by Ivan Eland
In a recent column, Thomas Friedman, probably the most influential “internationalist”—read: proponent of U.S. interventionism in faraway places—has finally discovered that the United States must soon turn inward and put domestic economic growth first because of its massive public debt, huge federal budget deficit, and looming fiscal crisis caused by a dramatic automatic escalation in entitlements spending. Eureka, the foreign policy rapture has begun!
The real problem with Friedman’s piece is not him reaching a conclusion that was obvious even before the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, but that he laments how dangerous the world will be without the steady guiding hand of the United States. Friedman writes, and most Americans will be eager to believe, that the diminished interventionism of the now “frugal superpower” will be bad for the world because
“[T]he most unique and important feature of U.S. foreign policy over the last century has been the degree to which America’s diplomats and naval, air, and ground forces provided global public goods—from open seas to open trade and from containment to counterterrorism—that benefited many others besides us. U.S. power has been the key force maintaining global stability, and providing global governance, for the last 70 years. That role will not disappear, but it will certainly shrink.”
Then Friedman, whose muse is Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, quotes Mandelbaum as opining,
“When Britain could no longer provide global governance, the United States stepped in to replace it. No country now stands ready to replace the United States, so the loss to international peace and prosperity has the potential to be greater as America pulls back than when Britain did.”
But have the British Empire and the American Empire been all that good for the world? The world somehow got by before they came along. The American public and many of its foreign policy experts praise the British Empire for ensuring stability, when they probably should examine its violent and often brutal colonial subjugation of what it regarded as inferior races for economic gain. Adolf Hitler admired the British Empire, but thought it too brutal.
As for the American Empire, it is littered with foreign policy interventions that caused more international problems than they solved. American entry into World War I led to a string of disasters that the world has never fully recovered from. Without the decisive U.S. entry into the first European war in its history in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine, a win by Germany, then merely a constitutional monarchy with a bombastic king, in a 10-round decision would have led only to the incremental adjustment of European borders to German advantage. Instead, U.S. entry to tip the balance of the war inadvertently brought about an allied victory that rubbed Germany’s nose in the dirt—demanding a war guilt clause for a conflict in which blame should have been shared across Europe, requiring harsh reparations on an economically drained nation, and deposing Kaiser Wilhelm II. The latter demand paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler, who exploited the war guilt clause, reparations, and the economic depression to rise to power and attempt to conquer Europe. World War II was merely a resumption of World War I two decades later.
The likely U.S. entry into World War I also kept the Russian provisional government (succeeding the fallen czar) involved in the conflict—increasing the probability of winning and providing much needed aid to do so. Had the Russian government sued for peace earlier, Vladimir Lenin could not have used the unpopular war to bring a communist government to power. The post-World War II Cold War was borne out of the ashes of World War I.
During that Cold War, the U.S. created the national security state, the first large peacetime army in American history, and a far-flung empire of military bases, unneeded alliances (especially after the advent of nuclear weapons to protect the homeland), foreign military interventions, and large amounts of foreign aid. Instead of spending much money and many lives (in brushfire wars in the developing world) to conduct an expansive worldwide Cold War against communism, a cheaper approach to accelerate the Soviet Empire’s collapse—as many empires have fallen over the course of history, by financial exhaustion—would have been smarter. With a less interventionist and less costly U.S. foreign policy, Soviet finances would have been depleted even faster than they were by the costs of providing aid and governance to basket cases they took over in the developing world.
During the Cold War, the U.S. also encouraged the spread of radical Islam around the world to counter godless communism, including providing aid to the anti-Soviet mujahideen to “give the USSR another Vietnam.” As an unintended consequence of supporting such Islamic militancy, the U.S. created the biggest threat to its homeland since the War of 1812—al-Qaeda.
Indirectly, the U.S. also helped encourage another strand of radical Islam in Iran. In 1953, it helped overthrow the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran, which led to the restoration of the autocratic shah. Radical Islam has gained support in many Muslim countries because the only dissent that is permitted against authoritarian governments is in the mosques. The United States has supported such autocrats, for example, the shah’s Iran and Egypt’s Mubarak today. The shah’s oppression led to the radical Khomeini revolution and to Iran being a problem to its neighbors. The United States then helped Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran as a counterweight and eventually built up another future enemy. And these are only a few of the many examples of ill-fated U.S. meddling in faraway, non-strategic countries and regions of the world.
Of course, as Friedman alludes, the United States created the system of open trade, yet trade happens naturally and U.S. efforts merely institutionalized it. An era of free trade had preceded restricted markets during World War I and the Great Depression.
But to accurately portray U.S. interventionist empire-building, especially after World War II, is not to “always blame America first.” In fact, disagreeing with the government’s foreign policy is different than hating American’s society and way of life. The founders of the United States, who are regularly idolized by most Americans, would roll over in their graves at the mutation of their traditional, peaceful, and restrained foreign policy into a militaristic, globe-girdling empire that is exhausting the country economically and ruining the republic that they created.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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