Home/Daniel Larison/Restraint, Trust, and U.S. Foreign Policy

Restraint, Trust, and U.S. Foreign Policy

Stephen Walt didn’t think much of David Brooks’ lament for the “liberal world order,” either. He concludes:

Surprise, surprise: Americans are also less willing to follow the advice of the people who have championed these failures, never apologized for them, and seem to have learned nothing from their mistakes. I can understand why Brooks finds this situation upsetting, but at this point he shouldn’t be surprised.

In any case, what “stinks” about this situation is not the American people’s sensible response to a quarter century of foreign-policy missteps. The more pungent aroma emanates from those elites who refuse to acknowledge their own errors or take responsibility for them. Now that stinks.

Walt’s comments remind me of something else that bothered me about the Brooks column that I didn’t get to in my original response. Like a lot of other hawkish pundits and analysts, Brooks waxes nostalgic about the virtues of the post-WWII international order in order to associate his foreign policy worldview with an earlier generation of policymakers that created that order. He wants to forget about the myriad failures of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, and he wants us to think that his kind of hawkish meddling is the only kind of internationalism available. Talking abstractly about the “liberal world order” spares Brooks from addressing any of the pressing foreign policy issues of the day, and by avoiding specifics he doesn’t have to tell us what he thinks the U.S. ought to be doing to “preserve” the so-called “liberal world order” that it isn’t doing. Does it mean anything other than maintaining U.S. hegemony, and if that’s all it is why don’t we just call it that?

While he is busy blaming Americans for losing faith in humanity or some such, Brooks says this:

Even today, people who express high social trust are much more likely to see America as an indispensable nation, much more likely to believe American values are universal values and much more likely to support the policies that preserve the liberal world order [bold mine-DL].

This last point is crucial for Brooks’ argument, so you might think he would give some examples of what these policies might be. After all, the “liberal world order” is at stake! He does not do that. We can guess what he means, but it is curious that he doesn’t want to tell us what he thinks “liberal world order” preservation entails. When people who express “high social trust” affirm that America is an indispensable nation, is that really a function of their capacity for trust in other people or a result of their education and upbringing where they learned that this is the expected thing to believe? Perhaps people that express “high social trust” are more susceptible to hubris and naivete about the rest of the world than those that don’t. Brooks assumes that the “high social trust” crowd gets the answers on foreign policy right (because these are the same as his answers), but it could be that they have blind spots that make them unusually bad judges when it comes to foreign policy.

Brooks leans heavily on the importance of social trust in this column:

But social trust has collapsed over the decades, especially among the young. Distrustful, alienated people don’t want to get involved in the strange, hostile, outside world.

It’s possible that they don’t want to “get involved” simply because they are alienated and distrustful, or it could be that they don’t trust the government to do the right things based on a long track record of making crises and conflicts worse. It might be that younger Americans aren’t opposed to American involvement in the “hostile, outside world,” but they are against militaristic and coercive forms of “involvement” that leave whole countries in ruins and cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. If younger Americans are told again and again that the only kind of “involvement” in the world is the destructive kind they have witnessed their entire lives, they are liable to reject it because they can see how horrible it is. If they were offered an alternative focused primarily on diplomacy and development, they might be strongly in favor of international engagement.

There was another passage that touched on something potentially interesting, but Brooks doesn’t bother going beyond the topline survey results:

These are young people who express high interest in human rights, but having grown up in the Iraq era, they don’t want the U.S. to get involved in protecting them [bold mine-DL]. A survey of American voters by the Eurasia Group Foundation reported, “People under 30 years old were the most likely to want the United States to abstain from intervening in human rights abuses.”

Why might young Americans be reluctant to support intervention abroad in response to human rights abuses? Perhaps it is because they have seen how the U.S. government cynically and selectively uses the rhetoric of human rights while indulging abusive regimes and engaging in its own crimes. Perhaps it is because they have concluded that military intervention is not a reliable way to protect and uphold human rights in other countries. Perhaps these young people have learned that the U.S. government can do more harm than good when it intervenes in these cases, and maybe they have picked up that a lot of interventionists invoke human rights only to get the war they want and then couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the affected country. Maybe they have figured out that “humanitarian” intervention is a contradiction in terms. In other words, their lack of trust is not in their fellow man, but rather in a government that has repeatedly shown itself prone to committing serious errors and crimes against people overseas. Their interest in human rights and their opposition to intervention do not have to be contradictory at all. Indeed, I assume the latter flows out of the former.

I wrote about the Eurasia Group Foundation survey Brooks mentions a few months ago, and it is worth looking at the survey results a little more closely one more time. The survey summary confirms what I remembered:

People under 30 years old were the most likely to choose answer options which would, in effect, abstain from the using force [bold mine-DL] to stop humanitarian abuses. When confronting human rights abuses, across party affiliation, restraint was the first choice, U.N. leadership was the second choice, and US-led intervention was the last choice.

The survey summary also says this:

People under 30 years old were the most likely to want the United States to abstain from intervening in human rights abuses, and these young people were most likely to believe “the U.S. should fix its own [human rights] problems [‘such as mass incarceration and aggressive policing’] before focusing on other countries.”

The same people that Brooks is presenting here as distrustful and alienated are, in fact, concerned primarily with combating injustices here in the United States. It isn’t that these Americans don’t care or aren’t interested in combating human rights abuses elsewhere, but they think that they should improve things here at home first. That suggests that they are not quite the disaffected “low-trust” people that he tries to make them out to be.

Brooks doesn’t include this in the column, but the Eurasia Group Foundation survey found that there was broad support for restraint in response to human rights abuses abroad: 43% of the public chose restraint, and another 34% supported a U.N.-led response. Only 21% of the public favors a unilateral U.S. response. Young Americans were more likely than any other cohort to choose restraint, but they have a lot of company from other age groups:

Abstinence from military intervention was the most popular approach for every age group, except for people older than 60 years old, when we combined responses for non-intervention. This older group did not support unilateral U.S. intervention into human rights abuses

In other words, younger Americans were the cohort most likely to oppose killing people in the name of combating human rights abuses. That doesn’t tell us that they don’t want the U.S. to be involved in the world, and it doesn’t tell us that they don’t want the government to be addressing these issues. It tells us that they are reluctant to endorse unleashing death and destruction on another country for the crimes of its government. Whatever the reason for that view, I think it is something that should be commended and encouraged. The fact that Brooks thinks this is something that should be attacked and criticized speaks volumes about the sort of “values” his foreign policy stands for.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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