Sociologist Robert Nisbet, in his marvelous little 1988 book, The Present Age (Harper & Row) remarked that if the founders of this republic were to be transported into the 20th century, "the Framers would almost certainly swoon when they learned that America has been participant in the Seventy-Five Years War that has gone on, rarely punctuated, since 1914." We spend more than $300 billion a year directly on military purposes, and current proposals to make modest increases or modest reductions simply nibble around the edges of that commitment. And that expenditure has much more intense, though perhaps ultimately incalculable, effects not only on our economy but on our culture.
Not only is our economy discernibly militarized by such spending, becoming more hierarchical, more attuned to orders from the top than to innovation from below, but our universities (our entire educational system, in fact) and our popular culture have become more attuned to war and military endeavor. As President Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address, "the prospect of domination of the nationís scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is everywhere present and is gravely to be regarded." Eisenhower cautioned also: "Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity." That was 40 years ago. If anything, the potential for domination of a troubling portion of our national life has increased; the interests that feed on this emphasis and expenditure have become more firmly entrenched.
Scholars will no doubt debate for decades just what policies, accidents, philosophical errors and plain old miscalculations led to the decline of the Soviet threat. But we donít need to know the results of such disputations in all their details to decide that the American taxpayers deserve some credit and some share in the benefits that should follow such an historic change. For decades we have paid heavily, both in taxes and in the prospect even when conscription was not explicit U.S. policy that we or our sons and daughters would be called on to make the supreme sacrifice in the war against totalitarianism.
It may not be in the cards for war to cease altogether; indeed, thatís quite unlikely. But shouldnít we be looking for ways to decrease its likelihood, and shouldnít we be seeking ways to relieve ordinary Americans of some of the burdens placed on them in recent decades, whether by history, their political leaders, or fate?
Advances in communications and technology have made it unlikely that we can retreat from engagement from the rest of the world on an economic level and there is little reason to want to do so. As communism has declined, as explicit socialism beat at least a rhetorical retreat (though socialism by other names still thrives), the potential is developing for an enormous unleashing of human creative potential. Nobody can predict whether the next great scientific or technological breakthrough or cute little labor-saving gadget or inspiring song will come from somebody living in the United States, France, Bulgaria, or Malawi. It would be silly for Americans to be deprived of the results of any new breakthroughs made by people overseas.
While we should remain open to the rest of the world on an economic and cultural level, however, it would be wise to reduce in many areas of the world to eliminate entirely US political and military involvement in other countries. This should include reduction or elimination of treaty commitments like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (author Melvyn Krauss made a powerful case for withdrawing from NATO before the collapse of communism and the case is even more compelling now, especially in the wake of the transformation of NATO into something other than a defensive alliance), and drastic reductions in our participation in multilateral international organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations.
In short, our goal over the next several years or decades, should be to reduce tariffs and other barriers to international trade to as close to zero as is feasible, to reduce or eliminate restrictions on travel and immigration, to slash restrictions on the movement of capital, and in general to promote an environment in which barriers to personal, cultural, and economic intercourse with the rest of the world are reduced drastically. At the same time, we should reduce military spending, and resolve that a time will come and sooner rather than later when it will take an overwhelmingly powerful case to get us to use military force except to defend our own borders.
The goal, in short, should be a situation where the United States has resolved to become as free, prosperous, and civilized as possible, and to lead the rest of the world by example rather than by military or political intervention, or through government-to-government aid.
Some may call such a policy by that old bogeyman, "isolationism." I call it renunciation of foolish policies that have done little if anything to help the American people or the rest of the world.
The apostles of interventionism and internationalism, while deriding their opponents as retrograde, unrealistic, and parochial, have in fact promoted a shallow, one-dimensional view of international relations. They have seen political relations and political influences, carried out by the agents of nation-states backed up by the coercive power of military action, as the essence of internationalism.
But international relations are much richer and more complex than that. They are carried on also by tourists, importers and exporters, by exchange students, by people keeping in touch with relatives in the "old country" or writing to new friends made while traveling on business or pleasure, by dreaded multinational companies, and by mom-and-pop stores stocking goods made overseas. Paying more attention to this richly textured, many-layered web of personal, business, and cultural relationships and de-emphasizing the merely political, the strictly power-oriented, may be an important key to a world with some realistic hope of living in relative peace.
It is possible that we are moving into a world order in which the importance of military and political power will decline, while the importance of economic and cultural influence will increase. The United States should welcome such a world, because it plays to our strengths; because of our diversity and our open economy, we are best situated to be an economic leader, and in terms of popular culture we are already the dominant influence in the world. Our politicians and diplomats may be bumbling amateurs, but if we de-emphasize what they do, they will be able to do us little harm. Perhaps they will even mature.
It should be noted also that the increased engagement with the rest of the world that came in the wake of President Wilsonís decision to abandon his campaign pledge and insert the United States into the Great War (which we now call World War I), was not simply a recognition that there were other countries in the world, so we could no longer afford to be parochial. That decision to intervene was, rather, part of a utopian crusade in Wilsonian terms, to "make the world safe for democracy."
The formulations have changed over the years George Bush adopted the phrase, which one would have supposed would have been discredited among the discerning by now, a "new world order." President Clinton and Madeleine Albright speak of the need to halt "ethnic cleansing" or to prevent terrorism or to install democracy. But American foreign policy since Wilson has been characterized by a crusading spirit and usually a helplessly naive and downright ignorant one. We were determined not simply to be engaged with the world, but to change it, to make it more perfect, more democratic or, depending on how you interpret the motivations of US policymakers, more congenial to the interests of international bankers and policy-making elites.
To abandon such a utopian dream is not isolationism. It should be a simple acknowledgment that such a jejune approach to relations with the rest of the world is unworthy of a mature power or a free people.
There may be rare instances where US policy-makers know whatís best for some other country better than do the people who live there, and where this wise, benign US policy can be implemented though adept, surgical use of US power. But it is hardly an admission of weakness to acknowledge that such instances have been and are likely to be rare and increasingly so as relations among increasingly economically advanced countries become more complex.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
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