I'm off in Norway today, the guest of some
folks interested in U.S. foreign policy. They want me to explain what Americans
think of international events and how policymakers formulate foreign policy.
It's a daunting, or perhaps more accurately, an embarrassing, task.
Americans know very little about the world. Their ignorance is almost charming.
In one sense, it's good that most people are more interested in spending time
with family and friends and in earning a living than in plotting a coup in some
faraway land, waging a war against some emerging power, or issuing foreign ultimatums
over random economic and political demands.
Unfortunately, however, as a result Americans have essentially delegated
the power to do all of those things to a Washington-centered elite. When things
go wrong, Americans get angry. Then the politicos start blaming each other.
Specific policies sometimes change, but Washington's interventionist enthusiasm
always quickly returns.
It's not a pretty spectacle. Most Americans are not ideologically committed
to turning the U.S. into an imperial power. Few of them would like to spend
months or years patrolling failed foreign states, such as Iraq. Most of them
turn against needless conflicts when it becomes evident that they aren't going
to be short and sweet.
Indeed, when wars go bad – conflicts like Iraq and Somalia – the public
eventually says "enough!" President Bill Clinton perceived that the
debacle in Mogadishu destroyed domestic political support for the mission, so
he brought the troops home.
Anger over the Bush administration's Iraq war, dishonestly initiated and
incompetently waged, led voters to transfer control of Congress to the Democrats.
The failure of Congress to override continuing presidential support for the
conflict may lead voters to give the White House to the Democrats as well. Indeed,
though the crazy Republican candidates (Rudy Giuliani and John McCain) might
be prepared to occupy Iraq forever, the other GOP wannabees likely would bring
home the troops for political reasons, if nothing else.
Yet in a perverse sense the biggest foreign policy problem is when the
costs seem low. Then the public simply ignores the issue, giving policymakers
wide discretion to continue advancing interventionist policies running contrary
to America's national interests.
How else to explain continuing American membership in NATO, especially
a NATO that keeps expanding? In the 1950s and 1960s Europe needed defending
from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. From whom is America defending
Europe today, a continent with a population and GDP larger than America's?
Moreover, what sense does it make to continue expanding NATO up to the
borders of Russia, absorbing countries with multiple disputes with Russia, a
nuclear-armed power? The Baltic states and Poland, in particular, offer Washington
security costs, not benefits. It would be even more foolish to include in an
alliance that technically remains the "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization the
countries of Georgia and Ukraine.
However, the American people remain blissfully unaware of and disinterested
in their nation's foreign policy. If America ends up at war with Russia over
a recent addition to NATO, voters might then take notice. Otherwise they just
Similarly misguided is America's continuing defense of South Korea. The
South has upwards of 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea.
Seoul is friends with all of its neighbors, even the North's former allies,
Beijing and Moscow. Most South Koreans no longer fear Pyongyang; in fact, they
have been lavishing subsidies and aid on North Korea for years.
America's policy-making elite naturally offers a multitude of arguments
to maintain the same military commitment more than a half century after the
end of the Korean War. But what normal person would support spending billions
of dollars to raise and maintain overseas thousands of troops to guard South
Then there's Japan. The second ranking economic power on earth, Japan could
do far more to protect itself and its region. Its neighbors prefer that Washington
do the job, but so what? That doesn't make the policy in America's interest.
Again, American elites rather like the idea of the U.S. attempting to run the
world. But the vast majority of Americans, who have to pay the bill, probably
would be much less enthused if they thought about it.
Beyond such major commitments, Washington has dribbled bases and forces
around the world. It's a policy of which Americans are largely ignorant. To
the extent that they believed that such facilities advanced American security,
they might support them. But alliances and bases can act as transmission belts
of war at a time when we should be building firebreaks to war.
Although serious armed conflict is unlikely in either Asia or Europe, Washington's
explicit promise to defend the Baltic States and Eastern Europe necessarily
makes all of those nations' squabbles with Russia America's squabbles as well.
Washington's implicit guarantee to Taiwan does the same thing with China next
door. Bringing nations like Georgia and Ukraine into NATO would add more problems
to America's portfolio.
Advocates of scattering security guarantees around the globe argue that
they deter aggression, which undoubtedly is true to some degree. But U.S. security
guarantees also ensure American involvement in conflicts that would be little
relevant to U.S. security. With the Cold War over, South Korea doesn't much
matter to America. It's an important trading partner, but nevertheless remains
a minor factor in American prosperity. Poland wasn't important to America's
defense even during the Cold War. Promising to go to war in such circumstances
is no bargain, even if the chances of conflict seem small.
Especially since guaranteeing the security of other nations changes their
incentive for irresponsible behavior. That is, so long as small countries act
in the belief that Washington will rush to their defense in a conflict with
a bigger power – China and Russia most obviously today – they are likely to act
more aggressively. We can see that phenomenon at work in Taiwan, which has adopted
a confrontational stance with Beijing over Washington's objections. With America
behind them, why not assert their interest?
The challenge for non-interventionists is to break through the public's
ignorance to build popular support for overturning elite opinion. It won't be
easy, obviously. But it never has been. However, without the emergence of a
real opposition to today's aggressive foreign policy, we are doomed to continue
following current policy around most of the world.
Ron Paul has made progress. But we have far to go to turn make foreign
policy into an issue that moves voters and, in doing so, stirs so-called major
candidates to challenge the interventionist status quo. Only then will we be
able transform the American empire back into the American republic.