America’s Duty to Help the World’s Vulnerable: 13 Reader Views

Is the U.S. the least-bad option for maintaining global stability?

Picture of Joe Biden standing behind a microphone on top of a beige background
Saul Loeb / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. On Mondays, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, noting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and the hunger crises forecast in poorer countries, I asked, “What responsibility, if any, do the United States or individual Americans have to help innocents around the world?”

Chris argues that America will help if we know what’s good for us and act in our selfish interest:

Advocates for more global engagement and aid, critics of the benefits of more global engagement and aid, and foam-at-the-mouth advocates of reheated Pat Buchanan isolationism all seem to accept the unstated premise that providing aid to the rest of the world would be a continuation of some fantastical Rich Uncle Pennybags version of U.S. history. If we help Ukraine more or less, it will be a measure of more or less charity and goodwill on the part of a benevolent or stingy America. Or a measure of our gullibility in throwing the taxes of hardworking Americans down the sinkhole of a corrupt government.

But this is not why the U.S. worked for so many decades to maintain global democracy, stability, or prosperity, any more than it was why the Roman empire worked to maintain a Pax Romana. Our moral responsibility to help the less fortunate is a valid philosophical debate, but the U.S. interest in keeping Ukraine independent, Hong Kong and Taiwan free, Uyghurs out of apartheid, and Africans from starving isn’t primarily moral.

Yes, being a global underwriter, grant writer, and policeman has come with huge price tags, some poor decisions, and lost lives. And the benefits haven’t been enjoyed equally.

But for decades the U.S. was the primary beneficiary in the long run. Free democratic societies are less likely to attack each other and start wars. A global rules-based system creates trust between parties that allows for global trade. Our consumers can buy things from more places, our businesses can sell things to more customers. Our dollar is the reserve currency specifically because the U.S. is assumed to be the safest place to flee in times of financial trouble––so the dollar actually got stronger when our own financial sector crashed the global economy in 2008, even as other currencies took a hit.

Our opinion carries outsize international weight because so many global strategies for finance and defense are dependent on American banks, companies, or backing, and so many nations are dependent on American aid or remittances from immigrants to America. It’s not that our success creates a moral mandate to help. It’s that our success is predicated on a transaction: we’ll help most if everyone agrees to a global arrangement in which everyone can benefit but from which America benefits most of all.

The question we should be asking is: Are you willing to accept fewer goods, more expensive goods, more wars, a less valuable dollar, less global innovation, less safe international travel, and vastly diminished influence at the international bargaining table, if in exchange you don’t have to feel bad about Ukraine, or be pissed off that they’re getting $40bn when you’ve still got that used Chevy? We don’t get to walk away from our global “responsibilities” and keep the global leadership or the benefits we’ve enjoyed any more than you can walk away from your mortgage and keep your house. When you stop holding up your end of the deal, they throw you out. And right now, there’s a couple people really, really hoping that we’ll be evicted so they can move in.

Stefan urges multilateralism:

There is an internationally recognized “Responsibility to Protect” such innocents. However, this is clearly a GLOBAL responsibility if it is any responsibility at all. It is not, and should not be, up to the US alone. To be sure, it is doubtful that we can ever bring 100% of the world’s nations on board for any effort on behalf of the victims of even the most clear-cut case of malevolence against our fellow human beings. However, to suggest that it must either be 100% of the world or else just us is a false dichotomy. The truth is that it is indeed possible, and necessary, to gather as many nations as possible in support of any effort to assist those innocents who need our help—a “coalition of the willing,” if you can accept what some would consider to be an unfortunate and tainted phrase. We need to do our part to help, and given our size and global prominence, our part is usually going to be a leadership role. However, it cannot be ALL up to us.

MBI is similarly skeptical of unilateral American power:

The question as framed is somewhat perverse. The issues identified, such as the oppression of Uyghur Muslims, the subjugation of the people of Hong Kong and potentially Taiwan, and Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine are all of the highest geopolitical and strategic interest to the United States. From other parts of the world, the question raised may include the oppression of Muslims in India, the daily atrocities committed against the Palestinians in Israel or the numerous human rights abuses committed by dozens of autocrats spread around the world, some of whom are even supported by the United States.

That America thinks that it has a right to intervene to help innocents around the world is borne out of the belief in its own exceptionalism, which hypocritically allows it to select which countries to intervene in and ultimately “save.” The question that much of the rest of the world may ask is what moral right does America have to do this, or more precisely, what moral basis does America have to select the issues that it deems fit for its intervention? That American exceptionalism has justified the utter destruction of entire countries and societies on flimsy or non-existent pretexts or grounds does not help matters.

