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Noninterventionism: A Primer

Americans have grown understandably weary of foreign entanglements over the last 12 years of open-ended warfare, and they are now more receptive to a noninterventionist message than they have been in decades. According to a recent Pew survey, 52 percent of Americans now prefer that the U.S. “mind its own business in international affairs,” which represents the most support for a restrained and modest foreign policy in the last 50 years. That presents a challenge and an opportunity for noninterventionists to articulate a coherent and positive case for what a foreign policy of peace and prudence would mean in practice. As useful and necessary as critiquing dangerous ideas may be, noninterventionism will remain a marginal, dissenting position in policymaking unless its advocates explain in detail how their alternative foreign policy would be conducted.

A noninterventionist foreign policy would first of all require a moratorium on new foreign entanglements and commitments for the foreseeable future. A careful reevaluation of where the U.S. has vital interests at stake would follow. There are relatively few places where the U.S. has truly vital concerns that directly affect our security and prosperity, and the ambition and scale of our foreign policy should reflect that. A noninterventionist U.S. would conduct itself like a normal country without pretensions to global “leadership” or the temptation of a proselytizing mission. This is a foreign policy more in line with what the American people will accept and less likely to provoke violent resentment from overseas, and it is therefore more sustainable and affordable over the long term.

When a conflict or dispute erupts somewhere, unless it directly threatens the security of America or our treaty allies, the assumption should be that it is not the business of the U.S. government to take a leading role in resolving it. If a government requests aid in the event of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis (e.g., famine, disease), as Haiti did following its devastating earthquake in 2010, the U.S. can and should lend assistance—but as a general rule the U.S. should not seek to interfere in other nations’ domestic circumstances.

Larison [1]If parties to a dispute request outside arbitration, the U.S. should be in a position to act as a neutral mediator—which presupposes that the U.S. is not actively backing one side against another. We have seen the futility and absurdity of trying to act as an “honest broker” while providing lopsided support to one side in a conflict, and this should have no place in a noninterventionist foreign policy. There could be a potentially large and active role for U.S. diplomats abroad, but not one in which the U.S. was attempting to dictate terms or to promote a particular cause. International engagement could not and would not cease in a noninterventionist foreign policy, but it would be of a very different kind.

One of the priorities of a noninterventionist agenda would be the scaling back of America’s numerous commitments overseas. This would be accomplished mainly by shifting burdens gradually to current allies and regional powers: ceding regional influence in Central Asia to India and Russia, for example, and encouraging a more independent foreign policy for allies such as Japan and Germany. In general, the states that have the most at stake in maintaining regional stability should be given the responsibility for securing it. U.S. commitments have been building up over decades, so it is neither realistic nor desirable to end them suddenly. Nonetheless, there are also far more commitments than the U.S. can afford, and many of them are relics of the struggle with the Soviet Union or the remains of a “War on Terror” that has expanded beyond anything that most Americans imagined when it began a decade ago. Cutting back security entanglements is a long-delayed and necessary adjustment that the U.S. should have been making for the last 20 years. But it will not be sufficient simply to return to status quo ante at the start of the 21st century. The U.S. was already overcommitted around the world before the Bush era and will still be so after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ideally, the U.S. would reduce its overseas military presence in the Near East to at most what it was in the years before Desert Storm in 1991, and continue to reduce its presence in Europe as European governments bear more of the costs of their own defense. To date, wealthy allies have been able to skimp on their military spending, on the safe assumption that the U.S. would be ready and willing to make up the difference, but this arrangement is neither sustainable nor in our best interests. It not only creates an unhealthy dependence that ends up dragging unwilling Europeans into U.S. wars of choice, but as we saw in Libya, it perversely pulls the U.S. into European wars of choice because Europe’s governments cannot fight them on their own.

NATO is outdated and unnecessary, but provided that it functions purely as a defensive alliance it wouldn’t necessarily have to be dissolved. If the alliance continued to exist, the U.S. should not use it or permit it to be used as cover for members’ wars of choice and “out of area” missions. It should go without saying that there would be no further NATO expansion, which does nothing except antagonize Russia to the detriment of regional stability. If the alliance’s security guarantees to current members are to mean anything, they shouldn’t be extended to countries that the U.S. and other member nations are not actually willing to defend. To that end, U.S. and NATO officials should stop giving false encouragement to would-be member states that will never be admitted.

A noninterventionist U.S. would keep the major treaty allies it has for the time being but would also review its relationships with the many client states that neither act like nor deserve the name of ally. Clients that expose the U.S. to unnecessary conflicts or create dangerous tensions with other major powers are liabilities, and the U.S. should alter relations with them accordingly. That doesn’t require the U.S. to have poor relations with those states, but it does mean that they would stop receiving support and indulgence when their interests and ours clearly diverge. Many client state relationships would need to be downgraded as a result, and U.S. aid to them would be correspondingly reduced or eliminated.

