Reflexive Isolationism Is Not a Foreign Policy

A U.S Army soldier walks behind an Afghan policeman during a joint patrol with Afghan police and Canadian soldiers west of Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2007. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

By all means, let us reconsider America’s role abroad. But abandoning the world in favor of domestic nation-building is neither realistic nor desirable.

Clichés do not last long in international affairs. Events have a way of intervening, thereby proving slogans empty and conventions obsolete. As Afghanistan has fallen (back) to the Taliban, we have seen many such pieties evaporate, many deservedly so. But the early evidence in the wake of this evaporation is that many of those who purport to offer a vision for the future of conservative foreign policy have plenty of empty pieties of their own. Witness the emerging line that the disaster of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan should be interpreted primarily as a reminder that the U.S. is essentially a failed state, marked, as New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari hellishly describes it, by “insanity,” “cultural decadence,” and a “vast opioid den . . . that used to be called rural America,” among other things. As such, it has no business conducting itself in a serious or meaningful fashion internationally, and must “come home and rebuild itself,” as Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer put it.

The Afghanistan debacle, a failure with many fathers, should be an occasion for reconsidering American foreign policy. But reconsiderations such as these err both in their understanding of the U.S. and in their understanding of the world.

Some qualifications are worth making upfront, lest some make faulty assumptions and take cheap shots. I am not a “neoconservative,” nor do I have some kind of abiding obsession with foreign intervention. Earlier this summer, in castigating Wyoming representative Liz Cheney for declining to join the House’s effort to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, I wrote the following:

Congress’s delegating a blank check, essentially, to the executive to make war allows for the kind of indefinite, aimless military engagements that turn Onion headlines about sons patrolling the same routes in Afghanistan as their fathers into reality — and without much to show for it.

It is an indictment of Congress, to some extent, that it has been lazy in reclaiming this power. And maybe there is a case for the kind of open-ended military engagements that have marked American war-making of late (though that case seems dubious to me, at best).

I am also not an “expert” on foreign-policy matters, not that that’s much to brag about these days. But all of us, experts or not, should try to avoid clichés in our thought. But whether consciously or not, Ahmari, Hammer, and others invoke one of the more familiar tropes of American politics. There’s something understandably appealing about the idea of cutting off international obligations and refocusing on the domestic. Former president Barack Obama called ten years ago for America to “focus on nation building here at home.” But the idea hardly emerged with him. Its apparent progenitor was George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s 1972 nominee for president. Accepting his party’s nomination, McGovern invoked a litany of what he considered America’s debilitating domestic ills and repeatedly beckoned, “Come home, America,” as his call for the U.S. to give up on the world and fix what was wrong at home. It is somewhat perplexing for people who consider themselves conservatives to have come around on Mr. Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid; and for people who consider themselves nationalists to speak in such disdainful terms about their own nation. But such is the situation in which we apparently find ourselves.

There’s also something a bit condescending about this line of thought, even on its own terms. Nation-building is typically something done to occupied nations; calling for it in one’s own nation puts the state in a sort of worryingly parallel position vis-à-vis the citizenry, even if used rhetorically. The implication is that America has been wasting all of its ability and resources to maintain society elsewhere, and now it needs to come back and do that all here. Forget, for a moment, the wisdom of nation-building abroad (I find little in it, for what it’s worth). Forget, also, the reckless growth of the state in America in recent years, a reality many prefer to elide. To invoke such a cliché seems to me to be asking for a role for the government akin to such nation-building. Is this something Hammer wants, even as he and his fellow travelers disdain it internationally? Maybe it is. Earlier this year, Hammer wrote:

For decades, the American Right rallied around bumper-sticker cries of “liberty” and “freedom.” These are undoubtedly important values, but the pendulum has simply swung far too much in that direction. America doesn’t need more “liberty” and “freedom” right now—at least to the extent those values are in tension with the pursuit of more pressing consolidationist prerogatives.

From where will this “consolidation” be done, one wonders, if not from the seat of government whose influence conservatives ought rightly to limit when possible and prudent? And, thereafter, to whom, and on whose authority — particularly considering its advocates seem bothered by the excess freedom polluting our polity? Our Constitution did empower the national government, yes, but its genius also consisted in distribution of power, horizontally and vertically, a fact that seems increasingly more like an inconvenience to Hammer and Ahmari than like an aspiration. It would be foolish to deny that this nation has serious problems, although it is important to approach them with reason and not with a kind of self-loathing hysteria that can at times be difficult to distinguish from what this country’s enemies say about us. But an agenda that claims to confront these problems while also viewing the American system itself as a kind of impediment rather than as something to be reclaimed has serious problems.

