Splendid Isolation: A sane foreign policy for America

A proper foreign policy for the US would be consistent with and recognize the limitations placed upon our country by the physical world in which we live.

First of all it would recognize that all countries, including the US, have limited resources. These resources are provided by the private economy; there is no other. All government spending, for whatever reason and however justified, weakens the private economy. Most importantly, the US must reject the myth of “war prosperity”. Military spending detracts from an economy’s productive capacity. It uses precious capital to produce non-consumable goods and robs the economy of some of its most productive citizens. A nation’s leaders must recognize that frugality in a nation’s military spending is as important for the nation’s long term welfare as is frugality in one’s personal household spending.

Secondly, a sane foreign policy would distinguish between what is in one’s true national interest and what is not. It would not embark on military adventures or commit the nation to future military action when national security is not threatened. Furthermore, a sane foreign policy would recognize that it is impossible for the US to judge disputes in foreign lands, as if it were an impartial jury deciding the guilt and innocence of the parties involved.

For the above reasons, the US would not intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, for it would not be able to understand the animosities which led to the conflict. Nor would it commit itself to an open-ended collective security treaty. Not only would such a treaty oblige the US to intervene militarily in long-standing foreign disputes, it would encourage new disputes to the degree that members of the alliance would feel less need to engage in difficult negotiations to find peaceful solutions to the inevitable frictions which arise among nations. Furthermore, collective security agreements suffer from moral hazard and the socialist tendency to consume the resources provided by others.

A proper foreign policy for the US is that of “Splendid Isolation“, a term that came to be synonymous with Britain’s late nineteenth century policy of eschewing both formal alliances with foreign nations and intervention in foreign affairs. Britain’s foreign secretary Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby, articulated the policy succinctly in 1866:

“It is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single of monopolising alliance with an one of them, above all to endeavor not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of an foreign country.”

Notice that the principle has two parts, both of which are necessary for either to become realized in practice–no formal alliances with a foreign power and non-intervention in the internal affairs of foreign nations. One is impossible to achieve without the other.

Alliances oblige members to intervene in matters that would not otherwise be viewed as necessary to the security of the nation, and interventions in the internal affairs of others almost always require at least the tacit cooperation of allies. An example of the former is the US’s intervention in Vietnam. It was triggered by its membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The US waged war in Vietnam for over a decade before abandoning the fight. Today the US and the communist regime there are on friendly terms, an astonishing development on which few supposed foreign affairs experts have commented. Were the deaths and disabilities on both sides and the expenditure of so much treasure even necessary, since the two nations exist harmoniously now? What are Gold Star Mothers to think?

An example of the second principle–that interventions require at least the tacit approval of allies–is the ultimate failure of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956. The US was not informed of the invasion and was placed in a difficult position when Russia threatened to intervene on behalf of the Egyptians. The US was forced to confront Russia, but it also demanded that the British and the French withdraw.

Some may consider the lack of formal alliances and nonintervention in the affairs of others to be a bad thing. If so, let them consider the relevant paragraph of George Washington’s famous 1796 Farewell Address:

36 The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

George Washington did not advise that the US never intervene in foreign affairs or that it never join an alliance. Later in his address he advised that the US conduct its foreign policy on an ad hoc basis “as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel” and that “we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” Temporary alliances and interventions that serve our interest would require exceptional circumstances, a policy which is very similar to Edward Stanley’s dual dictum to eschew formal alliances and interfering in the internal affairs of others.

NATO is an example of an alliance that was formed to meet an exceptional circumstance. All Europe had been weakened by war, and an aggressive Soviet Union maintained a large military presence in the Eastern European countries that it liberated from Nazi rule. The Mitrokhin Archives reveal without a doubt that it had designs on the rest of Europe as well. America’s solemn treaty to defend Western Europe as if it were American soil created a stalemate and deterred Soviet designs until its economy collapsed and new leadership pulled its troops out of Eastern Europe. At this point NATO could and should have been disbanded. Western Europe’s economies had fully recovered. Two NATO nations outside the US, France and Britain, had nuclear weapons. Germany’s economy alone was greater than that of Russia, although it did not possess nuclear weapons.

The fallacy of the necessity of political control of natural resources

America’s current overseas bases and deployments are based to a large part on the great fallacy–one which has led to great conflicts–that a nation’s prosperity depends upon the political control of essential resources. This fallacy drove Nazi Germany, Shinto Japan, and the USSR to imperial overreach and eventual downfall. None of these empires realized anywhere near the pre-occupation production from their conquered lands, which probably were net liabilities from the need of onerous oversight and military protection. Just ask yourself whether it is better simply to buy Middle Eastern oil or to conquer the entire Middle East and attempt to operate the oil industry in what surely would be hostile territory. There is no reason for alarm that control of Middle Eastern oil or any other vital resource would allow America’s enemies to deprive it of essential resources. Whoever controls Middle Eastern oil, even ISIS, will sell it on the world market. Furthermore, the current oil glut is amply evidence that the so-called energy shortage was the result of decades of American price regulation and other governmental restrictions on American energy production. An oil boycott today would bankrupt even Saudi Arabia, who would lose customers to more reliable suppliers. For the same reason Western Europe need not fear undue influence from Russia as a provider of natural gas. Whatever temporary dependency that arises will be the outcome of foolish policies from Europe itself. Germany, especially, is making its economy dependent upon Russian energy supplies by practically outlawing coal and nuclear power production and relying upon wind and solar to take up the slack. The Poles know that this is a foolish policy. They are rebelling against European Union restrictions on electricity production from fossil fuels, of which Poland has ample supply.

The power of the consumer

Those who have personal concerns about foreign production methods or the intent of foreigners to use their export revenue to fund hostile groups may use the time-honored tactic of the consumer economic boycott. Examples include the “Boycott Grapes” movement, the demise of Venezuelan controlled Cities Services/Citgo retail gasoline chain following Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s criticism of America, and the fair trade coffee movement to raise grower incomes. (Citing these examples of the economic pressure that consumer wield is no endorsement that the movements were either just or based upon sound economics, only that consumer pressure can and does work in certain circumstances. Remember, Mises always cautioned that the consumer was king in that his preferences established the structure of the economy.)

In conclusion, pertaining to our overarching relations with others, we would do well to follow Barron’s dictum: “Mind your own business and set a good example.”


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