American exceptionalism is in reality an immoral means to pursue American national interests around the world and is entirely divorced from humanitarian considerations of helping innocents. If my assessment and analysis is correct then America does not have any right to help innocents around the world because the endeavor is entirely insincere, as we have seen in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Would America submit itself to the decision of an international body or institution that can claim some moral authority to determine in which situations to intervene? Of course not, as the body would not seek to advance American national interests and would also negate the idea of American exceptionalism. What is required is an end to American unilateralism, exceptionalism, selectiveness and the pursuance of an objective and impartial means to determine what situations are deserving of American intervention to help innocents, regardless of national interest considerations. That would, of course, be an imaginary world.

To play devil’s advocate:, If the U.S. is to spend wealth its people earned, or to fight with lives volunteered by its citizens, shouldn’t Americans decide when and how to spend or to fight?

Guillermo takes a somewhat rosier view of Americans’ motivation:

To assume responsibility is a personal decision usually related to your intimate search for meaning. If a sufficiently large number of persons share a view of the meaning of responsibility, this becomes the view of a nation. More Americans than not see compassion as a good character trait and try to assist the innocents of the world. This in turn has consistently shaped government worldviews regarding the need for charitable work and merciful ministries. The world continues to be a difficult place to live because Homo sapiens is still a species prone to ego-centered violent passions. But in spite of it all, compassionate feelings and merciful actions continue to save us from extinction.

Recent headlines are bringing Cliff down:

Let’s review what the past month of American life has brought us: a massacre of 19 children, a nationwide baby formula shortage, a racially motivated mass-murder in a grocery store, and three women shot by some lunatic in a salon for no reason other than the fact that they were of East Asian descent. I could go on, but you get the picture. Add to that a surge in Covid cases, permanent political dysfunction, an affordable housing crisis, and record inflation. The real question becomes whether America can help anybody, because it obviously can’t help itself. Until we get our act together, we should ask not what we should do for others, but what we must do for ourselves.

Grant maintains that the United States is the world’s least-bad option:

The US, imperfect though it is, remains the best state actor for maintaining stability in an anarchic world order. Careful balancing of self-preservation (isolationism) and foreign engagements, i.e., wars, in order to avoid overextending itself is the only way to preserve global stability, and with that US domestic prosperity.

Jinyong wants to respond in different ways to different kinds of Chinese repression:

I know this might sound callous but I believe that our responsibility to act should be based on what best aligns with our national interests. Despite the horrific nature of the oppression occurring in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, there is very little we can do to stop said oppression, and to be frank, what happens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong doesn't really affect the balance of power in East Asia.

On the issue of Taiwan I believe that we have a responsibility to do more. Putting aside the fact that Taiwan is a thriving democracy, a PRC takeover of Taiwan would be an unmitigated disaster for our position in East Asia. Such an event would destroy our defensive position on the first island chain, start the dominoes for our eventual expulsion from East Asia, and would probably precipitate the PRC achieving regional hegemony. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Instead of canceling and slow-rolling arms orders like this current administration is doing, we need to be selling them way more arms including advanced weapons like the F-35B. Just look at Ukraine and the effect our arms transfers are having over there. We should be trying to do the same with Taiwan. Against the odds, Ukraine has shown that a smaller power can survive against a stronger one. We need to ensure Taiwan can do the same. We can’t change what happened in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and we can’t stop the war currently raging in Ukraine. But we can arm Taiwan to the teeth and ensure that deterrence continues to hold in that region. We still have time. Let’s not waste it.

Harold is a radical egalitarian redistributionist:

In an ideal world every nation and every person would have an obligation to help every other nation and person as far as their means would allow. So long as the basic needs of the population or person are being met, the obligation to the other should be stretched as far as possible. A need is something essential for sustaining life, not staving off discomfort. We are all stewards of the interconnected societies we inhabit. When another suffers, I suffer, and when another society suffers so too does our society.

Putting all of this into practice is difficult. Oftentimes we will fail. Unfortunately, we have an example of what a nation may look like when it views its only obligation as to itself: As China looks on at the carnage in Ukraine––the killing of Ukrainian children, women, and the elderly through indiscriminate bombing and brutal violence, the rape, and the leveling of entire cities––it still does not feel the need to intervene in even the slightest of ways.

China derives a great deal of power from its own people, but also from those in other nations who turn a blind eye and tirelessly consume the products and goods they produce. We must cease our enabling of China, lest we become no better, a nation without obligation.

