Saturday, September 15, 2012

The case for non-interventionism

I want to talk in this post about all of the people I hear say that libertarian foreign policy is 'scary.' Often these people will point to Pearl Harbor as an example of what non-interventionism leads to. But that is not even remotely true if you look at the actual events leading up to the attack. Yes, the United States held strong non-interventionist or isolationist (two different terms) views during the period when WWII was brewing. But we were not behaving in a very non-interventionist fashion in 1941. We were sending money and war supplies to Britain, France, and China. When Japan tried to block imports to China in an attempt to stop our supplies from reaching them, we initiated an oil embargo against Japan that crippled their war effort. It was during the second Imperial Conference that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto finally got approval for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but only under the condition that a diplomatic solution was not reached.  Now, Japan certainly gave us no ultimatum that hinted that they were willing to go to war over the issue. And considering that Japan's goals at the time were expansion at the expense of the Chinese people, it's questionable whether any diplomatic solution could have really been reached. But the facts cannot be denied. We were not attacked at Pearl Harbor because we did not intervene. We were attacked because we did. Keep in mind that I'm not saying that we deserved the attack, or any other such nonsense that opponents of non-interventionism usually start accusing its proponents of at this point in the discussion. I'm merely pointing out that you can't blame non-intervention for the attack when in fact the opposite is the case.

Now I want to talk about the other criticism that people want to attack non-interventionists on regarding WWII. The notion that we would stand by and let a holocaust happen. 2012 Libertarian Party candidate for president has stated that he can't imagine any president setting idly by and letting a holocaust happen. I'm a Libertarian, but had I been president in August 1942 when we finally had reliable confirmation of Germany's 'Final Solution' there's no way I would have ignored it. That doesn't mean that an immediate declaration of war and full invasion would have been my first choice either. There's a vast difference between intervening in a holocaust and intervening in every conflict around the world. 

This seems like a good time to talk, very briefly, about the differences between non-interventionism and isolationism. The two are often used interchangeably by opponents of non-interventionism, but they are not the same. Isolationism means that a country does not engage in trade with other countries, they do not have tight diplomatic ties, they may even enforce a ban on immigration all in the name of isolating themselves from the rest of the world. Non-interventionism is not isolationist at all. Under non-interventionism, a country will still have free trade with all nations. Under non-interventionism, a country would still have diplomatic ties with other countries. They just wouldn't have military bases in those countries, or try to police the actions of those countries with military force.  For a real-life example, almost any proponent of non-interventionism would end our trade embargo with Cuba and open ourselves up for more friendly diplomatic ties.

Now let's continue our look at history and how non-interventionism has treated us. For this example, we'll go to the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the United States discovered that there were nuclear missiles dangerously close to our borders in Cuba, there were a few options presented. Some wanted a full on invasion of Cuba, others wanted sanctions or embargoes, or more focused military strike. JFK instead responded initially with a military blockade. Upon hearing of the blockade, Soviet leader Khrushchev call the blockade, "an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war." Kennedy and Khrushchev ended up solving the issue through secret negotiations. Handling disputes diplomatically is a core tenet of non-interventionism and the exact opposite of our current foreign policy of preemptively striking anyone that we even suspect may be a threat to us. It's that core tenet of non-interventionism that prevented a nuclear war, and our current foreign policy that would have started one.

