WWII, and the failure of the Allies to stop Nazi Germany early in its aggressive campaign, taught us never to stand by and do nothing when a country becomes aggressive. The Iraq and Vietnam wars taught us that intervening comes at an incredible price, and risks destabilization both internationally and domestically. What is the right thing to do then, intervene or not intervene?
In her recent article (“Will Washington Abandon the Order”) in Foreign Affairs, Kori Schake argues that US retrenchment on the global stage is a mistake that could cost US its influence in the liberal world order. Schake defends interventions, saying that the present global order is more stable and less vulnerable precisely because the US has remained engaged militarily and ideologically on the international scene. Adopting a policy of backing off from enforcing liberal values (human rights, international law) internationally would, she argues, break with the policy of engagement that the US has maintained since the end of WWII and further destabilize the international system. Revisionist countries such as Iran, Russia and China will gain more influence in the vacuum created by US retrenchment, and a re-balancing of power would occur that would weaken the US’s ability to influence the policies and actions of other countries. According to Schake, Obama’s foreign policy can mainly be described as a form of Realism, in that he avoided involvement in new drawn-out, idealistic conflicts, favoring only “pin-prick” air strikes and diplomacy to assert US values. As a self-named Liberal Interventionist, Schake recognizes the dismal failures of past interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), but calls for continued international military engagement in order to defend the liberal order as the US has done in the past. In her words, the US should not over-learn the lessons from its failures. Instead of abandoning military interventions completely, future administrations should focus rather on learning how to intervene correctly.
I can see Schake’s points, for indeed the liberal order is what it is today because the US has engaged in the past. But the US’s past engagements have not only had a strengthening effect on the order, but also and incredibly damaging effect. Iraq, an invasion unjustified by proper intel and unrecognized by international institutions, damaged the legitimacy of the US as a world leader incredibly, not to mention the legitimacy of the institutions the US leads. Much of the trouble and conflict in today’s world was born out of the Iraq War (e.g. increased international terrorism, IS, suspicion among the developing world and revisionist Russia and China), and the US is less influential as a result of that debacle. The Vietnam War had a similar effect on global and domestic morale. I do not doubt that full retrenchment is a mistake, but I also do not support questionable military interventions in other countries that would put the US in a state-building role. This long-term responsibility is not in the US’s best interests. Overthrowing governments and replacing them with them with the type of government the US prefers, breed suspicion and distrust among international partners, and does more to push would-be allies to alternative leaders like Russia and China. While Schake says the US should not rule out interventions completely, I would disagree and say that certain types of interventions, namely regime change interventions, should be wiped from the foreign policy play book completely.
The fact is that the US is empirically proven not to benefit from the business of toppling governments. While military interventions should still be a tool in the future, they should only be used in inter-state situations, where a country has launched an aggressive war against another country. Liberating the victim country as in the case of Kuwait in the Gulf War is a much easier objective than toppling/installing governments and maintaining domestic security. Moreover, all instances of interventions should be legitimized by the United Nations Security Council. Involving institutions is what they are there for and will strengthen the legitimacy of the international order and US actions.