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.
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.
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.