Let's take a quick look at how intervening has done us no good. Obviously, the Vietnam war is a great example of a war that never should have happened, but it's not the strongest case in recent history that can be made for a more non-interventionist policy. In the 80s, Iraq and Iran were at war. The United States government did not like the new leader of Iran. So we gave weapons, money, and specials forces training to Saddam Hussein's army. Of course, for obvious reasons, this further strained our relations with Iran. But it also put into power a man that we would go to war with twice. The second Iraq war was over weapons of mass destruction that didn't even exist. Thousands of lives were lost for a threat that wasn't there. And rather than learn from that, now our politicians are ready to repeat the same mistake in Iran. The same course of action that would have led to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And while we did put Saddam in power and then fight him twice, he's still not the best example of where our interference in the affairs of other nations has came back to bite us. That distinction belongs to our support of Osama Bin Ladin during the nine year war between the Soviets and the Afghans. By interfering in something that really had nothing to do with us, we created the monster that masterminded the most disastrous attack on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor that we discussed in the beginning of this post. But the story of Osama Bin Ladin has a second tier to it. Osama's first opposition to us came during the first Iraq war. He was upset that 'infidels' were occupying Saudi Arabia, which is considered a revered holy land in Islam. If we hadn't propped Saddam up in the 80s, would we have even had the war that angered Osama Bin Ladin so much? If we hadn't propped Osama himself up in the 80s, would he have had the resources to attack us? How many horrible people do we have to put into power before we learn that diplomacy and non-intervention is the best way to keep America safe? How long before we finally realize that violence doesn't end violence, it only extends it? 

So I say to all of you that Libertarian foreign policy isn't scary. It's mainstream foreign policy that is scary. But if you want to see non-interventionism in action, just look at most other countries in the world. Canada faces far less threat of terrorist attack than the United States does, and involves their military in the affairs of far less countries than we do. The same can be said most of Europe. Now, correlation does not equal causation. So that fact may just be a coincidence. But, given all of the evidence presented above to the contrary, I think it's more than fair to say that it is not purely coincidence and that we should be learning something from the foreign policies of more peaceful nations.


  1. People forget about the Flying Tigers too. Then again, FDR's cousin may have been responsible for a lot of what Japan did. He viewed them as the only nation capable of off-setting European powers in Asia. He played far less than an honest broker during the Japan-Russia War, and encouraged Japan's actions in Korea, setting in motion a Japan that was once was use to playing second fiddle to China.

  2. One point about Canada though, it that it is a member of NATO. Thus some policy it supported may not be so transparent. The other is that the USA and Canada may have opposed each other at times, but the USA may also have done work that Canada could coat tail on. Australia similarly has had the advantage (and disadvantages) of US protectorship to allow it to be in a less restrained position in the Pacific.

  3. Those are good points about Canada and Australia. I believe the Flying Tigers were a covert operation, so I don't know if Japan realized that they were Americans. Officially, of course, they were not American servicemen. But I don't think people forget about them, I just don't think they are educated about them. High school was a long time ago for me, but all I remember really being taught about WWII is that we were minding our own business and Japan attacked for no reason. Even as a teenager, I found that idea hard to swallow. People very rarely do anything for no reason. Misguided reasons, irrational reasons, yes, but not for no reason. I can't help but wonder if the official school curriculum for my children will be that the 9-11 attacks happened because the terrorists were jealous of our freedom.
    There could be many factor that led Japan to feel they needed to attack our navy. Even those going back 30 years prior. One of the main points of the Great White Fleet's trip around the world was to show Japan that they were not the only major naval seapower. It's not unconceivable that the event played to the fears that Japan had of our navy and bolstered their belief that they needed to launch a pre-emptive strike. (It should be noted, that Japan did exactly what we are doing today, which should put our own pre-emptive strikes into perspective for those who support them. I doubt it will though)

  4. And what are your views on the biggest threat to the world at this time, Iran. I believe that we should not have a policy that says we will not stand for a nuclear Iran. What could be worse than Pakistan or North Korea having a nuclear weapon. I don't think that Iran would use a nuclear weapon, guaranteeing their destruction. 70% of the population is under 30. They are not happy with the current government, a revolution is no less than a generation away. Israel will try and drag on into a war with Iran because they can only delay Iran. Only the US can stop them. Even if Iran should fire a nuclear weapon at Israel their destruction is assured and many people will die. HOw do we deal with this situation? I say stay out of it at all costs. What says you?