WASHINGTON – The case for American retrenchment has gained new traction in Washington. Much as in the past, economic problems and public war-weariness have spurred calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for neo-isolationist policies — demands for retreat from the world clothed in the language of fiscal prudence and disinterested realism.
Although there may be short-term political benefits in calling for a diminished U.S. role in the world, history shows that retreat comes with substantial long-term costs for our country.
After World War I, disillusionment with war and then the Great Depression brought a popular U.S. retreat from internationalism, economic as well as political. But the attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that the United States could not avoid the responsibility of engagement with the world in the cause of freedom and democracy.
After World War II, skepticism about the extent of the communist threat led to a sharp reduction in military spending and a willingness to ignore ominous developments along the Pacific Rim and in Eastern Europe. But when communist aggression reached a boiling point on the Korean Peninsula, moral duty and national interests again compelled the U.S. to lead. The cost of the war that followed certainly exceeded that of effective deterrence and of steadily maintaining U.S. armed forces.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, some argued that the U.S. had fulfilled its obligation to lead the world and had defeated all plausible opponents; defense funding was slashed. Ten years later, the attacks of 9/11 reminded us of the risks of assuming that peace will always prevail.
Today, we are in danger of repeating this cycle. Progress in the fight against al-Qaida and the perceived costs of global leadership have led some to question whether the U.S. should retain — or is even capable of retaining — a robust international economic and political presence. Yet missing from the debate are analyses of both the benefits of this role, and whether the strategic ends to which the country aspires have somehow changed.
History has shown that, once the U.S. chooses to lead, it and the world benefit. After World War II, U.S. aid helped rebuild shattered European and Asian economies. Those nations are now at peace — among our most important trading partners.
The U.S. naval presence has guaranteed the free flow of goods. Without it, increased piracy, lower trade flows and higher prices would result — not just for our country but for the world. The hundreds of millions who rose out of poverty in the latter half of the 20th century are markets for U.S. goods and forces for stability that might never have existed without the global compact secured by U.S. leadership.
Rather than cutting first and then asking how we can manage with what’s left, we must define our priorities and interests — and only then determine how to allocate resources. If the U.S. is still committed to fostering a more democratic world, supporting free trade, maintaining international stability and meeting threats abroad, then there must be a reasoned discussion of the ways in which diplomatic retrenchment and military budget cuts may limit our capacity to achieve those goals.
Just as the benefits of U.S. global leadership are often ignored, so, too, are the costs of retrenchment. Proposed cuts in aid and military strength, especially when implemented under strategic guidance that calls for a “small footprint” in the world, will affect our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations and individuals.
U.S. disengagement will also foster the emergence of military, diplomatic or economic forces that will fill the vacuum created by our absence. We cannot predict how much it might ultimately cost to counter those forces but, again, experience dictates that the price will be high.
Time and again when we have sought to predict the nature, timing and location of the next crisis, we have been wrong. In 1948, President Harry Truman and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg — an erstwhile isolationist — came to a consensus that would shape our foreign policy for decades; it took the Korean War for this country to fully accept both the burdens and the benefits of a robust internationalism.
We must not wait for another catastrophe to persuade us of the continuing importance of American internationalism. Regardless of party or ideology, our leaders must forge a new consensus about the U.S. role in the world. That will require engaging with those who disagree to rebuild and reaffirm a bipartisan foreign policy consensus based on the lessons of history.
Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent Democrat, is a former senator from Connecticut. Jon Kyl, a Republican, is a former senator from Arizona. They co-chair the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project.