The chaos engulfing Iraq, where a brutal radical Islamist group seems poised to take power, has led to a predictable political blame game in the United States and lent new urgency to the debate about U.S. foreign policy and the wisdom of interventionism. Right now, those who believe American leadership has generally made the world a better place are on the defensive. Yet the complicated truth is that abandoning leadership may lead to even worse results.
In a New Republic essay titled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire," Brookings Institution fellow and "liberal hawk" Robert Kagan warns against retrenchment, arguing that the post-World War II "liberal world order" established under U.S. stewardship created unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe and Asia. My Reason magazine colleague Jesse Walker offers a trenchant critique of Kagan on the libertarian magazine's website, pointing out that his account of 20th century history leaves out places where America's role was far less positive -- such as Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Asia, where the United States supported repressive dictatorships, most notoriously the Pinochet regime in Chile.
Walker makes a persuasive case that Kagan's account of U.S. leadership and its effects is "prettified" to the point of inaccuracy. But Walker's rendering leaves a major unanswered question. In the cases he cites as examples of negative U.S. influence, it was the global contest between the West and the Communist bloc that had disastrous effects on liberty and self-government. What would have been the effects of American non-intervention or retrenchment under those circumstances, essentially leaving the field to totalitarian regimes?
Historical what-ifs rarely have clear answers. But a further expansion of the Soviet empire with no significant resistance would have likely prolonged communism's life and created more repressive dictatorships. South Korea during the Cold War was not a nice place, but it was a paradise compared to North Korea.
The leading anti-interventionist in the Republican Party, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has invoked Ronald Reagan's legacy as one of leadership and restraint in foreign affairs. Another libertarian critic, Daniel Bier, points out on the Mediaite website that Reagan's foreign policy had its own share of disasters. Yet the fact remains that the West's Cold War victory, which Reagan helped bring about, was a definitive if imperfect victory for freedom. Today, there is no clear contest between "the free world" and a totalitarian empire; but there are many anti-freedom forces whose ascendancy is bad for the people within their immediate reach and the world, including the United States. In our age of globalized business, trade and culture -- and, unfortunately, globalized terror -- no retrenchment can shield America from the effects of crises abroad.
To think that liberty and peace would triumph in most of the world without American meddling is no less naïve than to think that we can export democracy if we just find the right formula. History shows that freedom, human rights and peace are not the natural state of humanity; they are rare and hard-won achievements. American leadership has not always promoted these values, and has often compromised them in foreign conflicts with no identifiable "good guys." But a world with a drastically reduced American presence is unlikely to be a kinder, gentler place.
Perhaps the only palatable answer is that we need both the hawks and the anti-interventionists to keep each other in check. Superpowers may not get to retire, but they must learn prudence.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.