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There is a strain of thought in the American pro-liberty movement that argues for what is essentially a return to a policy of isolationism. That is the attitude typified by former Representative Ron Paul and his adherents, who have spent years calling for the withdrawal of the United States from many of its foreign treaty and institutional obligations, including the United Nations. There is a certain attractiveness to this position, especially in light of the recent exhausting and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The claim that the War on Terror and other interventions in various countries’ affairs have created more enemies than they vanquished holds no small amount of truth.
It is true that America has pursued an overbearing and damaging foreign policy in the past two decades. But it is also true that a policy of isolation would be even more damaging.
The United States occupies a unique position in the history of the world; it is a superpower with the ability to project military power to all corners of the globe and economic capacity dwarfing all other states. Never has a state been so dominant and without rivals for global preeminence. In terms of security, its great power has given the United States the ability to serve as an ersatz world police, allowing it to guarantee the security and stability of the international system, as well as the security of its own citizens, which has resulted in an unprecedented era of peace reigning in the world.
Wars in this era of American preeminence have been intermittent and localized, nothing akin to the vast conflicts of empire that marked the 18th and 19th centuries, or the cataclysmic world wars of the first half of the 20th century. This has largely been thanks to the United States’ presence as a leader on the world stage. Were it to withdraw from its international activities, the security of the world would be in doubt. With no dominant power helping to maintain order, the whole system could break down, precipitating wars, as has occurred in previous centuries when the international landscape was marked by the power dynamics of multi-polarity.
In terms of economics, the United States is deeply coupled into the system. The United States withdrawal as guarantor of the system would be disastrous not only in terms of upsetting the international financial system, but also in terms of its position as provider of the world’ reserve currency. Without the dollar, the entire international financial system would be in jeopardy, and could even collapse. Without the United States actively involved on the international stage the world will become a more dangerous and economically volatile place.
The Indispensable Nation
Much of the world looks to the United States for leadership. Its moniker “leader of the free world” is not merely grandstanding on America’s part, but actually how many nations view it. In terms of maintenance of the present international order, of which America was the chief architect and guarantor, the United States remains the “indispensable nation.”
When the Berlin Wall fell it was to the United States that the budding democratic movements looked for inspiration. Its upholding of values such as freedom of expression and of religion, as well as its adherence to democratic values and free markets have served to shape the fabric of the international order. Since the United States became a major leader in the world, after World War II, it has helped to make the soil of the international landscape become more receptive to the growth of democracy and free market capitalism, not only as a major form of government, but as the predominant one.
Should the United States abandon its place of leadership in international relations, it would pave the way to destruction of the international order it has striven to build. I have previously written about the problems of America’s failure to establish an international order that would survive its decline. A policy of isolation like some on the libertarian-right wing of American politics would only hasten that erosion of international norms. The Obama administration’s rudderless foreign policy leadership should be viewed as a chilling prelude to a world without American leadership. It is a world that should be avoided at all costs.
A Way Forward
The United States is too important to the international system to abandon it. Doing so could result in all manner of catastrophe, not just for other countries, but for the United States as well. The problems of world cannot simply be sealed off from America’s shores, especially if free trade is to still be upheld.
It is in America’s interest, and in the interest of the world, that the United States pursue a foreign policy that continues to promote the norms it has sought to inculcate in international relations. The task is not complete, and has seen setbacks in the past few years. But failure is not an option.