Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Making the Case for Non-interventionismThe Rise of an Inward-focused America

By Eric LeePublished February 10, 2019

Photo from CNN
As its relative power wanes, America must stay wary of foreign entanglements and focus inwards on internal problems endemic to its economy and society that jeopardize its future.

     It was once the case that American power spanned all seven continents. Undergirded by the world’s largest military force and economy and bolstered by the tech boom of the 1990s, Pax Americana seemed to be here to stay. However, the world has changed dramatically since the days of Bill Clinton and baggy jeans.

Admittedly, some realities hold true as America retains its still preponderant position as the world’s foremost economic and military power. Yet, after two long wars in the Middle East totaling four trillion dollars, a near economic collapse, and the hollowing out of its industrial core and middle class, it seems it can only do so much to undo what is, at this point, irreversible. Already, China has outpaced the United States as the world’s largest economy by purchasing power; Beijing registered at just over 23 trillion dollars in 2017 compared to Washington’s 19.3 trillion. And with traditional allies and partners such as Singapore, Pakistan, and the Philippines either questioning America’s ability to contain and protect against a newly emergent China or flat-out switching sides, there is no longer a consensus that Uncle Sam can effectively protect and serve as the region's—let alone, the world’s—hegemon.

But here I say that the idea of an all-powerful, interventionist America is worth leaving to the annals of history. Pax Americana is dead, and there is no need to weep over such a fait accompli. If we are to observe the situation even from a strategic point of view, America no longer needs to intervene in the problems of foreign conflicts and wars in order to secure its own interests. Perhaps, at the turn of the century, America required a proactive and interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East, for example, to secure oil interests to sustain its gas-guzzler-friendly, consumer-driven economy. And while I do agree that the average American’s penchant for unnecessarily large vehicles and wasteful consumption habits have not changed thus far, our energy mix has. With the rise of shale gas among other new arrivals, the United States has never been as energy independent as it is today. This, perhaps, is one fundamental reason that interventionism is becoming increasingly unnecessary and might help explain how American involvement in the Middle East has steadily waned, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw all remaining US forces from Syria last December.

Of course, there will always be the persistent rebuttals of those who view American foreign policy as a mechanism to be used for their own moralistic endeavors. It is almost the quintessential archetype for US foreign policy to tackle humanitarian disasters, oppressive dictators, and evil terrorists as if this were some naïve episode of Madam Secretary on CBS. America is, after all, the leader of “the free world.” However, why should such moral considerations of how our foreign policy should triumph human rights, democracy, and free markets be the main determinant in how we deal with other countries—especially when our own relative power is waning and when our own domestic situation is precarious?

It is one thing to argue that humanitarian relief, foreign aid, and such enterprises are worth continuing in that it improves America’s image in the eyes of the international community and, therefore, its soft power; however, why should the oppressive tendencies of a foreign regime thousands of miles away towards its own people be of such high concern to us when nearly 1 in 5 children in our own country is growing up under the poverty line? Wealth inequality rises to modern historic highs and mounting healthcare and education costs are malignantly eating away at the hard-earned paychecks of the dying middle class. Yet how misguided must our leaders be to put US-led war games in the South China Sea and military subsidies to Egypt before food stamps and Pell grants?

Even without US leadership demonstrated through a fleet of ten aircraft carriers and over a thousand F35 stealth fighters, our allies and the rest of the world will learn to adjust to a more reserved and inward-focused America. Just last November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined French president Emmanuel Macron in support of preliminary plans to further integrate European defense networks in response to America’s reluctance to honor NATO’s collective security clause. Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, moreover, are already developing their own strategies to not just survive but thrive in a post-American Asia Pacific with Japan remilitarizing and South Korea advancing a policy of rapprochement with the North.

Stated simply, we are at a crossroads in our history as a country. Do we choose to go the way of so many superpowers of the past—the Romans, the Spanish, and the British, to name a few—who were both internally and externally annihilated through war, bankruptcy, and obsolescence by the time of their demise? Or do we voluntarily retire our global, unipolar, geopolitical role in one piece and in relative strength ready to fight another day?

Perhaps, this moment of inevitable fall can, in reality, be one of voluntary (and smart) resignation. We have already seen from the election and subsequent presidency of Donald J. Trump that the American electorate and the executive branch that it elected into office have had enough of interventionism. This reluctance for involvement can not only be construed as newfound isolationism of a kind reminiscent of pre-Second World War America and the behavior of a waning superpower; but even more importantly, there is strong real-world rationale for such disengagement.

The level of effort and reform that America would have to muster in order to retain its global unipolar predominance would put too much of a strain on our dwindling resources and would also require too much centralization to the point of establishing a unitary despotism of an almost Caesarian nature. Already, we face record-breaking federal deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios that, if not for a growing, non-recessionary economy, would most definitely be unsustainable. Internal problems inherent to the flawed structure of our economy and society including skyrocketing college debt, healthcare costs, and wealth inequality make for a laundry list of problems.

Of course, the rise of a strong and powerful federal government whose authority to initiate sweeping national reforms in all these concerned areas in an almost authoritarian fashion could potentially solve our current woes. Such a powerful centralized federal government could administer the highest tax hikes on the wealthy since the post-New Deal era, the nationalization of healthcare, the revitalization of our higher education system and infrastructure. However, a centralized state where all power emanates from the capital would be the very antithesis to the foundation of American government. The efficiency and effectiveness notwithstanding, it would go against the very precepts of pluralism, federalism, and constitutionalism that the United States is built on.

In the end, I argue for non-interventionism precisely so that we have the time and energy to repair the country internally in a timely and democratic fashion. It will require stronger efforts and a wider national conversation to create the consensus that will elect the leaders who will make these reforms. However, perpetual international involvement will only make it so that our priorities lie with foreign wars, dictators, and powers rather than the well-being of the American citizenry. There comes a moment when empire becomes too expensive to maintain; America has reached that moment.