Throughout the first 150 years of America’s independence, political leaders and the public alike sought to keep the country out of armed conflicts that did not have direct relevance to the nation’s security. Two episodes in particular, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, were major conflicts that in the minds of some historians directly threatened the security of the American homeland. America’s casus belli for the War of 1812 was the British Royal Navy’s seizure of American merchant ships and the impressment of U.S. sailors, punishment for its continued trade with Napoleonic France, then Britain’s adversary. The Mexican-American War commenced more than 30 years later, after Mexico attacked American troops following the American government’s annexation of Texas, then an independent state. Despite these major conflicts, there was still an aversion in the United States to having the country involved in what were viewed as the cynical, amoral power politics of the international system. Fissures began to develop in that noninterventionist consensus in the 1890s, when the United States acquired a small but far-flung colonial empire following its victory in the Spanish American War. An even greater departure from tradition occurred in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson took it upon himself to lead the country into a full-scale European war. However, it was not until World War II destroyed any semblance of a global balance of power that the United States explicitly rejected its traditional policy of staying aloof from foreign quarrels.
During the subsequent cold war era, the federal government established a network of formal and informal alliances around the world. For the first time in its history, the United States undertook to defend a disparate assortment of allies, clients, and protectorates. The architects of this new policy argued that America’s inability to stay out of World War II (a failure punctuated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) had effectively discredited America’s traditional policy of isolationism. In addition, they contended that the severity of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, and the absence of any other great powers capable of balancing Soviet capabilities, gave the United States no choice but to play a globally activist role to contain the USSR.
However, despite the collapse of the Soviet empire, the policy of global interventionism has remained dominant. Indeed, in the post–cold war decade, the United States has undertaken additional security commitments. The United States has led the drive to expand the membership of NATO and supported that alliance’s venture into “out-of-area” military missions, among them those in Bosnia and Kosovo. Many U.S. political leaders also have embraced the doctrine of humanitarian military intervention—a concept that could well involve the United States in a broad array of conflicts.
Proponents of the current policy insist that any retrenchment of Washington’s global leadership role would create dangerous instabilities in Europe, East Asia, and other regions of the world. These increases in instability, they argue, would damage important U.S. economic and security interests and could even lead to a disastrous replay of the bitter nationalist rivalries that produced the two world wars. Advocates of a more restrained role of strategic independence for the United States counter that such a worst-case scenario is highly improbable. They also argue that a global interventionist policy entails its own costs and risks, which can be quite severe. The United States was mired in two peacekeeping missions in the Balkans in the 1990s. Washington currently risks major tensions with China, an emerging great power, over America’s commitment to defend the tiny client state of Taiwan.
Washington responded to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with even more dubious foreign policy activism. In the wake of al-Qaeda’s attack, the administration of President George W. Bush inaugurated a Global War on Terror, a campaign meant to root out Islamic extremism, bring terrorists to justice, and prevent terrorists from securing resources that would aid them in funding another attack on the American homeland.
The first battleground of this new campaign was in Afghanistan, a conflict fought with America’s NATO allies against the Taliban regime for its harboring of al-Qaeda. The second battleground was Iraq, a war that has since been widely accepted as a misguided war of choice. The war in Iraq was meant to rid Ba’athist leader Saddam Hussein of his alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and convert Iraq into a democratic model for the entire Middle East, producing new regimes friendlier to the United States. The WMD allegations were unfounded, and Washington’s regional plan to remake the Middle East proved hopelessly naive. Unfortunately, the war in Iraq precipitated a power vacuum in the region and the internal displacement of more than 2.5 million Iraqis. It also exacerbated the problem of Islamic extremism and shifted the region’s balance of power in Iran’s favor. The war has divided the American public, and, as of this writing, it has led to the deaths of more than 3,800 American troops and cost over $590 billion in American treasure.
America’s global interventionist policy has had a pervasive and overwhelmingly negative impact on the Republic’s domestic affairs, transforming the nation economically, socially, and politically. Waging the cold war led to the creation of a large and expensive military establishment; despite the end of that struggle, military spending remains at a lofty level—currently more than $650 billion dollars a year—including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. military outlays dwarf those of other industrialized countries, noninterventionists note. For example, Japan spends just $41 billion and Germany a mere $28 billion. Each American must pay more than $1,000 a year to support the military; the burden for each German is about $260, and for each Japanese it is about $310. Indeed, the United States now spends as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. That huge disparity is one tangible measure of the financial costs of sustaining a foreign policy based on maintaining U.S. global leadership.
