US foreign policy over the past fifty years (whether Democratic or Republican), has been characterised by consensus on certain fundamental points.
Chief among these is the notion that American power ought to be used as a force for ‘good’ in the world.
Another key tenet accepted by the political establishment is that terrorist attacks are motivated by religious fanaticism and hatred of American values rather than practical grievances.
Various scholars have contended, however, that the planks of foreign policy accepted by the mainstream are flawed. In the first place, how can American power be a force for good when the revenue to fund state wars is acquired through coercive taxation, and is thus objectionable from an ethical standpoint? The taxation required to finance interventions constitutes a burden on the productive private sector and is hardly a force for good in the domestic sphere. Mark Crovelli further points out intervening states are themselves illegitimate and may be a danger to those they claim to protect.
Moreover, just as government involvement in economic affairs can produce unintended consequences, so too can military interventions lead to unexpected results. Writers such as Chalmers Johnson and Michael Scheuer have suggested that terrorists attack the US not due to an innate opposition to democracy and freedom, but because of resentment at American actions abroad.
Operations pursued overseas have led to ‘blowback’ against Americans, most notably on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden cited US support for Israel and repressive Arab regimes, the stationing of troops on the ‘holy land’ of Saudi Arabia and the sanctions on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians as specific grievances motivating the 9/11 attacks.
The belief that al Qaeda is motivated by opposition to Western systems of government or culture has led many to support measures such as the PATRIOT Act without pondering the implications for civil liberties. The Act greatly expands the scope of police power. Such an approach does not make much sense however, if one accepts the contentions of Johnson and Scheuer. Instead of curbing civil liberties and moving the US away from the rule of law, it would be better to address the root of the terrorists’ discontent: America’s military presence in the Middle East. This means withdrawing troops from that region, ending foreign aid to Arab regimes and generally pursuing a policy of non-interventionism.
The foreign policy establishment resists non-interventionism. Their analyses invariably propose aggressive deployments and strict sanctions to deter so-called rogue states. The problem with the establishment perspective is that it places the US on a permanent war footing by embroiling the military in sectarian conflicts that could be resolved at the local level.
This has adverse effects on liberty. War increases the size and scope of government: the military-industrial complex is kept well fed under the establishment policy however average citizens suffer reductions in their standard of living. As Randolph Bourne explains, ‘War is the health of the state’.
A common retort is that non-interventionists are naïve about the potential for nuclear weapons to be acquired by terrorists or used by rogue states. However the non-interventionist is in favour of unilateral free trade, meaning that rogue states would be engaged rather than isolated. Engagement, especially with respect to trade and finance, tends to increase interdependency and reduces the chances of war. China will be less eager to attack the US if it has a productive trading relationship with the American people. However the Chinese will feel few qualms about invading a protectionist third-world nation that is of minor economic importance.
States are unlikely to launch a nuclear first-strike because they have a home address and can be wiped out with brute force. The theory of ‘mutually assured destruction’ thus has an important place in devising strategy against rogue states.
But what about terrorists, who have no fixed location and engage in guerrilla warfare? It is improbable that a terrorist organisation could acquire a nuclear weapon. Benjamin Friedman writes: “The possibility that terrorists will soon manufacture nuclear or biological weapons and kill us in droves is remote. The difficulty of making nuclear and biological weapons is generally understated”. Leaders of rogue states know that if they were discovered to pass on such weapons to terrorist groups, they would soon be deposed by the US military, and so are unlikely to risk doing so.
There is consequently little reason to pursue a policy premised on global interventionism. It is important to scale back military bases around the world in order to preserve liberty at home.