Tuesday, March 14, 2006

On Wilsonianism and isolationism

A couple of posts below I promised a long post here, but I am going to cut it back to a smaller post. Events compressed my time for this tonight, but I didn't want to put it off. Here are my semi-condensed thoughts on the two articles.

First let's take a look at the Wilsonian tone of the Bush Administration. The Administration entered into the Iraq War with a certain high mindedness. The war was actually predicated on several issues beyond just the WMD, and freeing and democratizing the Iraqi people was part of that equation. The liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein was followed by democratic "revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Lebanon, as well as coinciding with a warming of relations with Libya. The wave of liberalization was in some ways intoxicating, and the Wilsonian rhetoric from the President, his administration, and his supporters became a little too high minded. It is not impossible to spread democracy amongst peoples not accustomed to it, but it is a long, difficult process. On some level, the right has realized this all along and has always casually warned how long a process would take, even if at times we got a little ahead of ourselves. A Wilsonian policy towards Iraq can work and it is strategically vital that it does. If a seed of freedom and capitalism can be sowed in Iraq and it can take root, then it gives the people of other Middle Eastern nations a new paradigm with which to view their relationships with their governments, turning their frustrated gazes inward where it can make a difference instead of outward where it cannot. In order for us to succeed, though, we will need to make Iraq the primary or sole focus of our efforts. The process is going to require our resources, our sweat, our tears, our time, our patience, and yes, even our blood.

One problem with this is that many conservatives, especially older conservatives, have a natural gag reflex that kicks in when it comes to Wilsonian policy. With Iraq, many of those conservatives were able to choke back that reflex for the first year or two, but once they became frustrated with the effort, it came back to them as naturally as can be. These are Lowry's "To hell with them hawks." As much as I hate to say it, they are wrong in the case of Iraq, even William Buckley. There is little choice at this point but to follow through. For them to throw up their hands in frustration is more grievous to the effort in Iraq than all of the Democratic obstinance up until this point. They were on this train when it left the station, and for them to bail out now is irresponsible. Once they decided to engage the Middle East, they forfeited their right to fall back on isolationist tendencies.

This leads into my second point. As the New York Times story points out, their is a growing trend towards isolationism. I think isolationism is a natural American instinct. We've always had these two oceans that acted as wonderful buffers from the rest of the world, and in the past all we've had to do in order to get a breather from world events is to pull back inside our buffers. Isolationism, as laid out by Washington, was a fine strategy...for 1790 or 1890. The world and the country changed radically in the 20th century, though. Technology, communication, and transportation gains began to shrink our buffers. Natural barriers like oceans meant less and less as it became quicker and easier to travel from place to place. As technology and machinery became more and more advanced, their possible use for evil became easier, cheaper, and more accessible to more people. Instant communication meant that one could virtually be 6,000 miles away. In 100 years, the oceans have been virtually bridged, and it is no longer possible to hind behind our shores.

More importantly, these three areas have made the United States the most powerful economy on the face of the planet. Up until the very early 20th century, we were a very agrarian country that could pull back without the world feeling it very much. By the end of World War I we had turned into a world power. Once that occurred, isolationism was no longer a choice we could realistically make. Oh, we could try, and at times we have, but world powers are simply not capable of being isolationist without ceding economic well being and basically capitulating on a military/national defense front. I'll break it down into an analogy. The world's "big dogs" will always have smaller dogs nipping at their ankles. Some little dogs always want the big dog's position, and that leaves the bigger dogs with two choices. The first is to involve itself with the little dogs to keep them from getting too out of line. The second is to ignore the little dogs and cede its place in the pack. What is not a choice is simply ignoring those little dogs, because they'll bite and chew and the big dog until it either dies or fights back with overwhelming force.

That is the folly of the modern isolationist movement. It believes that it can simply ignore the world and problems will pass it by. They won't. The problems will find us, and they'll find us because we rightfully insist upon maintaining our economic and cultural strength. We can ignore the problems all we want, but they will keep at us until we face the choice of dying or fighting. Getting the point of having to make that choice is to place the nation in a perilous position.

In the big picture, the Bush Administration is doing the right thing for this period of history by engaging the world and putting the breaks on those who would opt for a false isolationism. In the small picture, the Administration an error here and there. Take the guest worker policy that the Times touches on. One of our challenges today is to be globally involved while maintaining a strong social fabric. The United States has always been able to do this by holding out citizenship as a reward that must be earned by immigrants. Because immigrants had to work hard to gain their citizenship, they prized it and were proud to become Americans. This and this alone lead to ethnic groups that would readily weave themselves into the American fabric. That immigration policy has been eroded in this day and age. Today, anyone who wants to be here can be here. There are very few repercussions for not going through the immigration process. The problem is that it is now about being here and no longer about becoming an American. That weakens the American social fabric because there is very little drive for immigrant groups to become part of the country. This creates internal problems that will force us to cast our gaze inward and create further isolationism at time when we really cannot afford it.

In many ways, Wilsonian foreign policy and isolationism at are opposite ends of a bell curve, and the space under that bell curve is the benefit we derive. Swinging to far towards either in its purest form is not going to provide us much benefit. Striking a balance between the two will make us the strongest we can be as we progress through the 21st century-a century that may not end up being another American Century. We are struggling with that balance right now, and I think we will end up finding it in the next ten years or so as long as we don't trip ourselves up along the way. It will be a painful process at times that will require much more patience than reactionary impulses.

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