Fighting Isolationism

What foreign policy is proper for a partly free society in an imperfect world?


From the beginning, the topic of foreign policy has been somewhat of a puzzle for the United States. Initially, America's great statesmen advocated a form of isolationism. "'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances," said George Washington in his farewell address at the end of his presidency. "Taking care to keep ourselves…on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."

But it is far from clear that such isolationism was to be a permanent feature of US foreign policy. Washington's reflections on the topic are often quoted by those who blame many of America's troubles on foreign entanglements. At times the same people who are scornful of "18th-century economics"—the laissez-faire capitalism of Adam Smith—are unabashedly wedded to the early isolationism: the United States should not have been involved in a civil war in Vietnam, should not have intervened in Chile, should not have meddled in Angola, should leave Central America alone, should keep its missiles out of Europe, and so on.

It is not similarly incongruous to find isolationism embraced by advocates of a strictly laissez-faire version of America's political tradition of economic and civil liberalism, the political doctrine on which the country was founded. Even here, though, if we scratch beneath the surface we find incongruities.

On the one hand, individual liberty implies the doctrine of government by the consent of the governed. If a government rules without being chosen for the function, it is a tyranny. And clearly, to extend the US government into other realms, even for benign purposes, is to breach the principle of the consent of the governed. Government officials must confine themselves, if they object to what is happening in another country, to explicit or tacit criticism—for example, a "human rights foreign policy" that is long on enunciating the principles of liberty but devoid of interventionist actions to implement them around the globe.

Moreover, the government of a free society has its complicated job carved out already, without taking up the affairs of other governments or peoples. It is as if the physician who is attending to one patient were simply to abandon the operation and turn to saving another doctor's patient. It may indeed be distressing that such help is not forthcoming when it would be helpful, but it can also be seen that governments violate their sacred trust as servants of their own citizens when they take on serving others.

Yet it is not at all clear that these considerations imply a strict isolationism whereby the government of a free society can legitimately engage only in defending its borders against foreign aggressors. For example, is it not plausible that such a government could do its job better at times by forming alliances with other governments? Surely mutual advantage might be served in such a relationship, just as fire-fighting services benefit from mutual-aid agreements. To draw up a treaty between two proper governments would seem to offer hope at times against aggressive regimes across the globe.

There is certainly nothing in principle wrong with this strategy. There need be no violation of the duty of the government to protect its own citizens, since the treaty at issue could well be a purely defensive project. Canada and the United States, for example, might each be better defended by the cooperative military and diplomatic efforts of the Canadian and US governments. If one country's government, in the process of providing effective defense of its people, also provides effective defense of another people for some value in return, no sacrifice has been required. No one need be cheated out of proper services.

In a complicated world, with sophisticated military means of aggression available to tyrannical regimes, it would be irresponsible for a government to take an isolationist stance. Such circumstances warrant defensive alliances of considerable complexity, even for a government that adhered perfectly to the principles of individual rights and government by the consent of the governed.

In the world we live in, of course, our own government does not adhere very well at all to the principles of liberty that underlie our political tradition. Yet those who advocate a fully free system nevertheless have to make intelligent judgments about foreign-policy alternatives facing the impure regime. And the application of the principles of liberty is again not entirely obvious.

While the United States and Canada are far from free countries, it is true that far less free countries could pose a threat to them. Insofar as individual liberty is breached in the United States and Canada on many fronts, we clearly have a system that is unjust. Yet even such a system should carry out its business of defending the country against aggressors. So however flawed the political systems that have evolved in Canada and America, it may well be that the governments of these countries should, all things considered, embark on mutual defense efforts if this is militarily advisable. And the potential for mutually advantageous military alliances with other countries exists as well.

Yet as entanglements grow, so does the potential for abuse and corruption of principles. Some alliances may turn out to be far from mutually beneficial. Some may turn out to help regimes that are so far from being worthy of alliances that the alliances could be taken to constitute aiding and abetting a potential aggressor.

It is therefore very complicated to discover just what those who advocate a fully free system should support when it comes to the foreign policy of the United States today. Circumstances can change, so that a country that had not been a good candidate for alliance becomes one suddenly, or vice versa. It is difficult for citizens to be aware of developments that would warrant adjusting their government's foreign relations. Detailed knowledge of foreign governments' military capabilities and intentions are needed in order to formulate appropriate foreign policy and military strategy.

Most of us are not foreign policy experts, have no academic or practical contact with the nitty-gritty of foreign-relations and military strategy, and possess little knowledge of intricate developments on the international front bearing on the oughts and ought nots of foreign affairs. Yet if we deem a free society best suited to the flourishing of human beings, we will be concerned with laying out general guidelines for a rational foreign policy for such a free society. But we will also be concerned with the actual possibilities faced by the country we inhabit, the closest to a free society now in existence.

When considering second- or third-best circumstances in political matters, it is useful to consider such cases in morality. People are unable always to keep only the best of relations in their personal lives. At times, a person can play tennis only if he is willing to play with someone who is in some respect morally condemnable. A feminist may buy food from a male chauvinist if there is no alternative in the neighborhood. Morally mediocre circumstances have to be dealt with all the time, and one can handle them better or worse. An artificial stance of purity—"I shall never have anything to do with that louse"—can spell suicide. Stagnation on all fronts may arise if people fail to work for their own well-being because the circumstances are morally tainted.

In judging America's current foreign-policy situation, it is not a wise idea to insist on some rigid stance in the name of being principled. If the security of Europe, for example, is of some significance to the security of the United States, but it is wrong to be forcing US taxpayers to bear the bulk of the cost of defending Europe, it is nevertheless unwise to demand the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Europe unless there is good reason to think that the slack will be taken up by competent military units. The same considerations apply to US-Japanese defense commitments. And in general there may not be any great wisdom in trying to disengage from all foreign involvements. The matter does not yield to a priori analysis.

Yet that kind of approach to foreign affairs—or any other practical, day-to-day concerns of government—is tempting for those who align themselves with principles. In fact, however, taking principles seriously is better exhibited by integrating the actual world and its more-or-less controllable variables with these principles. For individuals who care for liberty as the highest social good, as the most important ingredient of a good human community, it is imperative to ask how, personally, they can fully adhere to the principles involved. They must abstain from aggression and its promotion. But at the same time they must consider very seriously the consequences of living with millions of others to whom these principles mean very little.

These people may use aggression any time they believe that they can get their way by aggression. And in the face of entire regimes of such people with adequate power to carry out their designs, the precise moves to be made in foreign affairs are far more difficult to identify that is indicated by any simple statement about the evils of government expansion. Think of how complicated it can be to determine whether someone's use of force constituted aggression in a simple altercation on some street corner. How much more complicated this is at the national and international levels! It is usually a veritable case of shades of grey mingling with shades of grey.

Some societies are more free than others, and it is worth preserving such freedom and the opportunity to expand it. We should not neglect such a task by insisting on treating the world as if it already conformed to the standards of liberty we hold dear.

Senior Editor Tibor Machan is the author of Human Rights and Human Liberties, among other works.