In keeping with President Washington’s exhortation in his Farewell Address, the U.S. would seek to “observe good faith and justice toward all nations” and to “cultivate peace and harmony with all.” That means that a noninterventionist U.S. would work to maintain normal and full diplomatic relations with as many states as possible, and it would restrict or cut off trade with other states only in the most extreme cases. A noninterventionist foreign policy would very rarely rely on sanctions as a tool, and then only when they are targeted specifically against regime officials rather than the civilian population. In general, an America following Washington’s advice would promote both trade and diplomatic engagement rather than employing the tactics of embargo and isolation.  thisarticle [2]

The U.S. would also refuse to take sides in the internal quarrels of other countries. The sovereignty of other states would be respected much more consistently than in past decades. The U.S. would refrain from destabilizing foreign governments or aiding in their overthrow, and it would not make a habit of siding with whichever protest movement happened to be in the streets of a foreign capital. Likewise, it would refrain from propping up and subsidizing abusive and dictatorial regimes and would condition U.S. aid on how a government treats its people. While there may be a need to cooperate with authoritarian states on certain issues, governments that torture or violently suppress peaceful protests, including the current Egyptian government, shouldn’t be supported in any way by American taxpayers.

War might be necessary at some point, but if so it would be waged only in self-defense or the defense of a treaty ally. A noninterventionist U.S. would never wage a preventive war— which is contrary both to international law and morality—and would generally be wary of using force even when it could be justified. The U.S. should always avoid giving allies and clients the impression that they have a blank check from Washington, since that will tend to make them more combative and unreasonable in disputes with their neighbors. Allies and clients that wanted to pursue reckless and provocative courses of action would be actively discouraged, and it would be the responsibility of the U.S. to pull these states back from avoidable conflicts. A noninterventionist U.S. would manage relations with other major powers by seeking to cooperate on matters of common interest and by avoiding unnecessary disagreements on those issues where the U.S. has relatively little at stake. The U.S. and other major powers are bound to have conflicting interests from time to time, but these unavoidable disagreements shouldn’t be compounded by picking fights over every issue where we differ. As long as the U.S. has allies on the borders of other major powers, there will always be a certain degree of mistrust and tension in our relations. However, the U.S. shouldn’t make this worse by seeking to enlarge our alliances or increase our influence in countries that have historically been in the orbit of another major power. The goal here should be to keep tensions with other major powers at a tolerable minimum and to reduce the possibility of renewed great power conflict in the new century.

As George Washington also said: “In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.” For that reason, a noninterventionist U.S. would be one that doesn’t seek to demagogue or exaggerate foreign threats, nor would it cultivate either hostility towards or adoration of any other country. Above all, it won’t seek to make the U.S. the champion of any other country’s interests at our expense.

Noninterventionism is a rather clunky and unappealing label for a set of very appealing ideas: that the U.S. should mind its own business, act with restraint, respect other nations, refrain from unnecessary violence, and pursue peace. If future administrations took just a few of these as guiding principles for the conduct of foreign policy, America and the world would both be better off.

Senior editor Daniel Larison blogs at TheAmericanConservative.com/Larison.

37 Comments (Open | Close)

37 Comments To "Noninterventionism: A Primer"

#1 Comment By Richard W. Bray On June 3, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

I just subscribed to TAC so I could read this, but it’s not up yet.

Anyhow, the relentless sanity of Daniel Larison is worth a lot more to me than $24.95 a year.

(Please don’t anyone tell my mom that I subscribed to a magazine called The American Conservative)

#2 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 11, 2014 @ 1:47 am

I would have preferred some more specifics, but this is a great start.

A few more issues that could be addressed:

1) What about government financing of democracy promotion abroad? Obviously, US citizens can set up and fund organizations to promote human rights, democracy, etc.–but should the US government be doing so, either directly or indirectly? I think doing so is NOT consistent with non-interventionism.

2) An explicit section on R2P should be added. It is now part of international law (kinda, sorta). But since the US is a Security Council member we can veto any R2P based mission. Should we? Or if such a mission were implemented by non-Security council members (like African Union forces in Darfur) would it be in line with these principles? Here, I’m agnostic.

3) What about international law and international organizations in general? One of the big changes since 1900 is the enormous expansion of their theoretical reach. Is this a good thing or a bad thing from non-interventionist point of view? (Obviously, bogus use of the UN or R2P as a fig leave for unilateral intervention is contrary to non-interventionism, but what about the real thing?)

