: “Why does Cuba hate the United States? Because they know that it’s the United States that has been embargoing and strangling their country for decades. We interfere in their countries.”
Notice the absurd conflation of the regime with the nation — the Cuban people. Cubans do not hate the United States. The protesters are waving American flags! Yes, the embargo is imperfect, but to act as though therein lies the root of the animosity between the U.S. and Cuba is barbarically ignorant. Who cares that Castro had seized and nationalized American industries and properties worth billions of dollars in the months following the revolution? We are also not to pay any mind to the fact that Marxism, an expansionist ideology diametrically opposed to classical liberalism, was bound to clash with American capitalism anyway. Are we to suppose that Castro, a self-styled Leninist, would not have aligned himself with the USSR?
Much like neoconservatives have been prone to do, isolationists crush the nuanced histories of different countries and peoples to fit their narrative. It’s true that American foreign policy, particularly in the post–Cold War era, has been rife with bad calls and silly alliances that turned out to be more trouble than they were worth. But that does not mean that the United States should commit to avoiding all “unnecessary” military interventions, let alone stop using its economic and media dominance to influence countries that loathe us.
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While Greenwald’s descriptive claim that the United States would be safer should it become more isolationist is wrong, his moral claim is equally perplexing. He has apparently taken up the Wilsonian banner of self-determination on behalf of the global downtrodden: “Who rules Libya is for Libyans to decide, who rules Syria is for Syrians to decide, who rules Iraq is for Iraqis to decide, who rules Cuba is for Cubans to decide.”
These are not democratic countries; the people are not deciding who rules. Castro took over through a rebellion, and Cuba has not had a free and fair election in over half a century. This is part of what drives the protests. Gaddafi in Libya and the Baathists in Iraq and Syria attained power via military coups. Ironically, Greenwald’s argument here should lead him to support an intervention.
“Who rules Libya is for the Libyan military to decide” may have a decidedly less attractive ring to it, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. We have never — and should never — make foreign-policy decisions based on the supposed sovereignty of cruel despots. Should they commit atrocities, these regimes lose the right to appeal to international codes of conduct — even if they happen to be popularly supported. The practical benefit of sovereignty is also nonexistent when dealing with tyrants. We allow countries to make their own internal decisions often in the hope that they will reciprocate. But if a ruler is willing to abuse his people for the sake of power, he would also be willing to wage war. The only thing guaranteeing American sovereignty is our strength — something for which we must be willing to intervene in order to preserve.
The growing moral crisis on the right is further displayed by the incessant prattling on about putting “America First.” Yes, American policy should be centered on — and prioritize —Americans. Many Democrats and most Republicans believe that. The phrase was useful at first as a tool against jaded politicians who had lost their will to remedy policies that were harming the country they were supposed to help, such as NAFTA and “endless” wars. But now the phrase can be regurgitated in opposition to any action that remotely diminishes the material conditions of Americans whatsoever.
Putting America first does not mean we should disregard the suffering of people around the world. Putting America first means that we should do what is good for America. Being noble, fair, and benevolent is good for this country, irrespective of its effect on GDP. It’s a marvelous thing, that tremor of patriotism that runs through us when we tell foreigners that we are American. It is especially wonderful when we feel pride not only for the wealth and freedoms afforded to our people but also for the good that we can offer to the world. The pride buried within the horror that Americans feel when studying the storming of the beaches of Normandy is more than mere love for our later emergence as the preeminent global power. Even if we had lost World War II, would anyone looking back today sincerely argue that the American intervention was a waste? That we were not placing America first? Our pride lies in our knowledge of the courage and virtue embodied by our men as they dragged themselves ashore. We would be proud of our men’s willingness to fight for good, regardless of how it impacted our homeland.
While the American people remain deeply devoted to our country, patriotic sentiment is in decline. This is mostly due to our increasingly dysfunctional political system, as evidenced by the fact that recent administrations have overseen losses in pride among their detractors. It is truly silly how we think these days. No matter who is president, I will still be extremely proud to call myself an American. This country is so much more than whoever sits inside the Oval Office. Yet it is easy to forget that in the absence of some greater, shared goal to unite us.
It is true that few, if any, of the evils we seek to squash abroad will be as inhumane as the Holocaust. It is also true that practical considerations will often prevent us from intervening in ways that we would otherwise feel wholly justified in. A hot war on the Chinese mainland to free Tibet, Xinjiang, and all the rest seems like a tough sell, to say the least. But the point is the principle behind it all. Sometimes, it is entirely acceptable to place ourselves at some financial or political disadvantage for the sake of others. In his famous debate with Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley made the very same point concerning the Panama Canal. Doing kindness, relinquishing a source of revenue to the Panamanian people, may not have been very economical, but it demonstrated a willingness to honor our agreements, to respect the dignity of people who are not our own. And we should be proud of that.
The people outside our borders are God’s children, just as we are, and we should be eager to help them. And, for the record, helping them can often be in our long-term interest. Our nation-building efforts in Japan and Colombia have created lasting friendships, and the fewer enemies we have, the better. Glenn Greenwald is right to criticize historical U.S. interventions — only a fool would defend them all. But Cuba is not Iraq. Different considerations apply. So, yes, we should support them in their fight for freedom. We should launch social-media campaigns and use our international pressure. And, yes, should the situation descend into chaos and bloodshed, we should be ready to use military force. Does the situation call for it now? No. But we should not tolerate massacres that are barely 90 miles away. And we should be clear about that.