Isolationist screeds in the United States are extremely rare these days, which, in my opinion, makes those who promote this noble doctrine to be individuals of exceptional character. I am a regular reader of the blog Eunomia (authored by Dr. Daniel Larison), which explicates isolationist critiques of current foreign policy (among other things), and I always enjoy what Dr. Larison has to say.
I also happen to find it rather odd that I am often slandered by my sparring partners on both the Left and the Right as being an isolationist, for one reason or another. I wouldn’t particularly mind being called such, except for the fact that, for reasons I hope to clarify shortly, my positions are hardly in line with those of the paleoconservative isolationists that I have grown to admire (if not disagree with more often than not).
The libertarian philosophy is one of individualism, internationalism, free trade, and the rule of law. My sparring partners often accuse of me of being an isolationist because of my opposition to wars and “nation-building” abroad, yet this opposition does not stem from a prejudice of robust international diplomacy. Rather, the war-weariness of libertarianism stems from the fact that war brings misery for the individual, it shatters international consensuses, it disrupts free trade, and it enables governments to ride roughshod over the rule of law in the name of security and of a centrally-planned war effort.
However, this stance does not entail that the United States simply withdraw from the world diplomatically and economically. I am here going to bring myself out of the closet and reveal that I am a realist when it comes to foreign policy (being a realist on campus is sort of like being a conservative on campus), and that I believe the United States could benefit immensely from rigorous diplomatic efforts and free trade promotion – provided that the ideals behind the United States (individualism, free trade, republican internationalism, and the rule of law) are what guides our foreign policy in relationships with foreign entities. The other two schools of thought in foreign policy, aside from realism, are idealism and isolationism.
Below is a post on the isolationist Larison’s Eunomia blog lamenting idealist Dr. Parag Khanna’s recent piece in Foreign Policy that hurrahs the secessionist movements currently agitating around the world (and especially around the Russian and Chinese peripheries). I found Khanna’s writing to be profoundly solid, but ultimately unpersuasive.
The United States needs to be diplomatically engaged with the rest of the world. Its curious and inventive citizens have too much to offer the world, its republican form of government has too much to offer to the world, and its underlying philosophy of individualism is desperately needed in the world today.
I offer a critique of the writings in both camps with the hope of both 1) revealing that the libertarian position is not isolationist, and 2) that the United States can play an extremely positive role in global affairs. I also hope to distinguish the libertarian position on foreign policy with that of the Dr. Khanna’s and the other idealists over at Foreign Policy.
Larison starts off his critique of Khanna’s piece with a quote from him:
“Finally, we must be weary of status quo conservatism motivated by selfish concerns. Russia and China staunchly opposed Kosovo’s independence for the sake of their own quasi-imperial possessions, but did a sovereign government in Pristina really undermine Russia’s ironclad rule over Chechnya or China’s grip on Tibet? ~ Parag Khanna“
The piece by Dr. Khanna is very entertaining and offers a lucid perspective on the prevailing headwinds currently enrapturing Washington D.C.’s top wonks. I highly, highly recommend reading the piece, especially if you want to gain a better understanding of the world around the United States, of the atmosphere prevalent in D.C.’s foreign policy circles, and if you care to understand a distinct school of thought within American foreign policy – one that is long and storied – ironically labeled as Wilsonianism, after the 28th President of the United States who deceitfully led the American Republic into World War I under the guise of “promoting democracy” and fighting in “the war to end all wars”.
In short, Wilsonianism, which has been around since the Republic’s founding, adheres to the principle of “self-determination”, and argues that the United States should do all it can to promote self-determination (usually channeled under the guise of liberal nationalism) and democracy wherever possible and under whatever circumstances. Hence, the entrance of the United States in World War I to help defeat the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
It is a dangerous screed, and one that bewilderingly seems to attract the best and brightest minds (like Dr. Khanna’s) to its circles. Dr. Larison begins his response to Khanna’s piece with this:
“Last week I argued that an independent South Sudan would immediately have all of the problems of a failed state. The same already applies to many of the statelets and would-be statelets that Khanna mentions.”
