This article is part of a Face Off series. Its opposing article, “In Defense of Foreign Intervention – Why the US should stay at the table, even if it’s the least welcome guest right now,” can be found here.
What would be the worldwide consequences of a much more shy, introverted U.S.? Realistically, less American intervention, militaristically and economically, would have big benefits for a world in economic transition. Less American influence in poor nations will allow them to develop independently and become active players in the world market, which will in turn benefit all economic players (including us).
A withdrawn American foreign policy would most immediately and observably benefit the Global South: poor regions sometimes referred to by their Cold-War era epithet, the “Third World”. Although the well-intentioned, flag-waving, Red Cross-donating Christian humanitarian in all of us has become accustomed glorifying intervention and foreign aid, this “aid” often does more harm than good. Historically speaking, “intervention” in foreign nations has been an act of militaristic or cultural colonialism. From territory-conquering campaigns in Africa and Southeast Asia to Cold War campaigns rooted in “domino-theory” mentality, rich nations in Western Europe and North America have conquered or courted developing nations in order to consolidate their own power.
America isn’t innocent: previous administrations have propped up puppet governments (often dictators such as Batista in Cuba) and squashed local uprisings before our economic or political interests are challenged. These are consistent (and unfortunately bipartisan) patterns in U.S. foreign relations. American corporations have also weaponized political interests to influence other nations. For example, The now-defunct United Fruit Company lobbied Truman to topple the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 in order to maintain profits. “America First” interests destabilized Guatemala’s autonomy, prohibited civil and labor right development, and undermined Guatemalan sovereignty.
The political history of the Middle East is even more mottled by a history of Westerners “intervening.” Intervening in regional or civil conflict may promote our national ideals temporarily, but it ultimately prohibits the formation of autonomous national institutions that establish law and order by their own power, and requires much more money, maintenance, and (often) American lives. Outliers, such as foreign ethnic violence or genocide, might be considered separately, but we should keep in mind that much of the ethnic violence in the Global South is a direct result of regionalist and separatist attitudes distilled by imperialist powers during these regions’ period as colonies.
We don’t even have to send in troops or pick regimes to keep poor nations dependent on us- we just have to give them economic incentive to serve our needs. In the postcolonial world, large, rich “core nations” like the United States divide labor and production across themselves and developing “periphery” countries. These periphery countries in the Global South, like Malaysia, specialize in output of a particular commodity, such as palm oil, and export to core nations like the U.S. In essence, entire national economies are rewired to be large-scale factories of things we want. This results in low economic or professional diversification, heavy natural resource exploitation (and the irreversible environmental degradation that comes with it), and dramatic socioeconomic gaps. Additionally, poor periphery countries lack agricultural independence and are reliant on their parent core nation for basic food imports- racking up a large fiscal debt and reinforcing the master-servant relationship.
Core-periphery relationships also result in a dramatic loss of international social diversity as the core nation’s cultural and religious dogmas permeate into the poor periphery countries along with popular media and dominating imports. This phenomenon is often called neocolonialism, and is reinforced by humanitarian giving. According to Nobel prize winning economist Angus Deaton, foreign aid in developing governments fails to stimulate growth. More commonly, it promotes governmental corruption, slowing economic growth and human rights development. Private humanitarian charities, characterized by free food distribution in developing areas, outcompete local agriculture and independent food production, reduce incentive for economic diversity, and reinforce dependent commodity-centered export economies. Education-based charities may not necessarily have the same economic effects, but risk spreading cultural and social norms that threaten diversity and reinforce dependency on core nations.
If America were to accept its hegemonic decline and severely scale-back international intervention, on the other hand, currently poor nations would have incentive and breathing room to establish autonomous governments, diversify economies, and manage their natural resources according to their own interests and benefit. Increased economic independence in current non-players would stimulate competition in the global market and benefit consumers. Most importantly, greater sovereignty would incentivize careful, sustainable management of environmental resources and irreplaceable ecosystems. While the environmentalist in me is showing, I’ll add that leaving the Paris Accord was a bad call no matter how you look at it.
We have to relax our grip on global politics and trade to allow developing and semi-developed nations to come to the trading table independently and sustainably. In any case, taking our current leaders out of the spotlight might do a lot to heal our wounded reputation.
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