*“When America steps back and there is a vacuum, trouble will fill that vacuum.”
That remark from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a critique of President Obama’s (without explicitly naming him) foreign policy initiatives of withdrawing American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was also a call to arms with regard to the situation between Russia and Ukraine. Rice is essentially hinting that the world will go to pieces without American leadership.
There are a few problems with this perspective. First it ignores events that could be viewed as troublesome that occurred during American leadership – some might even say as a result of American leadership. Second it creates an unrealistic standard. Third it ties American foreign policy to American narcissism.
It is debatable whether every action in international relations can and should be termed pro-American or anti-American; some events might be neutral. However Rice is under the impression that when America steps back, basically if we aren’t actively pushing for a pro-American outcome, then the result will necessarily be anti-American. There is merit to this way of thinking so I won’t dismiss it completely. But it is far from a certainty that every agreement between nations that we aren’t involved in is a step toward our destruction.
Assuming the perspective that every action is either pro or anti- American raises the stakes and makes it a reasonable conclusion that the United States must be ever present. In Rice’s words: that we must never “step back.” This was of course the dominant perspective when Truman pledged that the United States would meet communist aggression everywhere in the world. The perspective and the commitment to action creates an unrealistic standard of behavior. It is basically a commitment to be involved in every event in the world. This is obviously impossible. And it is equally impossible to allocate military resources to support the pro-American position in every interaction between countries. Rice said Obama’s policies were a result of tiredness and leaders cannot get tired. My counter: can they be realistic?
Furthermore if we understand trouble as something non-peaceful then Rice’s perspective ignores all of the troublesome things that have happened throughout history when the United States didn’t exist. What would the explanation of the Crusades or human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs? Or once this country was established but was not a world power – what is the explanation for the wars of unification in Germany and Italy. It doesn’t make sense that the reason for all of these troubling events was that American didn’t step in; nor does it make sense that these events are inherently anti-American because we didn’t have a presence in them.
In addition once the United States was a world power it can be argued whether or not our presence ensured that trouble would be avoided or whether a pro-American policy will be adopted. Vietnam anyone? And telling me that we would have won the war handily but we didn’t let our military do what it was capable of only proves my point that an American presence guarantees nothing.
Lastly, while I love my country, it is the height of conceit to take the position that without the United States playing a large role in the affairs of other countries that the world cannot go on smoothly. Certainly our interests would not be promoted but it is hardly true that our interests mirror those of the world at large. On a smaller scale it is true that each of us must be involved in a number of interactions to feed ourselves and our families. We are correct in believing our involvement in transactions is necessary for our well being. But we are conceited in believing our involvement in transactions is necessary for the well being of society in general. On the contrary society will continue with or without our input. The same is true of the world without American involvement everywhere.
Recently Time magazine published an article about the dangers for women under the rule of the Taliban – a possible outcome of the United States leaving Afghanistan. I’m not sure our difference in philosophy from the Taliban on how a society ought be governed is enough to act in this instance. And if we did act I’m not sure if we could ever totally eliminate the influence of the Taliban. And I a fairly sure that if we do act it will create more Taliban.
The Cold War is over. It is time to let its foreign policy die as well.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.