As Americans have sacrificed blood and treasure to safeguard ourselves against our enemies and defend our interests, we also have protected any number of other nations and served their interests. Not unfairly, we have looked upon these as “free riders” and thought of ourselves as fostering in them a kind of international welfare dependency. From time to time, Americans have called for these people to make greater efforts on behalf of common goals and, if they do not, for us either to stop protecting them or to “make them pay” for the protection we provide.
Donald Trump’s call to stop fighting ISIS unless the governments it most directly threatens “substantially reimburse” the United States for our services, and to withdraw our nuclear guarantees from Japan and South Korea unless they also pay, is but the latest of these calls.
But whereas previous calls of this kind advocated ceasing to do such things, Trump is perfectly willing for Americans to continue serving other nations’ military needs so long as we get paid for it. The American people have always thought that the U.S. government should not hazard American lives for any but our own safety and interest, and hence that we should not mind others’ business or be the world’s policemen.
Instead, for Trump, the distinction between our business and that of others seems unimportant. He is perfectly willing to send Americans to kill and be killed, and to make commitments in any given instance, without ascertaining what is in it for us except for money. Americans as the world’s cops is okay with him, so long as we are rent-a-cops.
Time for Some Real Values Clarification
The “free rider” phenomenon is all too real. Any number of governments, beginning with our oldest NATO allies, long ago became so dependent on us for security that they have lost the capacity to help themselves. They may get to being beyond anybody’s help.
Others (e.g., Saudi Arabia) have always been. Rightly do we resent our bipartisan foreign policy establishment’s officials who imagine themselves masters of the global chessboard, endowed with the capacity to settle the world’s affairs, or who “go native” and hence confuse others’ business with our own.
Trump’s kind of thinking however, further fuzzes American statesmanship’s proper focus by reducing America’s international affairs to money. Above all, it treats the lives of Americans as commodities. By contrast, a due regard for the value of our own lives requires us further to clarify the distinction between America’s business, to be defended with all we’ve got, and that of others more sharply than our government has in recent decades.
Once, We Distinguished Our Own Foreign Interests
Failure to make and keep that vital distinction has been a problem. Once upon a time, we were clear about that distinction. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower kept U.S. troops in Europe after 1945 to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its capacity to make war on America—only incidentally for Europe’s sake. Similarly, we guaranteed Japan’s security not out of any warmth for the Japanese people, but rather to avoid a repeat of the twentieth century’s deadly struggle for mastery of the Western Pacific between Russia, China, and Japan.
But then the Cold War’s logic led our bipartisan foreign policy establishment to conclude that keeping America safe required us to improve mankind. The idea of American security morphed into an imperative for global meliorism. Our establishment confused the good incidental results that America’s struggle with the Soviet empire were producing for the rest of the world with the very purpose of America itself. They came to believe that all this authorized them to send American troops around the globe to kill and be killed to satisfy allies as well as to improve hearts and minds.
The American people have never looked kindly on this sort of thing.
Trump Repeats George W. Bush’s Fatal Mistake
Most recently, after President George W. Bush had invaded Iraq and overthrown a regime that had been fostering terrorism against us, Saudi diplomacy convinced him to occupy that country to preserve in it a favorite place for the Saudis’ favorite minority, while our foreign policy establishment convinced him to occupy it to reform it. Thus eclipsing America’s own interest produced any number of disasters. ISIS is one of them. Would the occupation of Iraq have been more in America’s interest had Saudi Arabia paid for it?
ISIS is many nations’ problem. But it is America’s by virtue of the fact that it has beheaded Americans and that it continues to inspire some Americans to kill other Americans. Therefore, regardless of what problems ISIS poses to anyone else, we are obliged to deal with the fact that ISIS not only kills us but that its continued survival kills respect for Americans, which respect is our first line of defense. ISIS destroyed, by whomever, would be good for America. But it would be best for America if Americans destroyed ISIS for what it has done to Americans, and for the world to take note of that.
Suggestions such as Trump’s, that we might leave the fight against ISIS to others unless we are paid, proceed from failure properly to identify for what we rightly hazard our lives. They reduce the American military to mercenaries and American statesmen to their contractor.