It is also not enough simply to say that we should withdraw from the world — or, as Hammer put it in a more thoughtful venue than Twitter, to be “narrowly focused on the national interest” and “deeply skeptical” of sending troops abroad. It is, again, an understandable view, and I have some sympathy for it. The Founders, too, were concerned about the national interest when arguing for, ratifying, enacting, and operating under the Constitution. But one of the essential arguments for the Constitution in the lead-up to its ratification was that an America governed according to the framework it provided would not be at the mercy of the whims of other nations to determine its conduct in international affairs. See, for example, Federalist No. 11:

The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America, have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America–that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.

Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the Europeans. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Read that again: “dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!” That is, ultimately, what the Constitution enabled a rinky-dink collection of former colonies to do. The reference to Europe’s supremacy seems quaint to us now, but that’s only because America built itself up to supplant Europe (and everyone else). That required the construction of a formidable military apparatus (never more formidable than in the midcentury era for which many of this coterie are so nostalgic); a concern, at the national level, for America’s status relative to the world; and a willingness, if necessary, to send American forces abroad.

Some would have you believe that America is so crippled inside that it simply cannot — and should not — project power abroad. But we have done so as a poorer and divided people throughout our history — and of necessity. To invoke just one example, America has never been more divided than it literally was during the Civil War. Yet the U.S. government tended carefully to international relations at the time, with Charles Francis Adams working diligently to keep Great Britain out of the conflict. But it was not mere diplomacy that secured this outcome: It was the credible threat of American retaliation should the Brits support the Confederacy. There have been other times in American history when we, as a nation, haven’t been interested in foreign policy; and to be sure, aspects of our national character and situation have allowed us certain indulgences in that field. But foreign policy will always be interested in us.

Now, maybe a continued American presence in Afghanistan was a mistake in terms of the national interest. Maybe it was even fatally misconceived. Maybe there are other engagements and other alliances that also should be reconsidered. But that is a process that should not be guided by cliché. And even if you think that national-security, diplomatic, and other officials have done a poor job of articulating or executing a foreign-policy strategy for the United States (a view for which there is much evidence), that doesn’t mean you get to do the same in arguing against them. It will be hard work, figuring out which nations actually require a continued American presence and which don’t; which alliances are working and which ones are not; which conflicts are worth fighting and which are not. And it will require some tough choices, such as whether to accept the international humiliation, strategic setbacks, and genuine human carnage of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan with thousands of Americans still present in the country — a withdrawal so disastrous that it has required the reintroduction of American forces just to manage. Argue that the withdrawal was botched all you want; it was. But maybe the nature of that botching indicates something about the unwisdom of treating such reflexive sentiments as well-considered foreign policy. In the international realm, ideology of any kind has been both killer and victim.

It does us no good to pretend that America is too internally diseased to have interests internationally, that the most important and most powerful nation on earth can or should simply bury its head in the sand and only poke out intermittently. America has enemies, such as China, who contest its interests abroad, and who would be glad, in a vanishing or even a significant reduction of this country from the global stage, not only to fill in the gaps left, but also to dictate the terms of this nation’s connection to the world. In short, precisely the situation the Founders sought to prevent.

Hammer, in a bit of a revisionism that is at least somewhat to his credit, seemed to realize some of this after the fact, noting the geopolitical implications relative to China of losing Afghanistan. Yet he still tries to have things both ways, arguing that “America was right to get out of Afghanistan once and for all, but horrifically myopic in how it did so.” This is an untenable position. If you support withdrawal from Afghanistan, something to which I have been sympathetic, then you simply must acknowledge this as a strategic setback, not just as it pertains to China (with whom Afghanistan shares a border!), but also in the broader situation in that part of the world. A serious foreign policy would have weighed the arguments for leaving Afghanistan (waste of time, treasure, resources, manpower; nation-building is foolhardy), against the arguments for staying (continued disruption of terrorist operations, a base for further action if needed elsewhere in the region). What the correct balance is, I do not pretend to know. But I also do not pretend it is easy to figure out.

I have a great deal of sympathy for arguments that certain American commitments and relationships abroad should be rethought, and a great deal of time for arguments that the ever-unpopular (and ever-vaguely-defined) “elites” and “experts” have failed in their positions. But an examination of the reality of international affairs and this country’s place in them has introduced serious complications to my belief that we can, or should, simply depart from the world. What America does abroad, and who does what to America, are ultimately domestic concerns, even if we want to pretend otherwise. A United States that attempts to depart from the world stage in fact does no such thing. It merely allows others to dictate the terms of its activity there — and, perhaps, eventually, even at home. That doesn’t mean we have to be everywhere and do everything; no nation can, and I’m willing to accept that we’ve suffered in certain ways on occasions we have tried. But whatever the direction of this country’s foreign policy henceforth, if we are to think about it seriously, we shall have to do better than clichés offered by the likes of Ahmari and Hammer.

PHOTOS: Afghanistan Evacuation

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online.

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