March 21, 2014

Non-interventionism vs. Cowboy diplomacy

Self interest.
Foreign relations can be a contentious issue on the right side of political thought. In a recent post on Left Coast Rebel, there was an interesting exchange of views on U.S. involvement in foreign affairs, brought on obviously because of the situation in Crimea. The two positions stem from two different world views; one of interventionism, the other often unfairly referred to as cowboy diplomacy.

In actuality three different conservative positions have been identified on foreign relations.
Rathbun (2008) compares three separate themes in conservative policies since the 1980s: conservatism, neoconservatism, and isolationism. These approaches are similar in that they all invoked the mantle of "realism" and pursued foreign policy goals designed to promote national interests. Conservatives, however, were the only group that was "realist" in the academic sense in that they defined the national interest narrowly, strove for balances of power internationally, viewed international relations as amoral, and especially valued sovereignty. By contrast, neoconservatives based their foreign policy on nationalism, and isolationists sought to minimize any involvement in foreign affairs and raise new barriers to immigration.[26] Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul favored a return to the non-interventionist policies of Thomas Jefferson and frequently opposed military intervention in countries like Iran and Iraq.
Each position has strengths and weaknesses, but which one is the right foreign policy strategy for the United States?

The United States has a long history of non-interventionism, going all the way back to George Washington's farewell address at least:
The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
In fact, American non-interventionism predates even that. Thomas Paine made a case for it Common Sense. Washington's statement has been used to propound not only non-interventionism but isolationism over the years. But "ordinary vicissitudes" does seem to imply the day to day misfortunes as opposed to bigger or catastrophic issues. It is also clear that he was speaking specifically to the circumstances of the time. European and American interests were not particularly aligned at the time. Interests do change over time. The United States has grown immensely, commercial relations have become more intricate and taken on strategic importance in many cases, and America's immediate and long term interests are quite different than what they were two centuries ago.

That is not to cast aside the wisdom rooted in these words. American interests should always have primacy in considering foreign relations. There is no sense in the United States extending itself beyond it's financial means into situations where there is no clear objective or no evident beneficial outcome for the United States.

Nevertheless America's interests can often extend beyond America's borders because what other countries do. The United States does not exist in a vacuum, so operating as though it does can be harmful to the national interest. Ignoring conflicts or trade wars happening elsewhere in the world is often myopic and invites unpleasant consequences to the United States when involvement on some level may have prevented those consequences.

Further, there are many countries in the world that do not have the capacity to protect themselves from aggressor nations. Helping out in those situations can be a moral action. American's reaction to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is one such example. More strikingly, during WWII if the United States had minded it's own business, the outcome of the war could have been very different and much worse.   Leading up to America's involvement in WWII, there was considerable opposition to involvement.
The isolationists were a diverse group, including progressives and conservatives, business owners and peace activists, but because they faced no consistent, organized opposition from internationalists, their ideology triumphed time and again. Roosevelt appeared to accept the strength of the isolationist elements in Congress until 1937. In that year, as the situation in Europe continued to grow worse and the Second Sino-Japanese War began in Asia, the President gave a speech in which he likened international aggression to a disease that other nations must work to “quarantine.” At that time, however, Americans were still not prepared to risk their lives and livelihoods for peace abroad. Even the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 did not suddenly diffuse popular desire to avoid international entanglements. Instead, public opinion shifted from favoring complete neutrality to supporting limited U.S. aid to the Allies short of actual intervention in the war. The surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 served to convince the majority of Americans that the United States should enter the war on the side of the Allies.
Putting it in schoolyard terms, if you are the strongest kid in the schoolyard and someone who sees yourself as a good guy, when a bully is beating up a weaker kid and you do nothing, what does that say about your character?  The liassez fair approach of isolationists to such situations is that it is not our concern, so let the participants resolve it among themselves. While that approach makes sense in economics (i.e. the economy of the private sector), such thinking can lead to injustice and even genocide when it comes to participants who have armies and expansionist intentions. Allowing genocide to occur is tough for most Americans to stomach.

But does all of that make a case for Cowboy Diplomacy (the neoconservative approach)? Not really. Wikipedia defines Cowboy Diplomacy like this:
Cowboy diplomacy is a term used by critics to describe the resolution of international conflicts through brash risk-taking, intimidation, military deployment, or a combination of such tactics. It is criticized as stemming from an overly-simple, dichotomous world view. Overtly provocative phraseology typically centralizes the message.
The term has been applied to Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The term Gunboat Diplomacy - a show of force for the purpose of intimidation - has also been applied to American presidents. Surprisingly enough it was applied to the socialist-leaning Woodrow Wilson:
Pres. Woodrow Wilson wanted to expand Progressivism into foreign relations, and he justified the continuation of gunboat diplomacy by the need to punish “immoral” nations in the region. The Republican presidents of the l920s returned to Dollar Diplomacy and a hunt for stability. In the 1930s Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, despite a few brief landings of naval personnel in Cuba to protect American property, advanced the “Good Neighbor Policy,” which seemingly ended this era of American intervention in the affairs of other nations. Roosevelt proclaimed that “in the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor— the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.” Thus an era appeared to come to an end.
The most glaring downside of Cowboy diplomacy is that there is no concrete criteria for what constitutes national interest and an impetus for intervention.  It invites criticism for intervening in some scenarios (Libya) and ignoring others (Syria) because the definition of national interest has not been set and the rational for intervention has most likely not been clearly illustrated.   The biggest downside however is cost.  There are far too many situations for the United States to become involved in and the cost of becoming involved would clearly be prohibitive.  This is especially true with a broader definition of national interest.  Worldwide democracy and capitalism is a desirable outcome.  It's an impossible goal for the United States to pursue because of the cost involved. But picking and choosing which issues to engage reverts the criticism to selective interventionism.  

I would likely side with Proof in the debate on what to do about Crimea.  I can certainly see the case for not getting involved every time, in every issue. And certainly the Congress needs to reassert it's ownership of declarations of war. But Proof is not suggesting true cowboy diplomacy.  Sanctions and embargoes are economic tools, used internationally all the time by many nations.  This is not a binary situation.  It is not war or completely ignoring the crisis.  

No one wants war, but hostilities may break out regardless of who wants it.  Russian interests currently include repatriation of former Soviet bloc nations.  That is in conflict with the global democratization goal of neo-conservatives.  More importantly however, is that Soviet style Russian expansionism and aggressiveness is in conflict with American interests.  Strengthening a belligerent nation conflicts with every other nation's interests.  More directly, a Russian supply stranglehold on European energy needs weakens America as a trade partner with Europe who become beholden to Russia.  It allows Russia to hold Europe hostage to Russian energy supplies. The situation in the Ukraine is being driven by Russian financial considerations.  European leaders are starting to realize this and condemning Russia's actions.  It's time for the United States to come to this realization and while not intervening militarily, giving the seriousness of the situation the weight of a response befitting the national interest.


  1. If world diplomacy were five card draw, Obama is at the table showing his whole hand to Mr. Putin every time. Part of the strategy of winning at poker involves not letting your opponent know how good (or how bad) your hand is. Sometimes, then, you can get your opponent to fold even when you are bluffing.


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