4) in this line, US support for, and participation in military-paramilitary action against activities like piracy and terrorism would seem to be consistent with these principles. (Of course, the latter has been abused to become the preferred excuse for interventionism–but abusus non tollit usum.)

5) I think it could be argued even more strongly with sanctions that using them to pursue regime change (as in the case of Cuba) should never be contemplated, both because this constitutes intervention in the baldest sense, and because it never works. Sanctions can sometimes force a regime to change specific policy–it can’t force a regime to agree to its own elimination.

6) Finally, speaking of regime change, it would seem that the key to a non-interventionist policy is precisely to renounce regime change as a national policy. There may be extreme examples where regime change would seem required (WW II being the obvious case), but you could phrase it like this: the United States while not necessarily approving of any particular government will not dedicate its money and the time of its officials to changing any existing regime, and will consider supporting such a policy only when a country has directly attacked the US or its allies in such a repeated fashion as to be clearly beyond possibility of deterrence. (Again this language could be exploited, but sentiment behind it, if applied honestly would seem to be legitimate, even if a very rare case).

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 11, 2014 @ 2:42 am

I am gong to take for granted the various gray areas that lend themselves to intervention even in this proposed ethic.

But I will always be an advocate for intervening in open genocide.

#4 Comment By Darth Thulhu On June 11, 2014 @ 7:02 am

The three unsaid-yet-said bombshells of this policy would need to actually be explicitly said, not cravenly dodged. If they can’t even be said, this policy proposal is dead on arrival, because it doesn’t even try to defend itself.

Those three policies:

1) Cut Israel loose.

No more billions in needless military subsidy. No more fighting regional wars on its behalf. No more pretending it didn’t steal nuclear secrets from us. No more denying that it has as many nukes as China. No more billions in hush-money paid to Egypt on its behalf (let it bribe the military thug dictators itself!).

2) No more pointless, interminable quagmires.

No more Vietnams. No more Afghanistans. No more Iraqs. Reinstate the draft if necessary, but whatever it takes: no more war even remotely on that scale unless it serves a direct national interest.

3) No more thuggery.

No more Grenadas. No more Libyas. No more Ukraines. No more special forces assassination squads. No more undeclared drone Forever War. No more arrogant brutality in mirror to Putin’s arrogant brutality in east Ukraine.

Say these things bluntly, or stop offering this policy as if it is a proposal meant to convince.

#5 Comment By Dan Phillips On June 11, 2014 @ 8:53 am

We also need to get rid of all our treaty allies. Alliances are supposed to be mutually beneficial, but all these alliances heavily favor our allies. What country do we really need to come to our rescue in case we are attacked?

#6 Comment By Hal Fiore On June 11, 2014 @ 10:36 am

I am in almost 100% agreement with this. The only part I don’t quite see how we would get to work without becoming another form of imperialism is the promotion of trade. Sure, it sounds great, but everywhere I see active “free” trade promoted, it becomes a tool of economic aggression abroad, and repression of prosperity at home.

But that’s a minor quibble. More like this, please! And I, too intend to subscribe as soon as I get this kindle stuff figured out.

#7 Comment By Myron Hudson On June 11, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

This is excellent. Thank you.

Darth, your three points are legit but it seems obvious (to me at least) that they would flow from the principles set forth.

#8 Comment By K Siegel On June 11, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

I am a deep left liberal who knows that my side’s bleeding heart desires need to be checked by sane, reasonable conservative voices.

The American Conservative provides that voice, and this article points the way to a future where politics truly stop at the water’s edge and the nation’s best interests come before the maintenance of empires.

#9 Comment By Andrew On June 11, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

I will limit myself to simple Bravo!

#10 Comment By CJ On June 11, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

I echo everyone’s praise for this column. If I may make a suggestion, please consider posting some case studies. You could give examples of necessary wars of which a non-interventionist would approve (Barbary Wars?) and of putative R2P situations such as Rwanda and the Balkan Wars. Using information available at the time, how would a non-interventionist analyze the situation? What decisions would be made and what would be the likely consequences (good and bad).

#11 Comment By Ben, Okla. City On June 11, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

Ah, the Peace through Peace argument. Very compelling!

#12 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On June 11, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

Contrary to what knee-jerk interventionists believe, nonintervention takes enormous courage. Interventionists are motivated by fear, and see threats everywhere, because their fear makes them prone to slippery-slope arguments: i.e., if we don’t stop the communists in Vietnam, the rest of Southeast Asia will follow; if we don’t fight the “terrorists” in Iraq, they’ll be on the streets of New York City next. When you are motivated by fear, you cannot distinguish real threats from non-threats or real interests from non-interests.

