Why is US foreign policy so interventionist

Is US isolationism returning?

by Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke

A short version of this article was published in the Tagesspiegel under the title “America's Tired Warriors”.

What is it worth the news that a new think tank for foreign and security policy has been founded in Washington? Little one would think. But the founding of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in the summer of this year is worth more than just a side note - because it was made possible largely by funds from two major donors whose worldviews could not be further apart: George Soros, a social-liberal globalist, and the conservative- libertarian Charles Koch, whom US President Donald Trump would probably call a patriot. The establishment of the new Quincy Institute was hotly debated in the United States, and not just because of its prominent sponsors.

The new institute has set itself the task of "ending America's endless wars". It refers to the 6th President of the USA, John Quincy Adams. Adams is considered an advocate of isolationism, a US policy that stays out of world politics. In a speech on Independence Day in 1821, he expressed this doctrine: “The United States of America does not go out to look for monsters abroad to destroy. You are the congratulator of freedom and independence for all. They are advocates and defenders only of themselves. "

Isolationism is as old as the US, and it stems from its troubled transatlantic history. It was above all the wish of the European immigrants in this country that only a short time before Adam's ‘presidency declared his independence from the former colonial power, to stay out of the turmoil of the European continent. They wanted to shape the future in a self-determined and independent way - and so isolationism became the leitmotif of US foreign policy. This only changed when the USA entered World War I, almost 100 years after John Quincy Adams gave isolationism a doctrine. It is Woodrow Wilson who is representative of the other foreign policy leitmotif of the United States, interventionism, according to which it is the task and interest of the United States to work internationally for a world in freedom, independence and peace. This idea, too, finds its inspiration more in American history than in foreign policy constraints. “Manifest Destiny”, or as the journalist O'Sullivan puts it, “the manifest destiny of the nation to expand and take possession of the entire continent, which Providence gave us for the development of the great experiment of freedom and an alliance of sovereigns united has entrusted. ”Originally this doctrine referred to the settlement of the western areas of the USA. With her graduation and America's economic and military strength in the world, however, the frame of reference for the continuation of the "Freedom Experiment" was expanded.

With the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, interventionism replaced the isolationism of the USA as a leitmotif for foreign policy. The “liberal order” much described today is based on the premises of the liberal interventionists. How strong the influence of Manifest Destiny still is on the foreign policy conception of the USA is shown in a statement by Bill Clinton at the end of the 20th century. He called the USA the "indispensable nation", the indispensable nation.

From his time, Bill Clinton was certainly right. And - as the history books will have to show - it was also his years as US President that not only marked the zenith of US power, but also the climax of liberal internationalism as a principle of US foreign policy. His successor, George W. Bush, was also in this tradition - and led the country into two armed conflicts that are now synonymous with America's endless wars: Afghanistan and Iraq. One of Barack Obama's key campaign promises was to bring the US military footprint in the world, and above all the missions in the Middle East, to an end and bring the troops back to the US. He tried to fill the vacuum that he had created with the resulting policy through multilateral agreements and demanded that the United States' partners assume more responsibility for their own security.

Donald Trump, with his “nation first” doctrine, is also keen to withdraw from military operations in the Middle East. But he is not an isolationist, as the conservative American publicist Robert Kagan rightly pointed out. The current US president does want to interfere in the world, but not to maintain a “liberal order” as an “indispensible nation”, but to enforce American interests with the help of the economic dominance of the dollar, if necessary also against the partners and allies of the UNITED STATES.

There is a new longing to turn your back on the world.

But there are great overlaps in the public perception of the US President's policies with the new longing to turn your back on the world. Even if Trump is massively criticized for his alliance policy - even within his own ranks - his policy of military withdrawal is recognized in completely different circles, namely among the left wing of the Democrats. It was Bernie Sanders who brought the term “America's Endless Wars” back into discussion, and who, above all, called for a rethinking of the military as an instrument of US foreign policy. His Democratic rival for president, Elizabeth Warren, is also an advocate of this idea of ​​withdrawal.

The Quincy Institute takes up the withdrawal thesis as well as the central role of the military. In the guidelines the direction of the institute becomes clear: “The USA should be in an exchange with the world. The core of this exchange is peaceful cooperation between peoples. That is why the US must value peace and pursue it through emphatic diplomacy [...] The use of armed forces is not synonymous with America's engagement in the world. Violence ends human life [...] and prevents any real dialogue. Any use of military force should only be used as a last resort. The task of the military is to defend the citizens and the territory of the USA and not to act as a global police force ”.

With this approach, the institute stands out in the think tank landscape of Washington, because here, regardless of whether it is more conservative or more liberal-progressive, the need for international engagement - including military ones - is not fundamentally called into question. It is also this interventionist consensus bubble in the foreign and security policy think tank world in Washington that the Quincy Institute expressly opposes. The founding members want to break this crust and think about a US foreign policy that relies less on the military as a foreign policy instrument than on superior diplomacy. As Daniel Wertheim, one of the founders, points out, despite the loans to John Quincy Adams, the institute expressly does not see itself as an expression of an isolationist reflex. It's not about the US pulling out of the world, it's about how to shape its connections in the world. There is also a criticism of the fact that the use of military means was handled too carelessly in the past. You don't want to be categorized as an isolationist or an interventionist, or even across any party spectrum. The self-image of the Quincy Institute is “transpartisan” - beyond the categories either-or to be discussed.

