Greg Scoblete raises some important questions in his comments on Rand Paul’s foreign policy and my recent column. He questions Paul’s support for withdrawal from major international institutions:

It’s one thing to make the case to the American public that U.S. foreign policy is too meddlesome in other states’ business, too quick to reach for punitive sticks and too grandiose in scope and ambition. If that was Paul’s message, I suspect it would find a lot of takers [bold mine-DL]. But this is only a piece of what is a larger, more radical frontal assault against the post WWII institutions that, for better or for worse, the U.S. has worked to shape and lead to our general betterment. Some, like NATO, have arguably outlived their usefulness. Others, like the IMF and World Bank, likely need reforms. But a blanket rejection of U.S. participation in all of them just seems ill considered.

Each of these points needs to be taken one at a time. Simply as an electoral matter, emphasizing one’s opposition to U.S. meddling in other countries’ affairs, bashing punitive policies, and criticizing American ambitions abroad are exactly the kinds of things that Rand Paul’s father did on a regular basis, and it was a political loser with the Republican rank-and-file. It may be that there are a lot of people who would respond favorably to this message, but they are mostly not Republican primary voters and Rand Paul understood that he would have gotten nowhere if he emphasized these things.

Greg says that the major institutions are ones that the U.S. had a major role in creating “for better or worse,” and he is right. The easy answer is that Paul and many of his supporters usually think it was for worse. The creation of these institutions was part of the United States’ assumption of enormous responsibilities in the post-WWII world. We can argue over how important it was that the U.S. take up those responsibilities at that time, but I think Paul would object to continued membership in these organizations because of the very activist and interventionist role the United States has played abroad in order to fulfill its obligations to them. He might also object to continued membership on the grounds that these institutions no longer need U.S. participation to function, and that whatever extraordinary role the United States may have had to fill after WWII and during the Cold War is now outdated. The non-interventionist appeal that Greg finds reasonable is closely tied to the general aversion to involvement in international institutions.

One reason why pro-sovereignty conservatives dislike membership in these institutions is the perceived and real costs membership has imposed on the U.S. For those of us who usually emphasize the costs to other nations that U.S. interventionism imposes, this may seem a bit odd, but it is a way to talk about the same problem in a language that otherwise hawkishly-inclined Republicans will understand and accept. Over the last twenty years, the United States has gone to war or deployed American troops overseas numerous times, but many of these were officially done to fulfill obligations to the United Nations, enforce U.N. resolutions or maintain the “credibility” of NATO. Sometimes American interests were also arguably at stake (Korea), and other times they clearly were not (Kosovo, Iraq). If one begins with the assumption that the United States should only use its military in national defense and defense of American interests, this seems like an intolerable imposition and a waste of American resources and lives. It is partly because of the demands made on the U.S. military and the country in the name of belonging to these institutions that many pro-sovereignty conservatives would prefer not to belong. For these reasons, even though he is often arguing for the same things as other non-interventionists, Paul’s emphasis on U.S. sovereignty resonates with these conservatives in a way that attacking U.S. interventions directly would not.

The more involved answer is that we have to remember that Paul believes that the United States should avoid entangling and permanent alliances, and so he does not approve of our government ceding any authority to international bodies. Concerning the latter point, I assume he objects to this because he regards these bodies as both unnecessary and unaccountable to American citizens. One can debate their necessity, but the accountability argument is much stronger. In this respect Paul’s pro-sovereignty position is roughly similar to that of strong Euroskeptics in Britain in their attitudes towards the EU. To the extent that Paul and his supporters already regard the federal government as too powerful and believe power is too centralized in Washington, they are going to be even unhappier with more distantly-removed organizations over whose operations they have no meaningful say. There is an important democratic self-government element to this pro-sovereignty view.

Regarding the IMF and World Bank, Paul’s opposition to U.S. participation is even easier to understand and explain. Put simply, he doesn’t want the U.S. providing funding for lending to other governments, which is an extension of his general opposition to foreign aid. This position certainly has something going for it. It removes the U.S. from institutions responsible for a different kind of intrusive intervention in the affairs of other countries, and it would keep American funds from supporting a bankrupt model of development aid that has been as much of a burden to the recipient states as it has been a help and has arguably delayed and retarded economic innovation and growth in those countries. If one agrees with Easterly that “[t]he real Africa needs increased trade from the West more than it needs more aid handouts” and if one applies that lesson more broadly, Paul’s position on ending U.S. participation in these two institutions may sound radical, but it also would seem to make sense for both creditor and debtor nations.