The same fear also operates so that interventionists see threats to their own position from other interventionists in the event they fail to act: see “who lost China?” (As if the US could have done anything to stop the communists when the Nationalists could not.)

These twin fears lead them to want to strike out everywhere, against everything and everyone that could conceivably, at the end of some daisy-chain of causality, result in a threat to the US.

Noninventionism requires great courage — courage against this fear, upon which the media plays relentlessly. It would take a leader of consummate skill and courage to insist that we step back and evaluate our interests.

It also will require a change to the way we elect candidates, because as long as primaries matter more than the general election, the silent majority who wants a return to prudence will continue to be irrelevant in our elections.

#13 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 12, 2014 @ 12:25 am


First Central Asia (and, I would add, Africa). Africa matters not at all to the USA. Let the Russians and Indians, but also Pakistan, China, Turkey, Iran, the Arabs, the indigenous folks and whoever else wants to compete for influence in Central Asia do so. But the USA should leave this area, including Afghanistan, forthwith.
Then the Persian Gulf.
Then the entire Middle East (you’re on your own, Israel, and we will not be paying Egypt and Jordan to be nice to you anymore. Moreover, we really don’t care if your fiercest enemies take over in the KSA, Lebanon, and elsewhere).
Then its time to re consider the way that burdens are shared, even among the allies we keep.
NATO? Yes, but no expansion, and no out of area actions, and no actions that are not truly defensive. And burden shifting to the Europeans.

Japan and South Korea. Same as above, with respect to burden shifting.

The Philippines and Thailand I would jettison, as colonial and Cold War holdovers.


Same with the Western Hemisphere/Rio Treaty, but with the understanding that we are only concerned with clear cut, interstate aggression, not with propping up or bringing down regimes based on ideology.

No more poking the Russians. No starting in with poking the Chinese. No “pivot” to Asia. No more phony “democracy” or “human rights” destabilization. And let’s end the GWOT/special forces/assassination/drone/missile strike war as well. By dumping Israel, and by ceasing to meddle and interfere generally, and particularly in the Muslim world, the problem of terrorism aimed at the US will lessen in time. Moreover, with the US withdrawing, there will be fewer and less prominent “US” targets to hit. Fewer bases, fewer spy/assassin dens masquerading as diplomatic facilities, fewer US Naval vessels, and so on.

R2P? Human rights violations, per se, should not be considered as grounds for military action. If rising to the level of genocide, well then, the matter should be brought to the attention of the UNSC. If it decides to act, and if the US finds that it is in interests and within its capabilities to assist in that international effort, it may do so. But the USA has no special responsibility in this area. And certainly no reason to “go it alone” or with only “a coalition of the willing” or with its treaty allies, if the UNSC does not act.

The liberal world order is to the benefit of most countries, including all the super powers, and that includes Russia and China. The US does not need to act as unilateral policeman to protect and maintain that order. Indeed, the USA has become the biggest threat to that order, which, ironically, it did so much to establish. These days, it is the Chinese who are perhaps the most consistent proponent of the paradigm of international relations that the US helped to birth.

We do have to recognize that Rome was not built in a day, and it can’t be unbuilt in one day either. But we have to start, and then, perhaps, the process will gain momentum, and take on a life of its own. Also, once the first steps are taken, once the taboo of “retreat” is broken, the whole thing should be a lot more feasible, politically. Right now, we are claiming the whole world. Our doctrines, our military “commands,” cover the entire Earth (and then some, as they reach into space as well). By starting with the most geographically and culturally distant, and geopolitically irrelevant, places, we can get the ball rolling.

#14 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 12, 2014 @ 12:38 am

I think Darth Thulhu’s challenges may make sense in some political contexts, but in most would be distracting and pointless. About Israel, I think any time you talk about treaty allies (vs. other kinds of allies) people know what you’re talking about. “Insufficiently hostile to Israel” is not really the kind of charge that Daniel Larison would need to address in the wider public space.

About “no quagmires” and “no thuggery”, the second is what you hope will result from principles, not a principle itself. Why? Because what will become a quagmire can’t be foretold in advance. You can have a good sense, but sometimes that doesn’t pan out. Why was Vietnam a quagmire and Korea not?

As for “no thuggery”, who determines what’s thuggery? In practice, what this would amount to is “respect international law”, which means military interventions would have to be either clearly defensive, conducted on the invitation of an existent government, or else authorized by the Security Council.

