My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings. You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB. Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.
What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations. Think of the USA. We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on. Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others. How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?
Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military. We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700. We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.” To what end? Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements. The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.
This is not an argument for isolationism. The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist. With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
No – not isolationism. Rather a policy of MYOB. Don’t intervene when it’s not our business. And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military. Why? Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.
The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense. It’s not an international charity. Even military aid is somewhat questionable. And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.
As a good friend of mine put it:
I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age. The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient. We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind. The rest can pound sand (no pun intended). Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.
My friend then added the following caveat:
The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can. That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines. Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.
That’s an excellent question. Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers. Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa. Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia. And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.
Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military. The USA itself will never return to isolationism. What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.
We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs. Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.