Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska has written a foreign policy essay in which he says we need a “foreign-policy imagination that is broader, more adaptive, and more creative,” and then proceeds to regurgitate many of the same stale hawkish talking points we have heard for decades. For instance, he recites this litany of unfounded assertions as if he were chanting a cultish mantra:
I am an unstinting advocate for American engagement in the world, and I think the impulse to withdraw from America’s important, longstanding commitments is a very bad thing. U.S. global leadership is indispensable, not only for the security of America’s friends and partners, but for protecting America’s own interests. When hell breaks loose on the other side of the world, it inevitably boomerangs home. When the United States doesn’t lead, chaos inevitably follows. If America continues to drift toward global disengagement, it will be sucked into all sorts of troubles that it can’t envision right now.
The lesson of the two World Wars and of the Cold War is that the United States cannot avoid the world. America ultimately must lead a system of alliances. When it does otherwise, the consequences for the United States and its partners are much worse than policymakers are liable to anticipate in the short term, when disengagement can seem appealing.
Almost everything that Sasse says here is untrue or significantly misleading. Other than his declaration of his own “unstinting” support for “engagement,” everything he claims here is at least debatable and in many cases simply false. It is not at all clear that America is actually drifting toward “global disengagement,” but even if it were there is no reason to think that this would lead the U.S. to be “sucked into all sorts of troubles” abroad. It doesn’t make sense to say that the U.S. will be “sucked into” foreign troubles when it “disengages” (i.e., stops meddling), since the best way to get “sucked into” such things is to be constantly entangled in the affairs and conflicts of other states. Sasse is trying to be clever by making it seem as if “disengagement” will only cause the U.S. to become more involved in foreign conflicts later on, but he can’t back that up. It is an interventionist article of faith and nothing more.
It is not true that when “hell breaks loose” on the far side of the world that it “inevitably boomerangs home.” There is nothing inevitable about this, and foreign conflicts elsewhere frequently don’t threaten us. The U.S. is extraordinarily secure, and we compromise that security by taking sides in numerous conflicts in which we have little or nothing at stake. Besides, when something boomerangs it returns to where it came from. There is much more evidence that our incessant meddling abroad boomerangs on us and exposes us to dangers that we would otherwise avoid. Likewise, chaos does not “inevitably follow” when the U.S. chooses not to “lead.” The experience of the last 20 years shows that the U.S. is much more often responsible for creating chaos and instability when it “leads” through military action and support for regime change. The more active and forceful U.S. “leadership” has been, the more destructive our foreign policy becomes. One of the core conceits of Sasse’s case for interventionism is that our “leadership” is good for the U.S. and the world, but there is considerable evidence from just the last two decades that it imposes enormous costs on us and causes terrible harm to many other countries. Our “global leadership” has increasingly become an unacceptable burden to America and an unjustifiable menace to other nations. Re-imagining U.S. foreign policy involves questioning and rejecting many of the bankrupt ideas that have misinformed policymakers for the last 20-30 years, and the first one that needs to go is the idea that our “leadership” is “indispensable.”
Sasse claims that he is looking “sympathetically” at the reasons why so many Americans aren’t buying into interventionist arguments, but I don’t think he really understands those reasons. In the end, he faults the failure of policymakers to articulate “a coherent, long-term foreign-policy vision” as the main reason why many Americans are dissatisfied with U.S. foreign policy, but he misses the point. The problem isn’t that policymakers have failed to persuade the public with a coherent vision, but that the vision they offer again and again seems increasingly irrelevant to U.S. security and detrimental to U.S. vital interests. Sasse wants to blame the messenger and thinks that there is a better way to get the message across, but it is the message itself that a great many Americans no longer accept.
He can’t understand this in part because he is hung up on the idea that Americans are turning towards “isolationism,” but that isn’t what is happening. Americans don’t want to “retreat” from the world, but more and more people in this country are tired of an overly militarized foreign policy that commits us to forever wars fought for no discernible benefit to anyone except to enrich weapons manufacturers. Americans have no wish to be “isolated” from the rest of the world, but a growing number of us don’t believe we have the right or the requisite knowledge to dictate how other countries should govern themselves, and we don’t think it is up to our government to decide when another country’s political leaders should “go.” Americans have always wanted the U.S. to be engaged in commerce and diplomacy with as many nations as possible, but for more than a century after Washington’s Farewell Address they eschewed being drawn into quarrels between and within other countries.
If Sasse’s form of “engagement” requires the U.S. to continue fighting unnecessary wars for dubious reasons, the public will reject that kind of “engagement” with the world, but that doesn’t mean that they are giving up on the rest. Interventionists desperately want us to treat all of it as a single package that has to be accepted or rejected as one, but we don’t have to do that. We can and we should firmly reject the militarism of the last several decades, and in its place we should pursue a foreign policy of genuine engagement with other nations that respects their sovereignty and doesn’t seek to dictate their political futures.
Sasse says at one point that “American foreign policy is suffering from a failure of imagination.” That is certainly true of many defenses of the status quo, and Sasse’s essay is a perfect example of that.