The Global War on Terror also has had a deep and profound impact on domestic policies, including a substantial curtailment of civil liberties, a more intrusive federal government, and massive increases in deficit spending. The Global War on Terror vividly demonstrates that being a supporter of free markets and limited government precludes the advocacy of American interventionism abroad.
In addition, the government frequently manipulates the American economy in the name of national security. In marked contrast to the pre–World War II era, the national security apparatus wields considerable economic power. The emergence of multibillion-dollar defense firms whose principal (and, in some cases, sole) customer is the Pentagon is testimony to that fact. There also are restraints on commerce that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. Embargoes have been imposed on trade with several countries deemed to be adversaries of the United States. In addition to such formal sanctions, there exists a variety of restrictions on the export of technologies that the government has determined could have military applications or national security implications.
Not only has an interventionist foreign policy facilitated the expansion of federal governmental power at the expense of the private sector, opponents charge, it has produced ominous changes within the federal government. The conduct of foreign affairs during the cold war greatly enhanced the power of the executive branch. Fulfilling global obligations places a premium on the reliability of Washington’s commitments as well as the speed (and often the secrecy) of execution. The procedural demands of an interventionist foreign policy conflict with the division of responsibilities and powers set forth in the Constitution. Extensive congressional participation in the foreign policy process, for example, raises the possibility of delay, the disruption of national unity, and the creation of doubts about America’s constancy.
A number of observers have charged that maintaining a global interventionist policy has inexorably led to the emergence of an “imperial presidency.” Chief executives have grown accustomed to using the military according to their personal definitions of the national interest. Harry Truman’s unilateral decision to commit more than 300,000 U.S. troops to the Korean conflict was the most graphic episode of presidential war-making during the cold war, but it was hardly the only one. Nor has such executive displacement of the congressional authority over matters of war and peace abated now that the cold war is over. The Clinton administration’s March 1999 decision to bomb Yugoslavia without seeking congressional authorization confirms that point.
This routine bypassing of the congressional war power is deeply alarming. The primary reason the Founders placed that authority in the legislative, rather than the executive, branch was to make certain that no one person would be able to take the republic into war. Such awesome power in the hands of a single individual (elected or otherwise), they concluded, was a characteristic of empires and absolute monarchies and was not appropriate for a constitutional republic.
In the Global War on Terror, the Bush administration has consistently overstepped its constitutional authority, claiming the power to designate even American citizens suspected of terrorist activity as “enemy combatants” and stripping them of their constitutional protection for the duration of the War on Terror.
Advocates of an activist U.S. role insist that America has an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to, as Senator Richard Lugar put it, “manage the world.” They dismiss calls for a less interventionist policy as a dangerous resurgence of isolationism that would have America, in the words of then–Secretary of Defense William Cohen, “act as if we could zip ourselves into a continental cocoon and watch events unfold on CNN.”
Most proponents of noninterventionism or strategic independence are not suggesting that the United States become a hermit republic, however. They insist that there are many forms of engagement in world affairs and that the United States can and should be extensively involved economically, culturally, and even diplomatically. It is only the military form of engagement, they argue, that needs to be severely limited. America should recognize that the world has changed considerably since the early years of the cold war. There is no threat comparable to that posed by the Soviet Union, not even by al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. There are now a number of prosperous countries capable of taking on far more responsibility for their own defense and for the security and stability of their region, rather than relying on the United States. Supporters of strategic independence contend that the United States could have a far smaller and less expensive military if Washington did not insist on being the global policeman and focused instead on countering major adverse developments that could pose a serious threat to the security of the American people. Even more important, the United States would reduce its risk by letting other powers handle problems in their neighborhoods. According to this logic, the countries of the European Union, not a U.S.-led NATO, should be responsible for dealing with squabbles in the Balkans. Similarly, Japan and other Asian powers should have primary responsibility for responding to a crisis on the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait.
Moreover, the United States need not abrogate its position as the global economic powerhouse or disregard its extensive diplomatic influence. A libertarian foreign policy of noninterventionism holds that the execution of America’s military force should be limited to instances when the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk, and also believes in reigning in the federal government and bringing it back to the constitutionally prescribed balance of executive and legislative power.
A wide-ranging and at times heated debate on the proper extent of U.S. security commitments is already beginning to take shape in the early years of the 21st century. The outcome of that debate will likely determine the nature of America’s role in the world for many years to come.
Bandow, Doug. Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. Longwood, FL: Xulon Press, 2006.
Carpenter, Ted Galen. Peace and Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2002.
Dempsey, Gary T. Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent Encounters with Nation Building. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2001.
Lynch, Tim, and Gene Healy. Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2006.
Taft, Robert A. A Foreign Policy for Americans. New York: Doubleday, 1952.
Originally published .