The danger of repeating the cycle of American isolationism
History has shown that, once the United States chooses to lead, we and the world benefit. After World War II, U.S. aid helped rebuild shattered European and Asian economies. Those nations are now not simply at peace — they are among our most important trading partners. The U.S. naval presence on the high seas has guaranteed the free flow of goods. Without it, increased piracy, lower trade flows and higher prices would result — not just for our country but for the world. The hundreds of millions who rose out of poverty in the latter half of the 20th century are markets for U.S. goods and forces for stability that might never have existed without the global compact secured by U.S. leadership.
Rather than cutting first and then asking how we can manage with what’s left, we must define our priorities and interests — and only then determine how to allocate resources. If the United States is still committed to fostering a freer and more democratic world, supporting free trade, maintaining international stability and meeting threats abroad, then there must be a reasoned discussion of the ways in which diplomatic retrenchment and military budget cuts may limit our capacity to achieve those critical national goals.
Just as the benefits of U.S. global leadership are often ignored, so, too, are the costs of retrenchment. Proposed cuts in aid and military strength, especially when implemented under strategic guidance that calls for a “small footprint” in the world, will affect our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and individuals. U.S. disengagement will also foster the emergence of military, diplomatic or economic forces that will fill the vacuum created by our absence. We cannot predict how much it might ultimately cost to counter those forces but, again, experience dictates that the price will be high.