For the past few weeks, tensions have been on the rise in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt has been getting most of the press (and social media) coverage from what I have seen, but other countries have been affected as well, including Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Tunisia. Mainly young people raging against the well-heeled establishment, trying to get what they view as a better opportunity in life. Seems like a worthy cause and something the United States would get fully behind. But life is not always that easy when you are the lone superpower in the world.
In his farewell address after serving two terms as president, George Washington proposed a course of neutrality and isolation for our fledgling country. The argument was that we are physically isolated from Europe and all of her infighting, so why should we jump in and get involved in things that hold no long-term benefit for us and only drag us down. This was a rather pragmatic position to take, given that our country was still trying to get a sense of its place in the world and how it was going to govern its own people.
For much of our history, this was mostly how the United States functioned. They are over there and we are over here, except for in extreme circumstances. Even during World War II, which on the surface would appear to be a rather extreme circumstance, we mostly sat on the sidelines for almost 2 years. It wasn’t until the action hit much closer to home at Pearl Harbor that we entered the fray.
Coming out of that war, the United States was positioned as a world superpower and the diplomatic game started to change. We started to get involved in lots of problem areas around the world, a reality that is still true to this day and has led to much consternation and political debate about the future of Iraq and Afghanistan as nations as well as our future involvement with the issues in those countries. For better or worse, we are the top dog and the rules are different than when we were “young”. But do they have to be? Should they be? Wouldn’t it be better if we stayed out of it?
That answer is definitely unclear. Politicians and military leaders of the 50’s and 60’s used the Domino theory to show that it was imperative to throw our weight around and help other countries ward off the evils of Communism. If one country fell, then others would follow and it would put the United States in direct danger. Despite the relative geographic isolation our nation enjoys, the world had started to become a much smaller place with all nations being more interconnected. A trend that has continued to this day. But not everything is solely about protection of our own interests. Some of the push is to fight for “good” (aka freedom and democracy, at least from our perspective) against “evil” (aka oppression and tyranny, again, at least from our perspective). But this can be dangerous business because real people are involved.
Communists, Native Americans and traditional Islamic nations are just a few visible examples of groups of people that we have at some point labeled as evil or savage or “stuck in the past”, while we play ourselves up as the bearers of all that is good and just in the world. But these are not villains in a 1950’s comic book, these are real societies of real people with rich histories who happen to not think about some things the same way that we do. In fact, they usually feel just as ardently that they are in the right and we are the ones who are wrong. To just dismiss them out of hand and bend them to our way of thinking could be viewed as a form of tyranny. It has even backfired to some extent, as anti-American sentiment is real and the world has become less safe instead of more.
Of more practical importance, as we have seen with our experience with Iraq, rebuilding a nation is not easy. The swooping in on the white horse and vanquishing the foe, that is the glamorous part. The part you can sell to the public. But the time and resource consuming struggles afterward are where the real work is done and where the most benefit is really seen. Of course, that is in the best of circumstances, when the “damsel in distress” sees herself as such. When you go in to save someone who doesn’t wholly think they need to be rescued, it only makes the rebuilding that much harder.
On the other hand, when you have the means and the resources to lend a hand to those in need, you shouldn’t just sit idly by. Like it or not, part of being a superpower is standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Its why we swing into action during many natural disasters and other emergencies throughout the world. We have the money and the supplies and the manpower (and the infrastructure to distribute all of it.)
It is easy to say, “well, if they really want to be free, they should rise up and do it by themselves just like we did.” Only back in 1776, we didn’t do it alone. We started the revolution, but France played a very large role in helping to support us with money, ammunition and supplies. The outcome may have easily been different without some outside assistance.
So what is the lone superpower to do? Step in full force (whether militarily or by withdrawing a billion dollars in aid) for what appears to be our kindred interest, yet risking the further anger of other neighboring lands because we are sticking our nose where it may not be welcome? Sit on the sidelines and do nothing?
The geopolitical world is much different now than it was in 1796. While I would like nothing more than to see the United States take care of its own house and eradicate poverty, hunger, the maltreatment of children and countless other ills before it goes out to try and fix other countries, the fact of the matter is more and more we are all in this together as a planet. Tensions seem to be higher than ever and technology has made weapons more and more potent and far-reaching. A skirmish between North and South Korea or between the citizens of Egypt or in the crucible where Judaism, Christianity and Islam interface, doesn’t just affect the people in that locale. It affects us all.
George Washington’s neutrality got us through the first 200 years or so of our country’s life, when we were on the relative bottom. Who is going to set the path for us to lead from the top?