Monday, August 24, 2009

What’s Wrong With Isolationism? (Part 2)

So I posted my “What’s Wrong With Isolationism?” entry in a forum where I frequent in order to see what others thought.  I did this because most people other there usually do not read what I write here.  Anyway, I did get a very long response from someone there who wrote a counterpoint:

1. The idea that conservatives want active intervention in other nations to secure our interests. This is not accurate. Conservatives want, most definitely to pursue America's interests. The preference is to pursue those goals peacefully, but most conservatives, being realists, advocate a strong defense in order to protect American interests. For example, if a nation were to seize our embassy and hold our personnel hostage - conservatives would be advocates of using force, embargo, threats, pressuring 3rd party nations to get our people home. This is intervention. And it is good. If another nation were to harbor forces that attack our cities and kill our citizens, conservatives would be in favor of attacking that nation and destroying that nation's government that did us so much harm. This is intervention and it is good. There are also such things as "emerging threats" - nations which have expressed a desire to destroy us and are working on the weapons with which to destroy us. The conservative foreign policy is to dissuade that nation by intimidation, appeals to reason, and strength. Failing that, the conservative policy would be to punitively strike that nation and if necessary destroy that nation's government. This is also good intervention. (After the fact, it may even be found that your evidence was poor - your intelligence was bad - or your enemy was incompetent; but in moral terms the intervention was good). There are also times when we simply notice that a nation is tyrannical or inept. The people are suffering and the people are starving. In those case, the conservative policy is to try to persuade the tyrant. Failing that - we might try to bring aid to the suffering. However, engaging in the righting of all the world's wrongs is a fools errand - so using force in a situation where we have no clear national interest - and we are being driven solely by human suffering or sympathy? This is bad intervention. If a nation that is poorly governed sinks into revolution or civil war - unless one of the sides in the civil war is our sworn enemy - the conservative position is to watch the civil war from afar. To pick sides would be "bad intervention".

The above describes the more of the non-interventionist policy more so than it does the interventionist policy that President George W. Bush pushed and conservatives by and large supported.  The Iraq Conflict (I say conflict because there was never a formal declaration of war) was based on bad intelligence from a Clinton holdover.  While I do not believe that George W. Bush lied to get us in to war, he certainly used bad judgment in picking his advisors.  George Tenet was practically jumping on the couch in the Oval Office declaring that there would be stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.  He should have been fired after the whole incident, but instead receiving a medal.  In fact, he should have been fired on 9/12/2001 for his failure to properly oversee intelligence.

It is impossible to have “good intervention” without picking sides.  Even if you try not to, you will end up being perceived as picking sides.  In essence, by your logic, all intervention is “bad intervention.”  I wonder how the Shiite Muslims perceived us when we liberated Iraq?  Did they see us as protectors of freedom or simply Sunni supporters (or Jewish supporters)?  I wonder if the majority of the insurgency was Shiite Muslims who had that perception of us.

2. Trade as "government policy" - This is an error. A common error not unique to critics of conservatism. In fact, many conservatives make the same mistake in that they talk of "Trade policy" and "trade management". The conservative position is that the government has almost NOTHING to do with trade. When I engage in trade at the local hardware store - let's say I go and buy a hammer - the government plays NO ROLE in that free exchange. Likewise, in trade between peoples of differing nations - government should play as small a role as possible. Trade is conducted between people - NOT GOVERNMENTS. This is an important point. And so, the government should have a tiny role in trade. This does not preclude trade embargoes in the name of national defense. But tariffs, sanctions, regulations, prohibitions, etc - these are not conservative positions and they hinder trade. They hinder my right to buy a hammer from a hardware store in Sri Lanka if I so choose. This creates un-needed tension.

I never said that conservatives are not, by and large, minimalists when it comes to trade policy.  The Federal government has the right to regulate interstate trade and international trade and thus will have some kind of trade policy.  To say that they do not is in error.  I merely said that conservatives have been for interventionist foreign policies.

3. Autarky: This is not a conservative position. The idea that we can close out all foreign exchange and simply trade within our borders is a terrible one. It would drastically reduce our wealth. It comes back to Ricardo and comparative advantage. Here is a very simple example of why Autarky (the idea that we can produce everything ourselves) is bad. Extend this idea to an individual. Suppose you are a farmer and you grow your own food. Do you think you will be as efficient a farmer if you also have to make your own furniture, sew your own clothes, learn to be a mechanic, produce your own entertainment, paint your own house, cut your families hair, etc - would you have time for farming? Of course not. This is why trade makes us wealthier! The farmer trades his food for haircuts, furniture, and clothes. The isolationist trade model that you think would make us prosper would not! We want the Hondurans to make our shirts - so we can have time to do more profitable things! So, the conservative (and I might add most libertarians of good will) embraces trade between people (not governments!) of all nations.

