Defense & National Security

Can America afford to be isolationist?

Can America afford to be isolationist?

There is a major gap between the isolationist trending, war-weary American public and the presidential candidates who advocate expanding America’s global leadership. Bridging that gap is a tall order for the next president.

The current national mood compares to periods after other wars when Americans called for military spending cuts and economic rebuilding at home. The difference this time is that America can ill afford to cocoon at home because of intertwined interests abroad.

A new Pew Research Center survey found an isolationist mood among Americans who question the benefits of our global leadership which President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney espoused during their recent foreign policy debate. They spoke of a dangerous world marked by military and economic challenges and the need to spread American values.

During the debate Obama spoke of America as the “indispensable nation” in dealing with world conflicts and the point that “America has to stand with democracy.” Romney said America must “make the world more peaceful” and “America must lead.” Both men indicated they would limit the use of military force in recognition of the public’s mood shift, however.

The candidates promised to limit or avoid American military involvement in places like Syria and remove the last U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Romney quipped, “We can’t kill our way out of this [Mideast] mess,” and Obama said “it is absolutely true that we cannot just meet these challenges militarily.” But they agreed military force might be needed as a last resort if Iran does not curb its nuclear weapons ambitions.

A recent Pew survey, however, confirmed the American isolationist mood. Two out of three Americans believe the U.S. should be less involved with leadership changes in the Mideast “Arab Spring” revolutions. Rather, 54 percent said it was more important to have stable authoritarian-led governments like that of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak than try to spread democracy that fails to produce lasting improvements for the people.

In fact American support for promoting democracy abroad sharply shrunk over the past decade, according to Pew. In 2001, 29 percent believed promoting democracy should be a high priority; now 13 percent endorse the same view, probably because of the cost in blood and treasure to nation-build in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, 64 percent of Americans believe countries that receive American aid “end up resenting us” which fuels our skepticism.

The survey demonstrates strong consensus (60 percent) for ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan as soon as possible but on another front the public supports tougher policies. Most (56 percent) say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, while 35 percent say it is more important to avoid a military conflict.

So why do both presidential candidates call for more American global leadership given the growing isolationist public mood?

At the heart of isolationism is avoidance of alliances, foreign economic commitments, and foreign wars in order to devote the country’s efforts to its own advancement and to remain at peace. But the presidential candidates evidently realize America’s global interdependence makes isolationism a historic relic.

For the first half of America’s history she managed to avoid most foreign entanglements and when she did fight it was as a non-aligned power like in World War I. Then came the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 which drew American troops into a global bloodbath. America emerged from that conflict a global power and never returned to the comfort of isolationism in part because of the demands of emergent globalization.

America’s modern structure depends on the globalized interdependency of information, work, security, economy and culture. Economically we can’t survive as an isolationist country because we no longer have a manufacturing base to meet our needs and commodities like food and oil make the U.S. globally interdependent. Our national security depends on a global presence and instant global communications. Our financial services and education attract and depend on people from across the world. And the pace of global integration is speeding up due to dramatic advances in technology, communications, science, transport and industry.

While the average American may yearn for the good old isolationist days, the presidential candidates apparently understand our global interdependence and America’s inherited responsibility to lead, like it or not.

So how does the next president balance public desires for more isolationism, the reality of globalization, and America’s global leadership responsibilities? The answer comes from the presidential candidates.

First, America needs a “strong defense” and “strong allies” to deter would-be aggressors said Mr. Romney. Our global security challenges will increase with more interdependency which means we must be more prescriptive in the use of military force. Further, as Mr. Obama said, we must focus “on alliances and relationships” to build-up our foreign partners’ ability to defend themselves through security cooperation programs; training and equipping them to defend themselves and fight regional conflicts.

Second, there must be more accountability for our aid and more defense cost sharing. Mr. Romney illustrated the accountability challenge.

America poured more than $25 billion of aid into Pakistan since 2001 but that country is questionably an ally in the war against the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, said Romney. Yet “Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads and they’re rushing to build a lot more.” If Pakistan falls apart, Romney said, and “becomes a failed state,” it would pose an “extraordinary danger” to us.

Also, as President Obama said in the debate, America spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined. Our allies must invest more in their defense and share more of the responsibility defending the global commons – space, sea and cyberspace.

Third, our foreign policy must invest in stable partners. Both candidates espouse democracy, but like the current crises across the Mideast, our national interests are not served nor that of the affected populations when stability is replaced by instability, even if it is “democratic.” Besides, as President Obama said four times in the debate, “after a decade of war it’s time to do some nation building here at home” but we can’t ignore global challenges and stable partners help.

Finally, America must embrace sound economic policies and a balanced budget. Governor Romney said “promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it’s an honor that we have it.” Then he cited former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who said that our debt is the biggest national security threat we face…. We need a strong economy.” An economically strong America is evidence of sound global leadership and comforting to our war-weary public.

The majority of Americans may express isolationist tendencies, but it is clearly not in our national interest. The next president must be a true leader who can present the case to the nation that America must remain a global leader through global involvement. Not doing so will render America isolated, impotent and irrelevant.

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