NORMAN — The chaos engulfing Iraq, where a brutal radical Islamist group seems poised to take power, has led to a predictable political blame game in the United States and lent new urgency to the debate about U.S. foreign policy and the wisdom of interventionism. Right now, those who believe American leadership has generally made the world a better place are on the defensive. Yet the complicated truth is that abandoning leadership may lead to even worse results.
In a New Republic essay titled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” Brookings Institution fellow and “liberal hawk” Robert Kagan warns against retrenchment, arguing that the post-World War II “liberal world order” established under U.S. stewardship created unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe and Asia. My Reason magazine colleague Jesse Walker offers a trenchant critique of Kagan on the libertarian magazine’s website, pointing out that his account of 20th century history leaves out places where America’s role was far less positive — such as Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Asia, where the U.S. supported repressive dictatorships, most notoriously the Pinochet regime in Chile.
Walker makes a persuasive case that Kagan’s account of U.S. leadership and its effects is “prettified” to the point of inaccuracy. But Walker’s rendering leaves a major unanswered question. In the cases he cites as examples of negative U.S. influence, it was the global contest between the West and the Communist bloc that had disastrous effects on liberty and self-government. What would have been the effects of American non-intervention or retrenchment under those circumstances, essentially leaving the field to totalitarian regimes?
Historical what-ifs rarely have clear answers. But a further expansion of the Soviet empire with no significant resistance would have likely prolonged communism’s life and created more repressive dictatorships. South Korea during the Cold War was not a nice place, but it was a paradise compared to North Korea.