If we don't maintain world order, who will?
Today's prompt asks us, "Is interventionism an organic plank of conservatism, or is it the cancer that's destroying it?" I am going to take issue with the way the question is framed. Not only is "interventionism" not "destroying" conservatism, there is also nothing particularly "conservative" about interventionism. For the United States, whether it likes it or not, periodically intervening in a world order that it has done so much to establish is the only game in town. The job of conservatives is to ensure that those interventions are aligned with American interests and ideals.
The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a belligerent Iran seeking nuclear weapons, an unresolved Korean peninsular crisis, a rising China and an autocratic, aggressive Russia have made many Americans anxious about the world and our place in it. But there is no escaping U.S. global involvement. Foreign policy writers Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder calculate that the United States intervened in other countries' affairs "with significant military force" every 18 months on average between 1989 and 2001. Since 2001, the United States has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq; sent troops to the Philippines and Liberia; and conducted missile strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. American military commitments extend from Colombia to Kosovo to Japan. Including proposed supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration has budgeted more than $600 billion in defense spending for fiscal year 2009. As is often pointed out, that amount is about the same as the combined defense budgets of the next 12 to 15 nations.
These circumstances did not spring up overnight, and they are not solely the product of President Bush and the neocons. Since the end of World War II, the United States has adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy to first contain Soviet communism and then, once Soviet communism had been destroyed, expand the sphere of liberal democratic nations. The net result of this foreign policy has been a richer, freer, more peaceful world. These are the fruits of American "interventionism."
As the United States has adopted this new international role, however, the American people have also maintained their traditional ambivalence toward the rest of the world. We think most people are like ourselves and then become disappointed when they do not live up to U.S. standards. We are reluctant to deploy military force and eager to withdraw once those forces are deployed. We grow frustrated with allies for not doing their "fair share" of maintaining global order. We often wish our problems would go away.
They won't. Truth is, if the United States were to renege on its commitments and allow the international order that it has maintained for 60 years to fall apart, another order would take its place. The transition from one to another would be characterized by conflict. And the new order, once it was born, would not be pleasant. It would be less free, less prosperous and less peaceful than the world we know today.
You can see what happens when Americans turn inward by reading the history of the 1970s. It is not a pretty sight. U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam marked the beginning of a period of global catastrophe, as the Soviet Union expanded its influence in Central Asia, Africa and Central America and the Iranian revolution provided the first state vehicle for jihadism's war on the West. These crises engendered others in the U.S. government and the global economy. Going back even earlier in our history, when you look at America's failure to maintain the post-Versailles Treaty order that it had helped build following the World War I, you see the same pattern. Illiberalism was allowed to expand, the world economy tanked and more war followed.
We know what happens when the United States decides to reject "interventionism." Let's not make the same mistakes again.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at the Weekly Standard and author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."
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