These rough parameters hardly made decisions simple. In a January 1950 speech, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously did not include South Korea in America’s “defensive perimeter,” only to see Harry Truman send hundreds of thousands of troops to defend it a few months later. But at least past generations of American policymakers felt comfortable with the concept of national interest—the idea that because American power was limited, America must distinguish between those countries where it was worth expending blood and treasure and those where it was not.
When the Cold War ended, however, the idea of a foreign power dominating Western Europe or East Asia, or creating a beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, suddenly seemed fanciful. As a result, the language of national interest largely disappeared. It has been replaced by a discussion of foreign “threats” and American “values.” But without a definition of interests, it’s impossible to define what constitutes a threat. And without a definition of interests, supporting American “values” is a limitless pursuit. Americans will never reach a consensus on where exactly our interests lie, but just reintroducing the concept suggests an overdue recognition that because America’s power is finite, its interests must be too. Which is what Paul did on Tuesday night.
Paul’s second important point was about nationalism. It’s a sad irony that the most nationalistic Americans are often the ones least able to respect nationalism in other countries. Thus, Fox News commentators who would demand war if another country so much as sent a weather balloon over U.S. soil expect Pakistanis and Yemenis to be content with U.S. Predators killing their citizens. The very hawks who grow most irate when other countries spy on the United States show the least sympathy for other countries when the NSA spies on them.
Paul, by contrast, said something unusual for an American politician. He said America must take care not to humiliate weaker countries. Instead of expecting them to accept American dictates, he argued that we should recognize that “diplomacy only is successful when both parties feel that they have won…. If you insist on unconditional surrender as a prerequisite to diplomacy, there will be very little diplomacy.”
If that sounds obvious, consider how radically it differs from the stance many of Paul’s Senate colleagues are taking on Iran. The same senators who pounce on any sign that Iran may not be scrupulously adhering to last November’s interim nuclear agreement simultaneously demand sanctions that arguably violate the agreement themselves. The same commentators who denounce the bellicose rhetoric of Iran’s leaders simultaneously pledge support for an Israeli military attack. In official Washington, Paul’s call for respecting the pride and dignity of other nations, even ones whose regimes we oppose, is downright subversive.