Now the second of these is certainly an intervention (for example, US in Colombia now, or in El Salvador in the 1980s). In reality, drone campaigns are essentially the same thing–we’re using drones in Yemen because the Yemen government wants us to do so. The same was true in Pakistan until the Pakistani gov’t decided they didn’t want it any more, at which point that drone war ceased. While we can debate the pros and cons of any one such case (and much of it would indeed be “thuggery”), I find it hard to say that “No, we will never help you fight armed insurgents in your country” to be pretty inconsistent with being an ally of a foreign government. And sometimes “thuggery” (of which the US engaged in plenty in S Korea from 1945 to the 1980s) played a part in some positive results.

#15 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 12, 2014 @ 6:57 am

Should have been:

“I find it hard to say that ‘No, we will never help you fight armed insurgents in your country’ is actually consistent with being an ally of a foreign government.”

#16 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 12, 2014 @ 9:43 am

Chris Atwood:

“As for ‘no thuggery,’ who determines what’s thuggery? In practice, what this would amount to is ‘respect international law,’ which means military interventions would have to be either clearly defensive, conducted on the invitation of an existent government, or else authorized by the Security Council. Now the second of these is certainly an intervention (for example, US in Colombia now, or in El Salvador in the 1980s). In reality, drone campaigns are essentially the same thing–we’re using drones in Yemen because the Yemen government wants us to do so. The same was true in Pakistan until the Pakistani gov’t decided they didn’t want it any more, at which point that drone war ceased.”

Please. Virtually no one, other than the puppet regime that perhaps depends upon it to survive, actually “wants” the USA to conduct drone or assassination or COIN wars in his or her country. The USA sponsors, one way or another, some odious regime. Then that regime turns around and “asks” the US to “help” it kill folks who, waddayaknow, also happen to not like the USA very much.
In return for the “ask,” the USA continues to bankroll the regime, to provide it with weapons, training, intelligence, and so on, to protect it diplomatically, to kill folks who are more its enemies than the USA’s, etc.

This is thuggery pure and simple. Following international law, particularly the no war without a UNSC Resolution or in self defense, should be the floor, not the ceiling. The USA should not be manipulating the rules to create instances where it can intervene, using the fig leaf of an invitation from a regime that it bought and paid for or is otherwise dependent on the USA.

“While we can debate the pros and cons of any one such case (and much of it would indeed be ‘thuggery’), I find it hard to say that ‘No, we will never help you fight armed insurgents in your country’ to be pretty inconsistent with being an ally of a foreign government.”

Really? I don’t find it difficult at all. We are an ally of a nation or a State, not of a particular regime or government. Typically, nations are pledged by treaty to protect each other from external attack, nor from internal insurgencies.

South Korea is not a real counterexample. It was attacked by North Korea. The insurgency element, which did exist, was not the main issue or even an important issue. Contrast that with Vietnam, in which the US-created and dependent regime was close to falling to an internal insurgency before the US intervened directly in force.

#17 Comment By ADM64 On June 12, 2014 @ 9:46 am

I agree with much of this but do not regard taking preventive war off the table. There may be instances when it is justified and necessary. I do not regard it as a violation of morality nor do I regard so-called international law as being equivalent to laws passed by our own legislature. Moreover, even during the period of the Founders, we engaged in military operations (like the wars against the Barbary pirates) without declarations of war (which incidentally should be required for major military interventions).

It is also worth noting that the Afghan war would fit into the category of necessary war. It was, however, poorly waged.

#18 Comment By Truths Acceptance On June 12, 2014 @ 10:20 am

“U.S. commitments have been building up over decades, so it is neither realistic nor desirable to end them suddenly.” Some things demand immediate decisive action. This notion that we must not or should not act suddenly is only continuing the promotion of the same. If U.S. commitments are not mutually beneficial for both parties we should have never engage to begin with. To suddenly end those ties now rather than later is solid foreign policy.

#19 Comment By Henry MacWhirr On June 12, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

A positive foreign policy would include the active promotion of infrastructure projects in the underdeveloped sector. This would have numerous useful effects, including reducing poverty, which is an irritant that plays a big role in conflict; and creating the basis for mutually beneficial trade relationships. The Chinese have figured this out, and they will reap the benefits of assisting poor countries which the Anglo-Americans have adamantly refused to assist.

#20 Comment By Fons Origo On June 12, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

God bless you for recognizing and honoring the centricity and abiding wisdom of our first and greatest President. Two hundred and fifteen years after his death he remains the “indispensable man.”

#21 Comment By philadlephialawyer On June 12, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

Henry MacWhirr:

“A positive foreign policy would include the active promotion of infrastructure projects in the underdeveloped sector. This would have numerous useful effects, including reducing poverty, which is an irritant that plays a big role in conflict; and creating the basis for mutually beneficial trade relationships….”