Unfortunately, you are wrong in your assessment of what kinds of people support autarky and those who do not.  There are plenty of conservatives who are opposed to open trade with Cuba, Iran, China, North Korea, etc.  Embargos on Cuba and Iran are continually supported by conservatives.  At the same time, there are strong movements to push for 100% domestic oil drilling.  Either that or support for alternative energies to get us off of foreign oil and thus to stop bankrolling terrorism.  Trade with China has come in to question as of late where even some of the more staunchly conservative pundits has called for halts to trade with that nation due to their lack of ethics and their poisoning of food.

On another note, the comparative trade model does not always work out.  It really depends on the nature of the other nation we are trading with.  If the country we are trading with is a stable capitalist country with a decent amount of wealth in its own right, then the comparative advantage does apply.  When you have a country where the economy is centrally planned, then the model can fall apart.  The Dave Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is really just a theory after all.

4. The tendency to say the hell with it: This is what drives people to non-intervention and isolationism. It is the belief that we can "never get it right" so why bother trying. It is a siren call - but it is ultimately a fantasy. Conservatives live in a realist world. We don't seek war, but know they must be fought. We don't seek strife and conflict - but we know the world is full of both. Sometimes the realists miscalculate and get some things wrong. And this is where there are some who say the "hell with it. we suck. we are bad and we are a negative force. No no no - a thousand times no. The realist (conservative) does not say the hell with it. Instead the conservative tries to outline the parameters in which we will pursue American interests. This is why conservatives can look at Somalia in 1993 and say "we have no interest in who runs Somalia" - and be against that intervention. The same conservative would most likely reject the siren call to Rwanda. The same conservative would be against taking sides in Yugoslavian civil wars. He would base all of that on his perception of the national interest. However, in Afghanistan and Iraq - the conservative sees clear national interests at stake.

The United States of America prospered fine during the 1800s while taking almost no interest in the rest of the world.  This changed under the first President Roosevelt where we began to interfere in the affairs of Central and South America.  Following this, President Woodrow Wilson got us in to the First World War, a war we probably should have never bothered to engage in.  It was a war brought about because of the foolishness of the Europeans.  From that, we could probably trace a pattern of interventionist policies onward, although we did have a brief period of what many described as isolationism between the two great wars.

It is high time that we did a cost-benefit analysis of our interventionist policies from the last half century.  You cannot simply say that we did this because it was the right thing to do because if the United States did the right thing all the time, we would be broke and we may not have less enemies around the world.  That is the practical reality of what we are dealing with today.

Now, you may disagree with the conclusion of the conservative (that Iraq is a threat for example) - but this does not mean that we should throw out the methodology of conservatism. That would be like throwing out algebra because you miscalculated the answer to an equation. No! The methodology remains sound: That America should seek good relations with other nations that mean us no harm; that we should respect the rule of law and expect others to do so;that we should allow our people to trade with people of other nations. And that we should be willing to use force, intimidation, threat, reprisal - against any nation that imperils our interests. What are our interests? This is why we have elections to figure that out

Lastly, do not embrace these draconian, rigid belief systems like "non-intervention" and "isolationism" - these are checklist driven, robotic and not realistic. These are the belief systems that lead you to say "No MORE Algebra" when you get the math problem answer wrong.

Why not be grown-ups and realists? Why not get better at algebra?

Indeed, and why not get better at conservative realism?

What benefit has it been to have tangling alliances in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia?  The vast majority of the world despises us, despite our good relations and good intentions.  We feed their poor, we destroy their dictators, and we isolate hostile countries.  And yet, despite all these good things, we end up being despised and called stingy or mean-spirited by a bunch of snobby elites and the sheeple that follow them overseas.  I am proud to be a United States citizen.  While we have our flaws and faults, I believe that we are the greatest nation on Earth right now.  But there is a growing resentment toward us overseas.  Every time there is some international crisis, the United Nations calls upon the United States to fix it.  And what do we get in response to us fixing it?  Nothing but insults and America-hate speeches.  If anything else, isolationism would put those nations on notice that they will have to solve their problems.

I am sick and tired of being the UN’s bitch.  It is high time we told them to go to hell and left them to fend for themselves.  I doubt they would make it a decade without our support.  And I am sure that the world would be a much better place without them.

In all practicality, a nation cannot be 100% isolationist anymore than it could be 100% non-interventionist or 100% capitalist.  There will always be some form of intervention in foreign affairs because the world is (and always has been) connected by the various actions of all of us.  However, a government policy that minimizes intervention in foreign affairs (such as the elimination of foreign aid) would definitely be better than what we are doing now, where, for example, every little nation that is conquered by a larger one must be liberated.  It is usually better to let these things play out, as painful as it may seem to let them go on.