When the United States Left the World
Does American intervention do more harm to the global world than good?
April 12, 2004
The U.S elections of 2008, it can be seen in retrospect, were a true watershed event in American politics.
In a stunning repudiation of previous policy, a public consensus in the United States emerged that the multilateral interventions of the previous 12 years had been a mistake.
The steady, unpredictable terrorist attacks — and, it must be said, the harrowing, but fruitless "alerts" — left the United States demoralized.
Many people around the world believed that, but for American involvement abroad, the terror campaigns would never have happened.
The economy also had an effect. The slow recovery from the 2001/02 recession had encouraged protectionist barriers to trade.
These further constrained the global recovery — and invited foreign criticism Americans found irksome. American preeminence in many arenas was perceived abroad as hegemony and contributed to a U.S.-Europe estrangement.
Traditional ethnocentrism in Asia — coupled with mercantile trade policies — intensified the sense of mutual alienation that arose between Americans and Asians.
In terms of real calamities, there was the collapse of Haitian democracy.
There was also the televised melees in the refugee camps of Burundi and Rwanda, in which Western aid workers were set on fire. Those were followed by the much-publicized case of a French commander at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
He was apparently part of a vast network of agents who had been stealing high-tech U.S. industrial secrets in order to aid French companies.
All these events had the effect of extinguishing the enthusiasm of the U.S. public for foreign cooperation.
Undoubtedly, the decisive event was the discovery that — through a complicated system of loans guaranteed by foreign government bonds — both U.S. political parties had unwittingly accepted huge sums of money from foreign governments whose role was hidden by the use of intermediaries.
Disillusionment and disgust swept across the entire landscape of foreign policy engagement. As a result, U.S. support for the United Nations — which had totaled 25% of the UN annual budget — was reduced to 10% by a joint resolution of Congress.
It was based on the technical ground that the UN was not permitted to acquire debt without the express permission of the Security Council.
Yet, this debt had accumulated as a result of U.S. refusal to pay its dues. U.S. foreign aid, which had stabilized at a meager $10 billion, was slashed by 30% with a proviso that it was to be phased out altogether over a ten-year period.
Funds originally earmarked for Russia to assist with denuclearization were completely cut when comptroller reports disclosed widespread skimming by Russian officials.
For roughly similar reasons, U.S. support for drug eradication in other countries — largely Latin American and Asian — simply stopped.
After a fruitless effort to get NATO to intervene in the renewed Balkan conflict, the United States had allowed the North Atlantic Council to fall into desuetude.
But the most dramatic breaks in policy occurred with those countries that had been caught in the campaign finance scheme: Israel, China and the Gulf States.
The United States had played a pivotal role in the Middle East since I948.
The disclosure of covert campaign assistance by Middle Eastern governments to both U.S. political parties coincided with widely televised reports showing violent Israeli repression of Palestinian marches for suffrage in the occupied areas still under Israeli control.
The savage suppression of a "pro-democracy" movement in Kuwait (including allegations of beheadings) also had an effect.
Many Americans suspected, although probably without foundation, that the campaign finance loans by foreign governments had effectively bought U.S. military assistance to both states.
The result was the withdrawal of U.S. naval forces from the region and a sharp scaling back in security assistance. The continuous fall in world energy prices had reduced the importance of the region to U.S. interests.
But it was at least as significant that, after 60 years, the regional conflict in that area seemed no closer to resolution.
The United States virtually withdrew from any high-profile leadership in the area, taking with it $3 billion in direct aid to Israel and about $2 billion in aid to Egypt.
In Asia, once the Chinese regime had been listed as a "human rights abuser" by the United States in 2004, U.S. statutory restrictions kicked in that had the effect of virtually ceding Chinese markets to European, Korean and Japanese exports.
When China's covert campaign assistance came to light, it appeared that the Chinese were trying to reverse this "decertification" process by corrupt means.
There was some evidence that members of Congress and the administration had made promises to Chinese intermediaries that were embarrassing.
It also became clear that they had made public statements that were plainly at variance with the known facts about Chinese human rights policies.
In fact, it appeared that in many places — Panama and Haiti, Israel and the Gulf, China and Russia — American meddling had been expensive and counterproductive.
Now, this appearance was acutely enhanced by the fact of foreign meddling in American affairs, suggesting to some that hidden forces were manipulating U.S. policy.
Perhaps no line received as much applause in the Inauguration speech as the one the new American president uttered on January 20, 2009.
"No one can see the future. But the recent past has taught us that we must let every nation develop in its own way, make its own mistakes but live — and grow — according to its own lights.
"To do otherwise encourages dependency on the weak and the constant drain of resources from the strong, and above all, interference in other people's business.
"No one — and no organization — are anointed to decide which nations shall survive and which shall be left to fail. We shall tend to our own garden."
As a result, when the Sri Lankan massacres occurred, when the South African coup took place, even when the situation in Guyana potentially threatened a renewal of the boat people crises of the 1990s (only worse, because these refugees were laden with disease) — even then the United States studiously did not intervene. Other states were in much the same mood.
Adapted from "The Shield of Achilles" by Philip Bobbitt. Copyright © 2003 by Philip Bobbitt. Used by permission of Philip Bobbitt.
Professor of Law, University of Texas at Austin Philip Bobbitt is the A.W. Walker Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. As one of the nation’s leading constitutional theorists, Mr. Bobbitt’s interests include constitutional law, international security and the history of strategy. Mr. Bobbitt is a member of the American Law […]