I think experience shows that “active promotion” of infrastructure projects in the Third World actually have deleterious effects. It is no good building highways, bridges, port facilities, airports, electricity producing dams and so forth, if there is no demand for their services or use. Instead, the projects displace ordinary people, particularly the poor and ethnic minorities. And they create white elephants which go unused, and usually fall apart, while the country goes bankrupt trying to pay back the loans.

The benefit of the projects go to (1) the banks, which lend the money for them, and then reap interest on those loans forever, as the country usually can’t pay them back in the contractually specified time, (2) the foreign contractors of the lending/aiding country, which are named, de jure or de facto, by the lending or “aiding” country, to be used, (3) the big shots in the recipient country, who demand and get kickbacks, and (4) the medium shots in country, who are put in charge of patronage contracts and employment.

Roads to nowhere, that start out all proudly in the capitol city but then end ignominiously in the bush, a few miles away. Electricity generated that can’t be sold except at a huge loss. Modern bridges with foot paths on either side. Air and sea ports operating at a fraction of capacity, as there is simply not enough trade or tourism to justify their size. And so on. Staggering debt for the recipients of this generosity. Farmland flooded by unneeded dams. Swiss bank accounts for the leaders of the countries. Fat lifestyles for the lesser crooks. And a short term boomlet for native construction workers, who are given the least well paying jobs, for which there is no demand once the project runs out. Nice profits for Western contractors. And so on.

I doubt it works all that differently for the Chinese.

Why can’t we just accept that our interference is simply not a good thing? If a project is for real, then there will be banks to supply loans for it, without the government having to promote it. Moreover, if the project is real, then the bank should not need a commitment from a sovereign government to build it. A private company or a limited liability quasi government agency should be good enough. It if isn’t, chances are the project is a white elephant, and the banks are only involved because the State is guaranteeing the loans.

In any event, development tends to work in stages, in an unsexy, un big project way. First a dirt road suffices. If enough trade ensues, there might be call to make it a gravel road. Then, perhaps, a paved road. After that, lanes can be added. And so forth. The USA did not go from a trackless wilderness to a nation criss-crossed with Interstate and other large highways. There were numerous intermediate stages instead. Just dropping a replica of I 95 in the bush in Africa does little to benefit anyone, except, again, the insiders involved.

#22 Comment By EarlyBird On June 12, 2014 @ 4:32 pm


Can we please make Daniel Larison America’s Foreign Policy Chief for at least the next 10 years? Pretty please?

#23 Comment By Andrew On June 12, 2014 @ 8:29 pm


Can we please make Daniel Larison America’s Foreign Policy Chief for at least the next 10 years? Pretty please?

Highly erudite, competent professionals are not in demand, at least for now, in the foreign policy “elite”. But having Daniel there would have been a great thing.

#24 Comment By Bill Jones On June 12, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

“An explicit section on R2P should be added. It is now part of international law (kinda, sorta). But since the US is a Security Council member we can veto any R2P based mission. Should we? Or if such a mission were implemented by non-Security council members (like African Union forces in Darfur) would it be in line with these principles? Here, I’m agnostic.”

The Supreme Court has upheld the principle that Government in the US has no responsibility to protect its own citizens.


To go from there to the idea that the US has a responsibility to protect a bunch of foreign Johnny’s is ludicrous.

#25 Comment By Victor Tiffany On June 13, 2014 @ 4:57 am

“This would be accomplished mainly by shifting burdens gradually to current allies and regional powers.”

Either that or we transfer this burden to the U.N. Either way, we cannot just pull back and create “vacuums of power.” We did that after WWI and got WWII.

Either way, it is much easier written than done.

#26 Comment By Jude On June 13, 2014 @ 11:13 am

I am neither liberal nor conservative. I am extremely liberal on certain topics and conservative on others. For example, I am deeply concerned about the “entertainment” industry and its promotion of violence in cinema, games and song lyrics. While I am a social libertarian regarding adult relationships, I am equally concerned about the early sexualization of children via the internet and even more so, smart phones and sexting.

Due to my respect for Colin Powell, I was at least open to the justification of the Second Gulf War and even the Neocon belief that Saddam’s overthrow would greeted by an uprising of popular support for democracy.


First, I now truly believe that Powell was duped by CIA and NSA bureaucrats who were being arm-twisted by Bush-Cheney into providing “evidence” to support intervention.

Second, as populations and poverty explode, so does radicalism and unless we are willing to employ the same brutal, savage tactics of third-world radicals, “victory” is impossible and even then, a significant amount of survivors will be hostile.

For a nation founded in revolt to what was effectively overseas domination, the USA is incredibly arrogant in thinking that others would accept our dominance. Intervention, particularly military intervention, has done nothing but alienate America to many, including young people in “allied” countries.

