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January 12, 2023
OpEd: China's Afghanistan moves show isolation is a pipedream
You’ve heard the argument from the far reaches of each party, and while it varies slightly from Left to Right, the basic sentiment goes something like “America needs to mind its own business.”
The crux of this viewpoint, isolationism if you will, maintains that the world would be a much better place if America would simply stop involving itself politically, economically, and militarily in the affairs of foreign nations.
When a politician or diplomat pushes against this narrative by suggesting it’s in America’s interest to fund our allies or kill terrorists, they are castigated as warmongers. And if the figure in question is a Republican you can guarantee they will be tagged with the label “neocon.”
Take this tweet from self-described populist Ryan James Girdusky as a prime example. Responding to a tweet from Senator Ted Cruz in which he made the benign statement that supporting Ukraine was in America’s interest, Girdusky responded saying “Ted Cruz is a neocon who only supports neocons. If he endorses someone in the primary, it’s best to vote against them.”
Ted Cruz is a neocon who only supports neocons. If he endorses someone in the primary, it’s best to vote against them. https://t.co/w9wjdHTSYm
— Ryan James Girdusky (@RyanGirdusky) May 23, 2022
Another particularly amusing manifestation of this ideology is a map that went viral on Twitter, showing all the purported locations of American military bases near Russia, with the implication being that Russia was forced to invade Ukraine because of American encirclement.
The argument certainly isn’t reserved for the Ukraine discussion either. After all, if we shouldn’t care about Ukraine, why should we station troops in Germany, Korea, or Japan? Why should we provide aid to African and Middle Eastern nations? Of course, each of these particular circumstances varies drastically from one to the next, and I’m oversimplifying for effect. However, to the isolationist, the principle remains unchanged across the board. Why should America bother with the defense and economic support of foreign countries when we have more than enough problems to deal with domestically? Especially when our involvement abroad does nothing but cause mayhem and dissent.
Ironically, a major victory for these isolationists was in 2021 when Joe Biden abruptly pulled the United States out of Afghanistan. While many in that camp would have to concede the pullout was handled miserably, to them it was a necessity to remove America from what they call ‘forever wars.” Never mind the fact that at the time of the pullout, a mere 3,500 troops remained in the country, and that this small force was keeping the country stable. The idea of American involvement to any degree couldn’t be tolerated.
It's here we should address the naivete of isolationism as a worldview. Those that support the idea must also necessarily believe that American foreign policy exists in a vacuum or that American interests are so separate from those of the outside world that foreign events have no bearing on life in the United States.
This couldn’t be further from reality, as events in Afghanistan over the last year have shown.
Since the abrupt exit of American troops, Afghanistan has devolved at a rapid pace. On August 16, 2021, before the pullout was even complete, the Taliban took over as the official government of the country. Since then, they have instituted numerous draconian measures upon the Afghan people. A bulk of these are aimed at restricting women’s rights, including a formal suspension of education for women.
As gross of a fiasco as this is, it admittedly does little to harm America outside of its reputation as a champion of human rights. But it’s not the Taliban's draconian treatment of women that should most concern Washington. What should, however, is who the Taliban is making deals with.
Earlier this month, in its first energy extraction deal since coming to power, the Taliban signed an agreement with China's Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company. The deal is a 25-year lease that allows the company to drill for oil in Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin. Chinese state companies are also looking at investments in Afghanistan’s Mes Aynak copper Mines.
Furthermore, Afghanistan sits on roughly $1T worth of natural gas, copper, and rare earths, which Beijing is all too likely to exploit.
By haphazardly pulling out of Afghanistan the Biden administration essentially gifted China, America’s biggest geopolitical threat, an untapped treasure trove of resources and a strategic foothold in Central Asia. Lack of action by Washington in South America and Africa has also allowed Beijing to make strategic gains through investment and military cooperation.
China is now the largest trading partner of both South America and Africa, and in 2017 China established its first overseas base in Djibouti, with further plans for a naval base in Equatorial Guinea in the works.
These developments are certainly concerning to Washington considering China’s stated goal of challenging American supremacy globally.
The counterargument to isolationism is not that the US should indiscriminately involve itself abroad. In fact, both cases touched upon so far, Ukraine and Afghanistan, require nuanced debate as to the cost/benefit analysis of American intervention. There’s certainly an argument to be made that prolonged commitment to Ukraine will strain our resources and ability to handle more pressing issues, like China.
It is true that there are areas that are of more strategic concern to the United States, namely: Northeast Asia, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. To ensure we can credibly defend our interests in these regions, trade-offs will have to be made. American foreign policymakers are often too weak-stomached to address this reality.
However, there is little nuance or strategy to isolationism’s prescription. Should American politicians like Ted Cruz face tough questioning about the commitment of American soldiers and tax dollars abroad? Absolutely. But throwing around epithets like ‘warmonger’ and ‘neo-con’ at those who think that there are merits to American involvement in foreign causes is ignorant at best, and malicious at worst.
While it would be illogical to argue that American isolationism in the pre-WW2 era, led by figures like Charles Lindbergh, was directly responsible for the war itself, it would be equally illogical to say that it had no effect on the scale the war was allowed to reach. And while isolationism wasn’t the ultimate cause of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack cemented how untenable isolationism is.
America was and remains the world’s most powerful country, and because of this, its citizens have been granted untold privilege, both economically and politically. This status though is not God-given but earned. Should America choose to retreat there will always be a challenger looking to swoop in, and use the advantage gained to strengthen its position vis-a-vis America.
Ignoring the world’s problems may be a short-term solution for cost-cutting, but eventually, those chickens will come home to roost, and when they do, they won’t do so quietly.
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