Ignore the Free-Riding International Peanut Gallery
Control Washington and you control the world. At least, that is what many foreign interests believe. Other countries have long had strong opinions about what America should do internationally, and have sought to see those ideas implemented in D.C. No surprise, then, that what they propose usually benefits them more than Americans.
America’s policymakers should ignore this advice, no matter how fervently it’s offered. And if any president is willing to tell this self-interested chorus to shut up, it is Donald Trump.
Among the notable nations lobbying for America’s attention are Israel and Taiwan, otherwise isolated and vulnerable governments that seek Washington’s military backing. Greece and Turkey have carried their battle in the eastern Mediterranean back to D.C., as they fight over America’s role there. Kosovar insurgents worked with ethnic Albanians in the U.S. to push Washington into the Yugoslav civil war in 1999. Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, spread cash lavishly around the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to pressure American policymakers into such atrocities as the Yemen war.
The consequences can be long-lasting. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the governments of the newly freed Eastern European states lobbied to join NATO. Their diasporas in the United States—derisively called “hyphenated Americans” during World War I—helped win Washington’s support. The result was a rapid expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, compounding humiliation with hostility, which continues to bedevil the West’s relations with Moscow today.
Sometimes foreigners talk as if they should be consulted and heeded whenever U.S. policymakers act. In many cases, Washington has created this problem. Alliances in which other states theoretically have authority over American military deployments encourage foreign meddling. For instance, the Obama administration intervened in Libya at least partially in response to pressure from Rome and Paris, which wanted to use the transatlantic alliance to oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi. Europeans were essentially returning the favor by which Washington had dragged them into the seemingly endless Afghan war, which never made sense for them.
NATO is particularly problematic, since it’s made ever less sense as foreign threats have diminished, Europeans’ capabilities increased, and gaps between allies’ interests expanded. Although America remains the big kahuna, recently empowered “friends” assert authority over U.S. decisions and behavior. Today, the transatlantic alliance is made up of one transcendent military power, America, and eight moderately important nations with serious, or at least potentially serious, militaries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
The remaining score of NATO members are, well, largely irrelevant. That doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to and suffer losses in Western military operations—as The Netherlands has, for example. But what they do doesn’t and never will make much of a difference. Yet they sit at the NATO table as nominal equals. Of these 20, three have populations of less than one million, while another 11 come in at under 10 million. Incoming member (Northern) Macedonia barely breaks the two million barrier.
Why the pretense that the opinions of micro-states Iceland, Luxembourg, and Montenegro matter to Washington? Why should governments with more than their shares of controversies—Albania, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and even Poland—theoretically have a say on the use of the alliance’s one military that really matters? Imagine if Georgia, which helped provoke war with Russia in 2008, and Ukraine, which ended up in conflict with Moscow after a street putsch backed by the West ousted their elected president, joined NATO. Tbilisi and Kiev would push to borrow the U.S. military to fight their wars. Who would blame them? But it certainly would not be in America’s interest to let them.
This presumptuousness reaches beyond European security. French President Emmanuel Macron apparently called President Donald Trump to complain about the latter’s decision to withdraw from Syria, which he said he “deeply” regretted. Added Macron, “An ally must be dependable,” which apparently means that America must forever maintain a deployment illegal under both U.S. and international law. Macron said that French troops would remain, proclaiming: “To be allies is to fight shoulder to shoulder.” But that fight should stop when the justification for fighting has ended.
Around the same time, an unnamed Israeli official was quoted as being “in shock” at the president’s decision. Obviously Trump hadn’t read his intelligence briefing, explained the Israeli: after all, there were Iranians in Syria! But so what? Perhaps President Trump decided that Washington doesn’t have to do everything for everyone in the Middle East. There is a very powerful, nuclear-armed nation next door to Syria that so far has done quite well protecting itself. Perhaps that country could take care of the Iran-in-Syria problem, in the unlikely event that it poses a serious threat.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked complained that the withdrawal would hurt the Kurds, whom she characterized as “allies” and “great heroes.” Moreover, the pull-out “strengthens [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, an antisemitic war criminal who carries out massacres of the Kurdish people, and does so with a wink from the international community.” Well, why doesn’t her country—the one with nuclear weapons and a strong conventional military force—rescue the Kurds? Israel is there and has far greater interests at stake than does America.
It is not just foreign leaders who complain about U.S. policy. There is hardly a war that some foreigner somewhere is not busy advocating that Washington join or start.
For instance, TheEconomist, a British magazine, recently headlined an article: “A deal to end the insurgency in Afghanistan would be wonderful: As long as it is not a figleaf to cover an American retreat.” Really? After 17 years of unsuccessfully trying to plant a liberal democracy in Afghanistan, the only logical U.S. policy is to exit—with figleaf if possible, but without if necessary.
After the president announced his intent to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, the Financial Times, a United Kingdom newspaper, declared that the decision made America appear “erratic and inconsistent.” Indeed, the United States needed a new defense secretary “to stand up to the president’s wilder impulses,” like making sure America stayed involved in the Syrian war as long as the FT thought necessary. The paper was horrified that the withdrawal “constitutes, too, an abandonment of key allies” and “signals, more broadly, a US retreat from the Middle East.” Perhaps the anonymous FT writers should form a volunteer unit to patrol the Mideast in America’s stead. After all, it was British and French line-drawing post-World War I that created the current national boundaries that are failing so badly.
Roger Boyes, diplomatic editor of The Times of London, headlined his article: “Only the US can rein in ambitions of Iran.” And not just “can.” Boyes explained, “As the Syrian war nears its end, Trump must find ways to loosen Tehran’s grip on the region.” Frankly, I don’t remember Americans asking him for his advice. Why the U.S.? Is there no one else available? Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey? That unnamed country that already possesses nukes? Toss in a little assistance from the Brits and French, too.
Truth be told, Iran is a weak regional power that uses irregular warfare because it lacks conventional strength. Missiles are its deterrence against better armed, threatening neighbors. It certainly doesn’t endanger America, with the globe’s greatest military. Israel, too, can launch a devastating retaliation against any attack. Saudi Arabia alone spends more than five times as much on its armed forces as Iran.
Perhaps Americans should be honored that so many overseas “friends” have so much free advice to offer. However, much of it is bad. Policy should be based on the interests of the U.S.—protecting its people, territory, prosperity, and system of constitutional liberties. That means advancing peace first and making war a last resort. Desiring to do good abroad cannot justify sacrificing American lives, wealth, and security in never ending war.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.