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The Wall Street Journal last weekend featured a lengthy essay by Robert Kagan titled “The Cost of American Retreat” in which he argues that U.S. withdrawal from the world invites chaos. Kagan’s essay is proof that the lovers and protectors of American Empire are not about to go away quietly.
Perhaps the question Kagan should have explored is at what cost can we continue this quest for empire?
Kagan doesn’t directly come out and say the election of Donald Trump is a return to autocracy. He is more measured and restrained in this than others—Bret Stephens and Jonah Goldberg, just to name two. But by calling out this “retreat,” Kagan still manages to condemn well over a century of American foreign policy history—a tradition and an outlook, in fact, that extends to the American Founding.
Kagan focuses, as many others do, on the period between World Wars I and II as the seeming dark age of American foreign policy. The tendency is to see the period between the wars as some kind of anachronism; as a brief lapse of sanity during which the United States slipped into an isolationist protectionist bubble that foretold the coming slaughter of millions in World War II because of our selfishness in thinking we could hold ourselves separate from the rest of the world.
But it wasn’t an anachronism at all. Conservatives fondly remember the 1920s and the presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, primarily because of the booming economy and the policies of low taxes and limited government. But the “return to normalcy” was also a return to the pre-World War I foreign policy ideas of our Founders, which placed great emphasis on avoiding foreign wars and entangling alliances.
Shortchanging the Founders
Indeed, with very few exceptions—notably William McKinley’s adventure in the Philippines—the foreign policy of the United States from the Founding era until Woodrow Wilson was one born out of the warnings and advice of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founders to avoid “foreign entanglements” and instead, if you will forgive the phrase, take care of America first. We were a continental empire, to be sure, but we would not go abroad to slay monsters, as John Quincy Adams warned against, or to shed blood in order to build beachheads of democracy, or expend blood and treasure to save the world’s oppressed peoples.
Some will say the Founders only warned against foreign adventurism and entangling alliances because we were a new nation that needed to grow. Once established, we would be free to globetrot. But that claim severely shortchanges our Founders and their thinking. Let’s give them some credit. The Founders were classically trained and educated and they studied the Greek and Roman empires. That these and other great empires slid from republican forms of government to empire weighed heavily on their minds. We would not ape the ways of the British Empire, or model the path of the Roman Republic’s unwieldy expansion, or follow the example of Athens, the birthplace of democracy, whose Empire collapsed after the endless Peloponnesian Wars.
Throughout the 19th century, the United States avoided involvement in European wars, including the Crimean War, the Napoleonic Wars (except when they hit our shores), the Franco-Prussian War, the many wars in the Balkans, and others. And beyond Europe, wars raged worldwide throughout the 19th century. Up to 70 million Chinese perished in the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s. The world, as it has been since time immemorial to our present day, was one of eternal conflicts.
This historical isolationism is important because Kagan claims that our “retreat” will enable a repeat of the bloodletting that occurred in the first half of the 20th century. Around 60 million people perished in World War II, an unfathomable amount. Could the United States have prevented all these deaths? If America had intervened sooner, could these wars have been shortened or prevented altogether? Maybe so. And perhaps we could have prevented the killings of the 19th century as well.
One can imagine an alternate history in which our Founders dreamed of a great American Empire that would rule the world. But they didn’t. Instead, they made a republic.
Hazards of Selective Intervention
Even taking Kagan’s point that American intervention can save lives across the globe, our increased involvement in foreign conflicts provides no such guarantee or insurance against atrocities.
In the second half of the 20th century, with the United States fully engaged as the world policeman and main hegemon, we were still unable to prevent the killing of some 80 million Chinese in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolutions. Let’s forget China for the moment, the numbers are almost too mindboggling for us to grasp. At least 15 million Africans died in wars during the latter half of the 20th century. The number mushrooms even larger if you factor in the famines (often man-made) and sundry genocides. Why didn’t we try and stop these massive catastrophes?
Hundreds of thousands are suffering in camps at this very moment in China, thousands of Christians are being butchered, burned alive, and captured into slavery in Africa on almost a daily basis. And yet we do nothing about these things. Selective moral intervention based on whims or the dictates of policy chieftains is not a sound way to conduct our foreign policy. Bomb Syria today, overthrow the Libyan government tomorrow, enable the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs to create a Jihadist beachhead in Kosovo. This is the enlightened liberal foreign policy of today’s America?
Peace Through Strength Redux
The realization that American interventionism is no panacea is by no means an excuse to ignore the mistakes of the past. The crime of the 1930s was not our disengagement; it was that we gutted our military to ridiculously low levels. We couldn’t even muster a show of force to deter aggressive actions by Germany, Italy, and Japan. We can’t make that mistake again.
President Trump, in spite of the all the hand-wringing from the globalists and dragon slayers, has made it clear that he will keep America’s military not just strong, but preeminent in the world. That is deterrence.
What’s more, when we do go to war, as we did on December 8, 1941, we must go with the total commitment to secure victory, at all costs. Every war we have fought since 1945 has been conducted with our hands almost tied behind our backs. Maybe that could be the topic for a future essay by the warring class. In spite of this seeming “retreat,” one gets the feeling that if Trump does have to take America to war, we would go with a completely different game plan than the sort we have utilized in recent history.
In supporting America’s worldwide engagement, Kagan touts the emergence of free nations and free economies throughout the world. No doubt our policies have enabled the massive economic growth of Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and so many other countries over the past half-century. (Not to mention the explosive growth of China.) Well and good. But then Kagan writes, “In the White House and on the American and European right, it is seen as an international elite conspiracy working against the interest of ordinary people.”
Could he be more dismissive? Is he speaking of the “deplorables”?
Yes, we enabled, encouraged, protected, and even paid for the growth of many of these economies, but at what cost to the American worker? Our trade deals with Europe and East Asia were great for those abroad but they have devastated the middle class and gutted America’s manufacturing base. That is not a conspiracy but rather an economic fact. So, what cost is there to “America’s Retreat”? Maybe the actual revival of our own forgotten middle class?
Recommit to America First
Interestingly, Kagan fails to address the question of who gets to make these decisions about war and death. America has not declared war since December 1941. This is astounding. Maybe the think tank intellectual warriors shrug their shoulders at such banality, but we conspiracy-minded knuckle draggers in Middle America find this a bit troublesome. We have been at war almost continuously since the surrender of Japan in August 1945 and yet, not once, has Congress been asked to declare war as is prescribed in our Constitution. Who voted to make America an empire?
We do know one thing, America did vote for a man who ran on a platform of America First and offered a radical departure from the crusading adventurous foreign policy of previous decades. Maybe Americans have had enough and no longer want to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. The big question at this stage is whether President Trump still believes in prioritizing American interests before foreign ones, or if he has fallen into the grasp of the globalist democracy crusaders. Let’s hope he stays true to his promise of putting America First and embracing the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.
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