Last fall's invasion of Grenada posed a dilemma for advocates of liberty and limited government. On the one hand, no one can quarrel with the results achieved. A gang of Marxist-Leninist butchers posing as a government was ousted, and basic freedoms restored to a people whose gratitude was virtually unanimous.
What's troubling, however, is the means by which this good result was achieved—armed intervention by the US government. If freedom lovers are to judge foreign policy by the same standards as domestic policy, we cannot adopt the view that a good end justifies any means. And from the perspective of constitutional limited government, it is difficult to see any principle that justifies sending US armed forces around the world to secure other people's freedoms. Since the large majority of governments systematically violate their citizens' rights, such a standard would amount to carte blanche for intervention everywhere.
Some will reply that the construction of an airfield on Grenada by the Cubans constituted a military threat to the United States, thereby justifying an invasion. But that threat is insignificant compared with that of Cuba itself, armed to the teeth and just 90 miles from Florida. The real military threat posed by a Grenada base was to the other island mini-states nearby—a threat that led the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to ask for and participate in the US-led invasion.
Why didn't the OECS simply do the job itself? The plain fact is that its member states did not have the military means to do so. And that situation is hardly unique to the Caribbean. The last three decades of decolonization have created 30 mini-states with populations under 400,000. All are vulnerable to takeover by relatively small groups, especially if those groups have the backing of a Cuba.
Thus, those who are, with good reason, concerned about US intervention overseas should welcome the proposal of Barbados Prime Minister Tom Adams for creation of a regional defense force for the eastern Caribbean. Based in Barbados, it would maintain garrisons of 50 to 100 troops on at least two other islands, as well. US Secretary of State George Shultz endorsed the plan in February, pledging that the US government would arm and train the force.
What's noteworthy here is not whether or not this trivial expense would be borne by US taxpayers. More significant is that the idea for the force originated in the Caribbean, and control over its operations would rest with the Barbadans, Dominicans, Grenadans, etc., themselves. This represents a significant break from the general pattern of post–World War defense-pact arrangements.
The initial batch of alliances—NATO, CENTO, SEATO, etc.—were all billed as "mutual" defense alliances. In fact, however, they were one-sided arrangements in which Superpower Uncle Sam became the senior partner of a group of smaller states. The US government was pledged to intervene militarily if any member state was attacked—in exchange for which the junior partners presumably agreed to do the same for us!
Although those alliances have pretty much disintegrated, except for NATO, their spirit lives on in recent initiatives like the Rapid Deployment Force and the ill-fated Jordanian strike force (to be flown to Mideast trouble spots in US transport planes). What is common to all these efforts is a desire to maintain control of other countries' defenses.
Yet this insistence on control risks undermining a very promising development: the emergence of independent regional defense alliances. In the Persian Gulf, last October the Gulf Cooperation Council (consisting of Saudi Arabia plus Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) held its first joint military maneuvers. A senior UAE official told the Associated Press, "The games are the nucleus that the gulf countries hope to develop into a small NATO of their own." Less far along, but beginning to develop, is military cooperation among the five members of the Association of South-East Asian States—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The Economist recently suggested that ASEAN take responsibility for patrolling the trade routes through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.
More and more, thoughtful defense analysts realize that the US government has taken on defense commitments that it cannot realistically meet without even more massive defense budgets than those being rejected today. On paper, this country is committed to defend more than 40 nations. That vast network of commitments greatly increases our risk of getting drawn into wars. And in the nuclear age, the risk of escalation to nuclear war is all too real, as Sam Cohen illustrated in last month's cover story on Israel.
It is thus essential to begin phasing out those commitments. The responsible way to do that is to encourage the development of independent regional defense alliances like ASEAN, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Eastern Caribbean force. And, of course, to force our wealthy allies, Japan and Western Europe, to assume their proper responsibility for defending themselves.
What is especially ironic is to see self-styled advocates of lower defense budgets and peace opposing such moves. Recently, for example, the Center for Defense Information released a report criticizing US attempts to get the Japanese to take a larger role in their own defense. Raising the specter of a revived Japanese militarism, the CDI report warned of the "risks of promoting a resurgence of the Rising Sun."
But risks are inherent in giving up control of allies' defenses. Given the reality of the Soviet threat, the basic choice is between continuing today's dangerous bipolar world order—the entire world in one or the other superpower camp—or moving to a world of multiple regional centers of power. A well-armed ASEAN or Japan or Gulf Cooperation Council might not always do US bidding, but each would provide a strong counterweight against Soviet aggression in its part of the world. Given the risks and costs of continuing with the status quo, the choice seems clear-cut. A safer world will be one in which all countries take self-defense seriously.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Defending Everyone?".