The Quincy Institute is picking up on a trend: the United States' withdrawal from its role as guarantor of a global order.

The fact that the two men of all people who, with their billions, support the two camps of US politics, Democrats and Republicans, can agree to invest money in this institute, shows that the Quincy Institute is picking up a trend that is increasing regardless of party political background Finding support: The US withdrawal from its role as guarantor of a global order. It is unclear whether the financing was discussed between Koch and Soros and how it came about in detail or was established by the foundations. It is probably also idle, because in July the institute was founded with its funds.

But not only the billionaires' money or the fact that there are obvious points of contact between actors as differently oriented as the current president and his possible challengers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren shows that the institute and its orientation as a challenger to the prevailing, interventionist opinion puts his finger in an open wound in the foreign and security policy debate. In contrast to the German-speaking media, its establishment was hotly debated in the USA. The guns of the prevailing opinion were quickly brought out and the institute was accused of "isolationism".

Whether the debate that sparked the founding of the Quincy Institute is a flash in the pan, or whether the institute actually succeeds in making a measurable contribution to ending “America's endless wars” cannot yet be conclusively assessed.

The people are tired of the many wars.

Much more important is the observation that the founding obviously picks up on a trend that seems to be able to reach a consensus between the increasingly polarized political camps. It must therefore be assumed that even after Donald Trump the idea of ​​the US “withdrawal” will remain politically attractive. The people are tired of the many wars.

Something can be derived from this trend for the current German foreign and security policy debate, which is no less lively, at least since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's two advances. It would be as simple as it would be foolish, from a German and European point of view, to give in to a feeling of superiority based on the slogan “we have always said: Less military - more peace” based on the signals that the growing trend of isolationism is sending across the Atlantic. A second possible conclusion that Germany, now that the US is no longer involved in the military, is now assuming international responsibility primarily through the use of military means, is wrong.

For Germany, neither moral superiority nor the substitution of US military engagement is indicated.

Neither moral superiority nor the substitution of US military engagement is indicated. Rather, it is about developing your own conception of foreign and security policy - questions that include the military but go far beyond it.

The German debate shows a parallel to the US discourse - here, too, there is a consensus bubble, which is best summarized under the motto “Take on more responsibility”. This also applies to the think tank landscape in Berlin, which is very manageable compared to the USA. The concept of “responsibility” has the advantage that it can be interpreted from all sides. International responsibility can therefore be just as much military restraint as increased military engagement. The interpretation therefore adapts to the interpreter.

But the nicest thing is that the statement that you will take on "more responsibility" from now on easily evokes the good feeling that you are already doing something. Despite all the revival that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gave to the security policy debate in Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been standing still for years. And despite the standstill and empty content that characterizes this debate: there is no shortage of it. We have been discussing networked security for years and the fact that Germany must take on more responsibility for security, especially in a European context - without any significant progress.

Many think tanks in the political environment of Berlin ask themselves questions about foreign and security policy. Institutions such as the Science and Politics Foundation are now at the forefront of international comparative rankings, and with a certain justification. In contrast to their counterparts in the USA, their orientation is less strongly influenced by particular economic or political interests. Your self-image is primarily academic. In order to maintain this independence, the federal government has increased the funds for peace and conflict research. Despite all the academic discipline and diversity: The results of research rarely contribute to the definition of the term “responsibility”. In any case, we are far from a competition of ideas on the political stage. Rather, the impression arises of a competition of sensitivities.

The USA will continue to withdraw from its international engagements. The people are tired of wars that are far away and seem endless. That goes for Democrats and Republicans, for supporters of Trump and those of his challengers. The question that the Quincy Institute asks, namely what a future US foreign policy might look like, is one that must be of burning interest to us as a country that is linked to the United States in a variety of ways, including militarily.

One thing is clear: Germany will have to invest more in security - its own, but above all that in the alliance, both European and transatlantic, because Germany’s security was and will remain dependent on it. It is in our interest. This also includes handling the military instrument. We are cautious on this issue for good reasons. However, reluctance should not be confused with repression. Just because it is difficult and uncomfortable, we must not avoid this question. And just because they are asked does not mean that one is speaking of an irresponsible militarization of German politics.

The fundamental shifts and changes in international politics that we have been experiencing for several years make it abundantly clear that we in Germany are called upon to rethink foreign and security policy. So that we do not fall into old reflexes and cling to recipes from the past, we must not lose our political sense of the realities of international politics. So Germany is less looking for its John Quincy Adams than for “responsible statecraft”, the responsible statecraft that the institute bears in its name.