Dr. Y wants Americans to help the world, but that doesn’t mean he wants the help to go through the U.S. government:

We cannot help everyone, but everyone can help someone. This is an essential responsibility we all owe to humanity, but not necessarily to, or through our government.

I am an Evangelical; an oft maligned (sometimes fairly) and always misunderstood, unique flavor of Christianity. We are often asked, “How can you be for helping people and against big government solutions?” The answer is surprisingly simple. I believe that my responsibility to humanity rests on a much higher authority than merely our federal government. In addition I believe that social engineering should usually not be attempted through the coercive power of government, lest it violate one’s personal conscience.

Monopolies always tend to foster bad behavior. This is not just true of the corporate world, it is unfortunately also true of my large denomination, which some considered a monopoly in the evangelical world. It is no less true of the federal government that has arguably grown to have a monopoly interest in social services. Such a monopoly has an adverse effect on local communities. There are more resources to throw at the problem. But that benefit comes at the expense of a large, distant, impersonal, bureaucratic mechanism that can suck the life out of local communities while offering financial assistance for their problems. I believe this is a major source of the demise of our small towns and communities today. The old cliché is true: One always receives more than he gives. It is therefore a good investment. But when this is done through the coercive power of government it robs the act of its greater power of personal transformation. Such an approach robs the recipient of gratitude and replaces it with dependence. It robs the donor of humaneness and replaces it with resentment. It meets the physical needs of the moment, but ignores the spiritual needs and so diminishes the transaction.       

Private benevolent NGOs have proven in every way to be more efficient and effective than large well intended federal programs. So I was scandalized not so long ago by a well-intended presidential candidate’s rather naive assertion that small government conservatives were selfishly motivated. He did not know me well enough to make that accusation. I annually give 12–20% of my personal income, before taxes, to private benevolent enterprises. He did not have the advantage of seeing my tax return, but I was able to see his, made public as part of his candidacy. I knew that although he made significantly more money than I did, I in fact gave significantly more than he did in real dollars on an annual basis. It was not hypocrisy, or political cynicism on his part. He is in fact by all accounts a very generous and humane man. It was a failure to imagine any social structure other than a centralized and highly regulated government system.

He was a student of FDR. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I happen to follow a much older and more radical political thinker that walked the earth before modern democracies were a thing, speaking of the “Kingdom of heaven.” Talk of kingdoms is a scary thing for citizens of a democracy. To be clear, I am an ardent and patriotic supporter of our democracy. This is actually the real tension that has always existed within our republic between people of faith living in harmony within a pluralistic system. It is not new. Our founders designed our democracy to accommodate such separate spheres of influence as positive good.  Some of the checks and balances within our system actually reside outside the actual governing system. The Church is a good example of this.   

David helps his neighbors personally but wants the government to step in when it comes to international neighbors:

I am aware of food insecurity in Manhattan, where I live. I feel a responsibility to prioritize helping my fellow New Yorkers with their food needs, because they are part of my community, even though their situation is not as dire as people facing famine in other countries. I’d like to see our country lead in helping other countries with food. As the wealthiest member of the global community, we have a responsibility to do so.

Perry believes that the U.S. has the means to stave off famine:

We have had ample surpluses of all kinds of commodities. Wheat, corn, milk, all manner of vegetables. The U.S. government PAYS farmers not to grow some things. The problem is that the supply chain to Africa and the Middle East is very slow and China has no incentive to speed it up. Yes, the containers and bulk haulers are still on that side of the world. The U.S. may not be able to fill the Ukraine gap in commodities but we can try. The problem now again will be politics. I am sure the Right will be very upset if we try.

Pat wants international institutions to get involved:

This is where the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program should be taking the lead, assessing the need, issuing a call to member countries with a prioritized list of requirements by country and by product, and coordinating deliveries. Any crisis of this scale requires a coordinated response to deliver what’s needed in an efficient manner. Individual countries responding to individual countries is likely to result in confusion at best and lack of success at worst.

And Mitch is focused on perpetuating the species:

I don’t feel responsible for addressing, in general, the various problems specific to other states or societies. I have little bandwidth to adequately consider the details of their situations. But I do feel a need to address issues that affect the future of all life forms on this planet. If you are an intellectually capable human, of typical emotional intelligence, you likely experience some empathy for all other humans, as well as other sentient life forms (too many species to list, but gorillas, chimps, dolphins, whales are examples). I strive to be considerate of all, but mainly I want to see the intellect established by homo sapiens continue to expand. And that perspective informs my priorities.

Thanks for all of your emails. I’ll see you Wednesday.