For those of you have chosen (unwisely I may add) to skip reading Dr. Khanna’s piece, the statelets that Dr. Larison is referring to include South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur, as well as Southern Sudan, Palestine, and Kurdistan. There are many, many more than this, and Dr. Larison actually named a slough of them in another recent blog post here. Anyway, Larison continues:
“While it may seem like a solution to certain problems, and while it is designed to flatter the preferences of Wilsonians everywhere, re-opening the question of territorial boundaries established in the post-war period promises to ignite new conflicts and revive old ones. Partitions might be done reasonably well or poorly, but there is no reason to assume that ‘velvet divorces’ would be the normal outcome. It is a profoundly bad idea, and it is not made any better by the fact that Moscow and Beijing also object to it.”
Dr. Larison raises some excellent points here, especially in regards to Khanna’s overzealous call for the United States to engage in the promotion of secessionist movements throughout the world. He rightly criticizes Khanna’s bellicose position towards the interests of China and Russia as a “bad idea”, and he right to acknowledge that the question of territorial boundaries is never one that should be taken as lightly as Khanna’s piece has. The Wilsonian notion that the United States can and should be involved in the partition of a new global order based on the territorial boundaries of ethnic groups (or nations) is both foolhardy and dangerous.
Consider the example of relations between the United States and Russia when Washington intervened through NATO to partition Serbia up into smaller statelets, or consider what would happen if the United States suddenly called for independence of Jammu and Kashmir in India or of Tibet in China. If we go back a little farther in time, we can see how the foreign policy of Wilson himself played a role in the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. What sprung up in place of these decidedly decadent, but functioning, empires has puzzled foreign policy analysts on both sides of the Atlantic to this day and caused ample harm to the peoples inhabiting the regions in question.
Yet it is also true that many individuals, of all different types of nations, continue to live under oppressive regimes, regimes that are much less efficient, and much less cosmopolitan in nature than the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Indeed, the main driving force behind the post-war decolonization movements has been, by and large, an artificial nationalism messily combined with the doctrines of socialist economics.
The situation that most of the decolonized world finds itself in today is succinctly summarized by Khanna as follows:
“[…] many of the colonies that gained their independence a half-century ago have since experienced unmanageable population growth, predatory and corrupt dictatorship, crumbling infrastructure and institutions, and ethnic or sectarian polarization.”
In other words, the socialist calculation and artificial nationalism of these states have failed to unify the decolonized states into a cohesive society, have failed to provide prosperity and liberty, and have failed to earn their adherents the respect of the international community.
The United States, as a former colony itself, needs to seize upon this fact and pursue a foreign policy of freedom with the developing world on a case-by-case basis. If a region or a nation outside the periphery of other major powers (like China, India, and Russia) seeks to gain independence and international recognition due to oppressive features of a given regime, I do not see why the United States could not recognize such a move, and even convince other states to do the same. I do not see how presenting a newly-declared independent state – outside the peripheries of other major rivals – with a trade agreement (maybe a paragraph long) would be harmful to the United States’ or the region in question’s stability.
Pursuing such a policy would undoubtedly earn us a few enemies, especially in the capitals of the states that just lost territory, and I think Dr. Larison’s next line of reasoning and the concepts he invokes will help to better clarify his reasons for opposing virtually all interaction with the outside world.
“The ‘status quo conservatism motivated by selfish concerns’ protects weak states along with the strong: weaker states have their selfish concerns, too. It is the erosion of the principle of state sovereignty over the last twenty years that exposes weak states to the predations of major powers.”
Perhaps, but I strongly disagree with Dr. Larison’s observations here. Not with the notion that weaker states have selfish interests too, but rather with the argument that state sovereignty has been eroding precipitously over the past twenty years. To the isolationist, free trade and international governance (including military alliances) are necessarily bad things for a state and its sovereignty, because these concepts are perceived to be taking away from the ability of a state to make decisions in its own interests. Yet the major powers and, to a lesser extent, the regional powers of the world are largely able to do what they want in terms of formulating domestic and foreign policies. Just think of the recent attempt by Brazil and Turkey to get Iran to play nice with its nuclear technology.