Thus, unless a treat presents clear and immediate danger to the USA, I am now against all intervention. When absolutely required, intervention should be swift, overwhelming d targeted. Think of how much safer the would would be had Rumsfeld not bungled the hunt for Bin Laden in Tora Bora? And sadly, had regime change not been pursed in Iraq.

Among my issues with Obama is that he feels pressured to use America’s big stick. That pressure is right wing political pressure, as Democrats to this day feel compelled to avoid the label of “soft” on defense on foreign policy.

I like that the Tea Party, at least at grass roots, favors non-interventionism. Unfortunately, non-interventionism is fundamentally incompatible with many other their beliefs, just as being anti Wall Street is incompatible with less regulation, less government and lower taxes, along with a winner take all attitude on all issues.

#27 Comment By Evelyn Johnson On June 13, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

It is very risky business for American to openly take a non-interventionist stance because we will then be seen as weaker and more vulnerable. There are already many in the world who wish to threaten us and there is a better chance for us and our allies if we keep “Peace through Strength”. No one likes war. And although we have been “at war” in the Middle East for a long time now it has been poorly managed because we were never there to “win”. When you go to war, you need to first define victory and that is often not pretty. People will die and that includes not just soldiers, but women and children. That is the cost of war. But we should not put our soldiers in harms way unless it is clear what victory means and what the costs are and they we will go in as fast as possible with all fury, get the job done and get out. None of this “social work” about earning their hearts and minds – that’s not a soldier’s job and it doesn’t war. It just put’s our men in harms way and when we leave the land goes back to the enemy. It is happening this minute in Iraq and Afghanistan.

#28 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 14, 2014 @ 5:13 am

Looking at the comments, I think to make this primer intellectually coherent, Larison would have to be more explicit about two points:

1) Is this non-interventionism cognizant or not of “spheres of influence”? In other words, should the calculus for intervening in Iraq or Ukraine be the same as that for intervening in the Philippines or Guatemala? If we’re going to treat all four alike then we really have a new foreign-policy practice that no other major power in world history has ever practiced. But if we’re going to say intervention in Colombia is not the same as intervention in Afghanistan, then in reality, non-interventionism is not the sole basic principle, a sphere of influence policy is at least as important.

2) Derived from the first: is this non-interventionism to be seen as a type of “normal” foreign policy, such as is pursued by other countries, or is it a new, idealistic foreign policy as yet untried by any great power? If the former, then it is going to have to be compatible with the sometimes ugly gov’t to gov’t deals that countries make with their allies. (Which means that those looking for a completely ally-free, thuggery-free, no “manipulating the rules to pursue self-interest” types should be told that this isn’t the policy they’re looking for.) If the latter, we need a justification as to why the US should be making a completely new type of foreign policy that assumes obligations and limitations no other foreign policy power has ever assumed.

That said, again, the point made earlier about international law would certainly also help here. You could finesse the second question by saying US foreign policy should be as “normal” as allowed by existing international law, which does set norms both of intervention and of human rights and so on. But in the nature of things that’s going to be “ceiling” not the floor, as Philadelphia Lawyer put it.

I have a feeling Larison’s answer would be that some sense of spheres of influence is implicit and so a government following his advice would still be much more likely to intervene in Granada than in Kazakhstan, and yes, this is intended to be a “normal” foreign policy. But I’m not sure, and I don’t think any one reading the article could really tell for sure either.

#29 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 14, 2014 @ 5:27 am

Philadelphia Lawyer:
Actually alliances in practice are between governments not “states or nations”. Let’s take a nice, meaty practical issue: should the US have a base in Okinawa? Or is having such a base unwanted “intervention”? Assuming it makes sense for the US, how are we supposed to know what the Japanese state or nation think about it apart from what the Japanese government tells us? So if the Japanese PM says we want the base to stay, do we say “No, actually our polls show that you’re way out on a limb in public opinion here, and the Japanese nation actually doesn’t want it”? (It’s not true now, but there’s times in the 70s or 80s when that argument could have been plausibly made.) What better way of saying “up yours” to a foreign leader could you have?

About drones in Yemen and Pakistan, no, actually I don’t buy your contention that either government is actually a puppet of the US. (The trouble Pakistan is giving us in Afghanistan is proof enough of that, as is the fact that when they finally decided they didn’t want it, it stopped. And then a few days after the IMU attacked a Karachi airport, lo and behold, another drone attack, specifically targeting IMU.) I personally think using drones on Pakistan and Yemen’s governments’ enemies is bad policy, NOT because it’s “thuggery” but because those two countries are not reliable enough in terms of being on board with fundamental US interests (not “puppets” if you will) to make us killing their enemies worth our while. But if the Colombian government asked us to attack some FARC guys with a drone, I think it would merits serious consideration. (And by the way, how would you tell if that request has the support of the Colombian “nation” as opposed to just the “government”? Have a plebiscite?)

