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Non-Intervention as Foreign Policy

A beautiful ideal, but not terribly practical for the messy world in which we live.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

February 5, 2012 - 12:00 am

Part of what makes Ron Paul’s candidacy so attractive to some Americans is his unwavering commitment to a foreign policy called “non-interventionism.” Some critics of non-interventionism call it isolationism, comparing it to U.S. policy in the period between the world wars.  To call it isolationism is, in one sense, not terribly fair: the word “isolation” suggests that President Paul would cut us off from the rest of the world. Such isolation was not really possible in the 1930s, and today, it is even less possible.

Calling it “isolationism” is also unfair because it is historically inaccurate to describe U.S. foreign policy in the 1930s as what Ron Paul proposes. The U.S. was by no means “non-interventionist” at that time.  Indeed, I am hard-pressed to find a time in American history when Ron Paul’s foreign policy as an idea would have been regarded as mainstream.

I was active in the Libertarian Party back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s. I am pretty sure that the last vote I cast for a Libertarian Party candidate for president was in 1988 — for Ron Paul.  I read much of the foreign policy material from libertarian authors like Murray Rothbard and Justin Raimondo in this time, as well as the U.S. Senate report “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders” (1976).  While I could and did argue for a non-interventionist policy, I did not have the wild enthusiasm for it that some members of the party expressed. I often found myself with a nagging suspicion that something was missing from the simple, beautifully consistent formulations that were so popular in the more ideological circles: that the U.S. forced Japan into World War II by shutting off trade; that the U.S. made Hitler’s rise to power possible because our entry into World War I prevented a negotiated settlement between the two sides; that the U.S. made our enemies in the Middle East because of our one-sided support for Israel; that the U.S. was a principal cause of war in the modern world.

When I went back to college to complete my BA and MA in History, I read a wider range of sources, and I found that most libertarian foreign policy history (like most libertarian economic and political history) was terribly incomplete and often misleading.  Perhaps the final blow to my belief in the “our intervention makes other countries hate us” theory was Jonathah Kwitny’s Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World (1986).  Kwitny was arguing for Ron Paul’s model of “why they hate us.”  By the time I finished reading Endless Enemies, his method of argument and his incomplete examination of the facts had done rather the opposite of what an author is supposed to do: Kwitny had persuaded me to the opposite point of view!

I am not saying that these authors were intentionally lying.  A better description would be that these authors’ enthusiasm for a particular ideological model had caused them to select sources that fit the results they wanted, and take a less-than-critical eye about the sources that they used.  (This is by no means a problem limited to libertarians; any highly ideological approach leads to problems like this.)

As an example: Thomas Jefferson’s farewell address is often quoted by libertarians (and liberals) to point out that the U.S. should have “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”  True enough, but Jefferson is hardly an example of non-interventionism.  The United States overthrew Muslim foreign governments in North Africa rather than pay tribute — and this action took place on Jefferson’s watch. (By the way: the Barbary pirates described themselves as jihadists; holy warriors, with the right to enslave any non-Muslim. I am still trying to figure out how to blame the modern state of Israel, founded in 1947, for why they hated us in 1800.)  Congress also built up a “small but meaningful navy” for the purpose of foreign intervention, far from American shores.

Okay, maybe you could argue that this foreign intervention was in defense of U.S. citizens, attacked on the high seas. But other Jeffersonian interventions were not so easily justified. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase from France was the carrot; the threat of American invasion was the stick that encouraged Napoleon to make the sale.  Jefferson sent troops into Spanish West Florida as a similar incentive for Spain to cede the lands to the United States.  Jefferson’s successors James Madison and James Monroe continued to intervene, sending troops into Spanish West Florida to force transfer. The War of 1812 was also not a defensive war; while the U.S. had legitimate complaints against the British government, the invasion of Canada was driven at least in part by the desire to add those lands to the United States.

There simply is not enough room to fully explore how fundamentally the United States has always had an interventionist foreign policy. Often, it has been with embarrassing objectives, such as the expansion of slavery through the Mexican War.  Sometimes, it has been in pursuit of legitimate human rights concerns, such as the concentration camps in Cuba which led (in part) to the Spanish-American War. (This photograph of a mountain of skeletons at a concentration camp near Havana was taken by the great-grandfather of a student.)

Of course, good intentions are not enough.  There are foreign interventions in which the United States has stepped in it good and proper, such as Somalia, where the intentions were good, but the results were not.  Sometimes, the motives are hard to figure out in hindsight.  As an example, the U.S. has a long history of intervention in Central America, especially in Nicaragua. I spent a very long time reading through 1909 newspapers, trying to figure out which of several theories for why the U.S. intervened actually make sense. At the end of my research, I concluded that there were likely multiple motives, including protection of U.S. citizens in the Bluefields area, and those who attempt to cast it strictly as a crass intervention on behalf of United Fruit’s interests have oversimplified it.

There are other interventions, such as the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, which look worse in hindsight than they did at the time. Cold War geopolitical concerns often trumped our own ideals about democracy and human rights. Depressingly enough, in some parts of the Third World, there were no good guys — just different groups of thugs exploiting the peasants. There were many times when local political leaders used the Cold War to manipulate the superpowers in ways that were not in the best interests of anyone but the local thug wearing a uniform with too many medals. Short of occupying the country, democracy — even relatively benevolent dictatorship — was not an option. In this respect, the Iraq War, for all its failings, was at least making an honest attempt to re-establish a democratic republic, and not just putting a new thug in charge.

I certainly agree that the U.S. should exercise considerable care in deciding where to intervene, and when. Still, I find the whole non-interventionist foreign policy idea like much else of libertarian thought: a beautiful ideal, but not terribly practical for the messy world in which we live.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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