With the exception of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “weak states” of the world and their predation by major powers seems only to be occurring along peripheries of the major powers’ territories, specifically in the region of the world traditionally under Russian influence. And even these predatory practices of the Russian state are largely aimed at defending Moscow’s peripheries from the incursions into region by the American state.
So I would look at the situation of weak states outside the peripheries of great powers not as a steady erosion of state sovereignty, but as the last stage of colonization by Europeans a century ago. The weakness in these states was inherent from the beginning, as they were largely constructed to extract resources for shipment to European industry and to ensure that recently conquered non-Western rivals, whether monarchies, confederations, city-states, or empires, remained conquered once and for all. In order for a state to have sovereignty, it needs to be recognized by its own people as legitimate, and not by major powers (though it certainly helps!), and the structure of weak states, at least outside the peripheries of major powers, is illegitimate in the eyes of most the people living within these states. Dr. Larison continues:
“If there is one thing more misguided than organizing foreign policy around ‘humanitarian’ and democratist meddling in the affairs of other nations, it has to be the revival of the liberal nationalist conceit that there should be an independent nation-state for every group that wants one.”
Hardly. The Wilsonian notions of humanitarian intervention and democratic nation-building are easily the most misguided ideals being espoused throughout Washington today, and the fact that some of the idealists over at Foreign Policy have latched onto liberal nationalism as a way to promote their misguided policies should not deter us from the fact that the United States has not pursued nor promoted liberal nationalism in its foreign policy since Wilson’s disastrous meddling in Europe over (nearly) a century ago.
Let us be clear: the NATO excursions into the Balkans had nothing to do with promoting liberal nationalism, and everything to do with humanitarian intervention, democratic state-building, and geostrategic maneuvering. The military excursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, and God knows where else over the past twenty years have nothing to do with the concept of liberal nationalism and everything to do with humanitarian intervention, democratic state-building, and/or geostrategic maneuvering.
Liberal nationalism, as it is promoted by the idealists, is extremely new on the scene in D.C. and is probably just one of the many, many fads that swing through the capital and are used to apply humanitarian intervention and democratic state-building to foreign policy proposals.
With this being said, I can see why Dr. Larison is extremely skeptical of the fresh calls for liberal states based around nationalism to be recognized around the world. Such a policy beckons the haunted ghost of Woodrow Wilson and the 100,000 needless deaths of American soldiers on the battlefields of World War I. Wilson sought to put an end to what he perceived to be the decadent empires of Austria-Hungary and Istanbul, and replace them with smaller states based upon the concept of nationality and parliamentary democracy (he did not advocate international republicanism because he thought his own republic to be backwards and ill-suited for the rigors of world affairs). The problems associated with both the Balkans and the Middle East largely stem from Wilson’s calls (and actions) to dissolve the cosmopolitan empires that held large and disparate groups of people together in relative harmony.
Yet there is nothing even remotely close to the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires in the developing world today. Nothing (China and Russia and India are different stories, but we shouldn’t be anywhere near their peripheries militarily). When Wilson and the other Western powers dismantled their defeated enemies’ empires, they destroyed centuries of prejudice, tradition, intricate knowledge of local institutions, and adept governing practices with the stroke of a pen. Today’s states possess none of the know-how that those old Western empires did, and I think that a foreign policy of recognizing secessionist declarations in a lot of cases – again, outside of the peripheries of major powers – would be a major boon for the United States and its image abroad. A follow up with a trade deal (again, a paragraph long would do), a diplomatic embassy, and negotiations with other states throughout the region and abroad to recognize the independence of a new state may just bring about the stability and prosperity that seems so elusive at the current point in time.
“Before anyone goes rushing to endorse a new wave of separatism, we should consider the consequences of separatist movements in the last twenty years. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s were partly the product of the international indulgence of the principle of self-determination, and they were made worse by the inevitable complication that some people stuck on the wrong side of the new border were not permitted their own self-determination. Some of the newly-independent states were free to expel and kill their minorities en masse, and their patrons looked the other way, because they were fighting for their independence. The partition of Serbia was a horrible mistake, and the partition of Georgia that has followed in its wake has been an unfortunate, predictable result of creating new arbitrary national borders to replace the old ones.”