#30 Comment By Dr. Nora On June 14, 2014 @ 10:17 am

Great article. And while I agree completely, the problem no one has mentioned so far is that all of our politicians serve their corporate masters, not the American public.

We installed the Shah of Iran for BP. And I’d argue that both Bushes started their respective gulf wars at the behest of Halliburton.

With the oil companies pulling the strings, how are we, the people, supposed to stop this?

#31 Comment By Logan On June 14, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

Great article but the major problem is that US foreign policy is addicted to interventionism. This addiction has infected both parties. It would require a huge volte-face on the part of both parties, diplomatic and military bureaucracies for this to be undone. This is not likely to happen.

#32 Comment By arrScott On June 15, 2014 @ 8:04 pm

Fine enough principles with regard to purely foreign affairs. And it would be an achievement to successfully challenge the interventionist establishment on first principles. But much of American politics, and much of our foreign policy, is not a question of principle but a question of domestic constituencies. For example, aid to Israel: We do not really provide aid to Israel (and Egypt) because that aid is a residual term of a treaty that is felt to serve our interests. We provide aid to Israel because there is a loud domestic constituency that demands that we aid Israel, and that supports aid to Egypt as a sort of cover or ancillary to the aid to Israel. Much as, through 1998, a loud domestic constituency demanded that the United States generally favor Irish grievances against the United Kingdom.

It would be a fine thing if tomorrow, someone in Congress were to propose that American foreign aid be given only to NGOs, not to foreign governments. But the objections and exceptions won’t be on the principle of the thing, they’ll be on the specific cases that satisfy domestic political constituencies. Which is appropriate, isn’t it? In a democratic republic, elected government should generally give people what they say they want. So moving beyond sound but basically useless general principles as enunciated here, how do we achieve a coherent noninterventionist policy?

#33 Comment By Philo Vaihinger On June 16, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

No entangling alliances.

So, US out of NATO.

US bases and troops out of everywhere outside the Western Hemisphere or south of the equator!

Massively cut back foreign aid.

Quit trying to be a player in every game on the planet.

#34 Comment By Rossbach On June 16, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

This is an excellent article. If our national leaders had heeded President Washington’s advice, we could have avoided involvement in WWI and WWII. Of course, if Germany hadn’t given Austria-Hungary a blank check in the Balkans in 1914 and if England hadn’t done the same for Poland in 1939, perhaps those local conflicts would not have escalated into global wars.

#35 Comment By elTombre On June 17, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

One “interventionist” consideration for military readiness: What good is an untested Army, Navy, Air Force?
You don’t know what you have – who commands well under fire, what equipment and tactics work – until it has some war experience against real adversaries (not just war games and maneuvers).

Consequently, it does seem to be in our legitimate national interest to engage occasionally in a “war of choice” – there is, unfortunately, plenty of opportunity for that in a world of men.

#36 Comment By AlexB On June 19, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

While I think this article touches on some important points with regard to American foreign policy failures of the past and present, it appears to be entirely predicated on an assumption that I think is deeply flawed. That assumption, stated as fact, is best articulated here:

“There are relatively few places where the U.S. has truly vital concerns that directly affect our security and prosperity….”

From this, all else flows. Yet in this 21st century we find ourselves living in an ever shrinking world. Shrinking both economically and socially. This trend is driven by technology and seems likely to only accelerate into the future. This makes it very difficult to accept the idea that there are many, if any, places on Earth that are not now, nor ever will be, important to our prosperity or security.

Perhaps its a tired example, but I’m sure that on September 10, 2001 most Americans believed that Afghanistan and its people were of little, if any, direct importance to American security or prosperity.

I am also surprised by the author’s willingness to apparently cede all influence in Asia to India and Russia (and presumably China?). By population, Asia is the largest market in the world. And we want to just give up and let Russia, India and China control that market?

There also seems to be an implicit assumption in this article that if we forego our “pretensions to global ‘leadership'” that no one else will step into the vacuum we leave behind. That is an assumption that is hard to believe. Do you really want to cede global leadership to China? Russia? (Russia seems a stretch economically, though Putin clearly has the ambition)

The author states he is promoting “noninterventionism” as opposed to “isolationism”. But I see little difference between the two as he has posited them.

#37 Comment By tzx4 On June 20, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

In my opinion United States should set about evolving towards a more Swiss model rather than an Ancient Rome model. History suggests Empire and democracy don’t mix very well.