A country’s foreign policy is one of the most important aspects of international affairs that contributes to that state’s security.
The United States, in particular, has had a foreign policy doctrine often involving intervention to prevent the spread of illiberal regimes and establish democracies that promote the rule of law.
Looking at the 2020 Presidential race, however, most of the candidates, Democratic and Republican, have made it clear that their main objective is to change the foreign policy of the U.S. so that the “endless wars” will be put to an end.
Offshore balancing, which would imply scaling back the number of troops scattered all across the globe and thus the number of military interventions, is garnering more and more support from both the left and the right.
And to be fair, this might not be a bad idea. America has been involved in unsuccessful campaigns which have turned into failures very quickly. Afghanistan and Iraq are classic examples and we can only hope that Syria will not become one of them, although things don’t seem too optimistic.
Not only has the U.S. suffered large casualties, but it has also spent an astronomical amount of money to be able to support these battles, making interventionism even less appealing.
At the same time, it must be remembered that, throughout history, the United States has been one of the most important actors in world affairs. Changing this will unequivocally have serious implications for all the other players involved.
Candidates should acknowledge and come to terms with the idea that America will always be an interventionist state, rather than scrutinizing and blaming it for all the failed interventions. There is no doubt that in the future American interventionism will occur less frequently, but it doesn’t mean that it should not happen at all.
Isolationism and restraint is not a viable option because it’s not to the benefit of anyone.
There are many strong arguments in favor of the U.S. backing out of regions and adopting a more isolationist position and they generally fall under 5 main categories discussed in this Foreign Affairs article.
First, many argue that it’s not the job of Washington to act as a peacekeeper and intervene when terrorist attacks, civil wars, or mass atrocities occur. In most cases the U.S. hasn’t created the problem and therefore it should implicate itself in problems that are not its concern. But this argument is not very convincing, mainly because threats such as terrorism are problems not only against the U.S. or that pertain to a certain state or region, they are threats to humanity.
When the United States was formed, its core ideas entailed freedom of liberty. How can we say that we believe in them if we aren’t defending the right of others to the same principles? In the past we have done precisely so when we turned our heads away from horrendous events such as the Rwandan genocide. But there have also been cases such as President Clinton’s intervention to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia or President Obama’s protection of the Yezidi minority in Iraq, which put America in a very good light. Genocides and crimes against humanity will indubitably arise again in the future and if we want to avoid another disaster then it’s better if we pay attention to the areas that could potentially be the site of such an event until it is clear that we can leave.
Second, there is an argument that the United States is seen as an imperialist state and has a poor track record in regards to the success of its interventions and thus shouldn’t be the one taking charge. This, however, is quite misguided. It is true that, for example, Afghanistan or Iraq haven’t been the most effective in accomplishing the desired goals, but many often forget about the successful interventions that are often forgotten by the people. Media in particular has the tendency to focus much more on the negative aspects of U.S. interventionism to the detriment of successful ones, which causes some to forget that the original goal is to eliminate plagues like terrorism and civil wars in order to create a safe haven for the civilian populations who live in those areas.
Third, there is a fear that if the United States get involved then it will never leave that specific state or area, but staying is not the same thing as fighting. In an attempt to prevent future outbreaks, assuring that there are troops who can maintain domestic equilibrium is rather preferable. This doesn’t mean interfering with domestic politics when those work, but when people feel oppressed and not represented, being in need of a way to escape that stagnant state under a repressive and authoritarian regime, that is a good enough reason for intervention.
Fourth, the U.S. should not try to be the only state intervening in a situation, especially if there are other states who can provide help just as well. The truth is, however, that sometimes only the U.S. has the capability to do so, given the enormous amount we spend on the military and the might of our economy. This goes all the way back to the world wars, where the allies would have probably failed had the United States not gotten involved; to this point, if other states see that someone like America is on their side, they will become more motivated to help as much as they can too.
Last but not least, as I have mentioned before, wars cost in terms of lives and money, which can be very damaging to the U.S. in its race for world hegemony against actors such as China and Russia. Great-power competition is definitely important and no one denies it; whoever controls the rule book matters on the development of world politics and hence on how every other state conducts domestic and foreign policy. But this is not the only focus. Similar to the point made just above, intervening in different parts of the world and stopping critical threats will help in building strong alliances and coalitions with other states, which will further strengthen U.S.’s role in international affairs as a peace-keeper and promoter of liberal ideas.
Exactly how interventionism will look in a few years is not clear. But what must be made clear every time a possibility arises is the distinction between a just and an unjust war. As Michael Walzer describes in his book: a just war can be conducted if it follows certain jus ad bellum principles: it must be waged by a legitimate authority, must have the right intentions, have a high probability of success, must be proportional to the magnitude of the objectives, and must be used as a last resort.
Thus, it can be concluded that despite intervention not being the ideal solution to a problem, there are cases when there is no other choice. Of course, there is much debate at stake here: what does it mean to have a high probability of success or what are right intentions? Are the ideas that the U.S. is trying to spread even virtuous ones or are we just pretending to be the good guys to justify some deeper desire to control the rest of the world?
These are questions that will not be answered here. What’s clear, however, is that when considering military intervention, there is more to account for than just the lives of the soldiers and the economic prospects.
Looking at every case in particular and seeing what the best way to act is rather than trying to formulate a specific foreign policy plan will help the U.S. make better decisions in the future while maintaining itself as a well-respected, veritable, and trustworthy ally that the international community can rely on.