I agree. I don’t think the United States should endorse or even recognize secessionist and autonomist movements anywhere near the Russian (or Chinese) sphere of influence – unless Moscow (or Beijing) asks us to.
“Eritrean independence, which was once viewed as a good example of a peaceful parting of the ways with Ethiopia, has become one more source of instability in the Horn of Africa. East Timor has proven to be one of the more harmless of the newly-independent states, but serves as a good example of how these ‘independent’ states end up being failed-state dependencies that rely heavily on international support. Depending on how East Timor makes use of its large natural gas reserves, even those resources could prove to be a source of corruption and misrule. Even if most of the new states Khanna imagines prove to be little more than new East Timors, they would all still rank high among the world’s failed states.”
Good point, as both Eritrea and East Timor are outside the peripheries of major powers. In cases like this, I don’t think that the United States has done enough diplomatically or economically. Where are our unilateral trade agreements with these states, and why isn’t the state department rigorously promoting (behind the scenes, of course) courses of action that would help to strengthen the rule of law and republican institutions? Viewed from another angle, though, both of these states (like South Sudan) had fought brutal, decades-long wars of secession with Jakarta and Addis Ababa, but during the time period of both these wars the Cold War was being fought and both of these regions were on the peripheries of either the United States or the Soviet Union.
Today there is no such contest going on, and I do not see why the United States needs not to endorse secession in calculated circumstances. Again, promoting secession should be off the table altogether – anywhere in the world, but recognizing secession in calculated instances would be very beneficial not only to the United States but to the people who have declared secession against a repressive regime.
Dr. Khanna seems to think that it is the duty of the United States to be involved with every major trend that comes and goes through international relations, and Dr. Larison is right to castigate the Wilsonian pipe dream of recognizing secessionist movements in the backyards of Russia and China as good things for world stability. Yet the isolationist position is no better for the self-interest of the republic either, as major benefits would be had if the United States were to support a selected array of secessionist movements in the post-colonial world.
Promoting individualism, republican internationalism, free trade, and the rule of law (not to mention world peace) abroad are items that the United States needs to be actively involved in diplomatically. But these goals should be carried out with a diplomatic corps that is much leaner and meaner, and the tasks of promoting such goals need to be carried out in a much more calculated manner. Both the idealists and the isolationists have it wrong on how the United States engages with the world.
“Partitions cannot be separated from the ambitions and agendas of the major powers of the day. Some powers will want to bring the newly-independent states into their orbit, and their rivals will either try to block or find ways to sabotage those states. Instead of shielding weaker countries behind the principle of state sovereignty, Khanna’s proposal would open them up to something worse than the quasi-imperial domination of the status quo in China and Russia.”
Yes, but if there are no major powers in the region, like, say for example, in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, I don’t see why the United States should not actively seek to bring these newly-created states into its “orbit”, by recognizing the right of these peoples to declare their independence from an oppressive regime and present them with a unilateral trade agreement, diplomatic recognition, and a blueprint (by example) of how to successfully adhere to the rule of law and republican government.
Again, I’m no Wilsonian, and I think that we should stay out of Russia’s and China’s backyards, but the isolationists seem to think that engaging with the world in a way that is creative or potentially game-changing at all is a terrible thing to do.
This suspicion of international engagement is something that should be admired, especially given the way the U.S. has conducted foreign policy over the past one hundred years, but instead of withdrawing from the world I think that we need to engage in it in a much more sophisticated way.
Promoting the rule of law, world peace, international republicanism, individualism, and free trade are all items that the United States needs to do on the world stage. But promoting policies that would infuriate our rivals, as proposed by Dr. Khanna and the other idealists at Foreign Policy would bring disaster to the international arena. Likewise, withdrawing from the world completely is unwise, as the United States has too much to offer the world to just isolate itself from our potential friends and neighbors.