Pax Americana

Daniel McCarthy, unsurprisingly, uses my remark that "unless you’re a very stringent non-interventionist" almost any foreign-policy theory can provide grounds to argue for a given overseas intervention to mount a brief for non-interventionism. He writes:

Yes, exactly — which is why some of us at TAC (by no means all) counsel “very stringent” non-interventionism. Douthat is correct that whatever the theoretical differences between neoconservatism, liberal internationalism, and a variety of other interventionist perspectives may be, they all give policymakers — specifically, the executive branch — wide discretion for waging war. Stringent noninterventionism and pacifism provide a check against that. Douthat criticizes Michael by saying, “the paleocon lens tends to obscure some very real distinctions between neocons and liberal internationalists,” but Douthat himself acknowledges that, performatively, those “real distinctions” aren’t so real after all. I think Douthat would have to agree with Michael that Yglesias is wrong when he says, “America traditionally hasn’t engaged in Iraq-scale blunders.” Over 50 years, liberal internationalism, Cold War conservatism, and neoconservatism have engaged in many such wars, some rather bigger (Vietnam, Korea) and others somewhat smaller (Gulf War I, Kosovo) than our present neocon adventure.

But hope springs eternal for Douthat. Five decades of blundering interventions doesn’t convince him that interventionism in general is a bad idea. Like Doug Feith and everybody else, he just wants smarter interventions, prudent interventions — better management ... But where is this caution going to come from? Who counsels it? There was at least a minority of liberal internationalists who opposed the Iraq War, and I tend to agree with Douthat that if Gore had been president we would not have invaded Mesopotamia. But I think it’s quite probable that Gore would have taken us into Darfur or Somalia (which, unlike Iraq, actually was and is an al-Qaeda base), and I doubt such an intervention would have proven much more prudent or successful than Bush’s Iraq farrago. Liberal internationalists have at least as bad a record as the neocons ...

If you want a prudent foreign policy that keeps America out of unwinnable wars in places like Iraq and Somalia, you should support noninterventionism. Neither neoconservatism nor liberal interventionism nor old-fashioned Cold War conservatism will ever be cautious enough to avoid such entanglements. To hope that any of these ideologies of intervention will “proceed with greater caution” than they have in the past half-century is as vain as to hope that visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles will one day, under the right management, be an efficient and pleasant experience.

I think my disagreement with the non-interventionist point of view comes down to the question of whether the benefits that flow from the Pax Americana that's been created by America's quasi-imperial role in the world are worth the blunders that more-or-less inevitably accompany it. If you think that the international scene over the last sixty years would have looked roughly the same without a large American presence abroad - without the doctrine of containment and its sometimes-effective, often-clumsy implementation, and without the likelihood that the American military would intervene to punish cross-border aggression and the possibility that the American military would intervene to prevent humanitarian tragedies - then non-interventionism makes a great deal of sense. If, on the other hand, you believe - as I do - that the Pax Americana is largely responsible for the absence of major cross-border wars and the general upward ascent in human affairs since the calamities of the early twentieth century (an ascent from which the United States itself has benefited enormously), then you'll be more inclined to look at the various disasters we've waded into as arguments for greater caution in exercising our quasi-imperial function, rather than arguments for giving up our present role entirely. So I think that Harry Truman blundered, obviously, when he order American troops across the 38th Parallel; likewise, I think George H.W. Bush blundered (though to a lesser degree than Truman) when he left the U.S. stuck garrisoning Saudi Arabia following the first Gulf War. But overall, I think better a Korean War and the two Iraq Wars, however badly executed, than the more, shall we say, freewheeling international order that prevailed prior to the Pax Americana - better for the world, and better for America.

As for the secondary point of whether it's vain to hope for the sort of caution I'd like to see in foreign policy without a purist non-interventionism as our north star, I'm afraid I don't agree. There have been plenty of reckless decisions undertaken by American leaders over the last half-century, but there have also been plenty of leaders who proceeded with an admirable caution in committing American troops abroad, without being anything close to purist non-interventionists in spirit or in practice. The presidencies of Reagan and Eisenhower, in particular, stand out as eras when a broadly internationalist spirit proved compatible with avoiding large-scale blunders overseas. But there are plenty of other examples within specific Presidencies: I'm no admirer of John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman, but they showed admirable caution in refraining from invading Cuba and bombing China, respectively, when many hawkish voices were urging such a course. Likewise, George H.W. Bush refrained from occupying Iraq in 1991 (though of course that created other problems down the road), Bill Clinton refrained from intervening in Rwanda (wrongly, in my view, but that's an argument for another day) and from committing ground troops to the Kosovo War, and even George W. Bush has displayed a great deal of caution (albeit only after the chastening experience of Iraq) in his approach to North Korea and Iran, among other states. All of which is to say that the notion that we cannot hope for prudence in our leaders unless they explicitly renounce interventionism in all (or almost all) cases seems to me to borne out by neither logic nor experience.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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