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The Debacle in Afghanistan

What Next for the United States?

The White House, Washington DC. Photo: White House.

The free countries of the West need a strong America...

In foreign affairs, states pursue interests, not ideals. Although most of us in the West must have watched in surprise and horror how the Talibans marched into Kabul without any resistance, imposing again an intolerant, oppressive regime on the Afghans, the relevant question is whether it will be an aggressive regime, threatening not only its immediate neighbours, but also the rest of the world. The mightiest Western power, the United States, cannot be expected to wage wars against all foreign oppressors, to remove all abominations abroad, to act as an unpaid and unloved international police force, although it certainly has the right to defend itself and its allies and to respond to clear and present danger. The chaotic and indeed ignominious withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, after two decades of futile intervention in this mountainous barren country, must be an occasion for the United States to reconsider its foreign policy.

Sumner’s Arguments Against Expansionism

For such a reconsideration, it might be useful to recall a perceptive lecture which American sociologist William Graham Sumner gave at Yale University on 16 January 1899, called ‘The Conquest of the United States by Spain’. At first sight, the title would seem to be a misnomer because the United States had just defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. But this was precisely Sumner’s point: By conducting a war against Spain in order to expand American territories instead of just defending American soil when necessary, the United States was turning into an aggressive, imperial power just like Spain had been. While Sumner did not quote Nietzsche, he could have: ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’

Although Spain had lost most of her vast colonial empire in the first half of the nineteenth century, in 1898 she still controlled the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean. In Cuba, some members of the local elite wanted to transfer power from Madrid to the island’s capital, Havana, but had not mustered enough strength themselves to drive out the Spaniards. But they found potential allies in Washington DC where expansionism was on the rise. An opportunity presented itself when a battleship from the United States exploded and sank in Havana harbour. The American yellow press blamed the explosion on the Spanish rulers of Cuba, although it probably happened on board. The American government bowed to pressure and recognised the independence of Cuba, with Spain subsequently declaring war on the United States. After a short war, Spain was defeated and had to recognise Cuban independence, cede Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States and sell the Philippines to it. The US government at the same time annexed Hawaii which had been an independent kingdom.     

In these circumstances, Sumner joined the Anti-Imperialist League which opposed American expansionism, in particular the annexation of the Philippines. Other prominent members of the League included former President Grover Cleveland, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and writer Mark Twain. In the Yale lecture, Sumner characterised expansionism as a radical departure from the ideals of American society. He said that Spain and the United States were symbols of two different ideas. Spain was a state based on conquest, United States on trade. Therefore, even if the United States won a military victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War, it was really Spain that defeated the United States, because her militarism, her spirit of conquest, was being adopted by the United States. ‘We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.’

The Unintended Consequences of Imperialism

There had been no need to wage a war against Spain over Cuba, Sumner argued. The decision to do so was made in a shouting match, not after rational deliberation. ‘Patriotism is being prostituted into a nervous intoxication which is fatal to an apprehension of truth.’ American imperialists asserted that the inhabitants of the territories seized from Spain had to be taught to govern themselves. ‘The most important thing which we shall inherit from the Spaniards will be the task of suppressing rebellions,’ Sumner commented. ‘If the United States takes out of the hands of Spain her mission, on the ground that Spain is not executing it well, and if this nation in its turn attempts to be school-mistress to others, it will shrivel up into the same vanity and self-conceit of which Spain now presents an example.’ Sumner pointed out that the United States was not conquering these territories in order to settle them. They were already settled. Neither was it a good idea to accept Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines into the Union. There was no escape, he added, except to give them independence and to let them work out their own salvation, or go without it. If the American government tried to wrest any revenue out of them, then it would only be repeating the conduct of the British government in the eighteenth century which led to the American Revolution. Thus, it would be repudiating the very principles upon which the United States was founded.

Sumner warned his compatriots that imperialism would plunge them into a host of problems and perils, without any corresponding advantages. He took pride in being labelled as an isolationist. ‘Our ancestors all came here to isolate themselves from the social burdens and inherited errors of the old World,’ he said. ‘What we are doing is that we are abandoning this blessed isolation to run after a share in the trouble.’ He pointed out the inconsistency of those who sought to restrict immigration to the United States at the same time as they wanted the country to take on responsibility for eight million people abroad, and to pay huge amounts of money for it, to boot. Instead of looking for glory on a battlefield, the Americans should pursue happiness for themselves and their families. ‘My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.’

The Non-Aggression Principle in Practice

Sumner’s powerful condemnation of American imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century and his argument for a non-aggression principle in international affairs may still have some relevance. The foreign policy of the United States should be less concerned with making the world safe for democracy than with making it safe for Americans. The main criterion, but perhaps not the only one, for what is permissible in foreign affairs seems to be that in self-defence one state may use force against other states. This does not preclude the peaceful expansion of a country by territorial purchases, as when the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France, or Alaska from Russia, or the Danish West Indies from Denmark. When the territory in question is fully inhabited, then this would require the consent of the inhabitants: In the Danish West Indies, the change was endorsed in a referendum. But it precludes annexing Hawaii (unless the move would be initiated and supported by a large majority of the inhabitants) or going to war with Spain in order to ‘liberate’ her colonies.

The non-aggression principle would seem to preclude joining in 1917 the Great War fought in Europe. Despite some provocations by Germany, there was no urgent need for the United States to fight alongside Britain, France, Russia and Italy against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. If the United States had a general interest in maintaining a peaceful world order, as President Woodrow Wilson then plausibly argued, then that interest was ill-served by helping two warmongers, Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, defeat the Central Powers. The aftermath of the war illustrates Sumner’s warning in his lecture that one intervention will beget another. Germany’s collapse and her treatment by the victors eventually led to the Nazi takeover, and after that another world war was almost inevitable. Not only were the Nazis evil, but they also posed a danger to North America as well as to Europe, although eventually it was Japan that attacked the United States in 1941, with Hitler declaring war on the country a few days later. Therefore, America’s participation in the Second World War was in self-defence and justifiable. It should be noted, though, that the United States had provoked Japan by banning virtually all trade with her, which was somewhat ironic given that in 1853 the United States had sent warships to Japan to force her to open up her ports to trade.

The Cold War Was Justified

United States participation (or rather leadership) in the Cold War would also seem to be justifiable on a principle of non-aggression that both classical liberals and conservatives might endorse. The communists ruling Russia and China were as evil and dangerous as the Nazis had been. They posed a real threat to a peaceful world order, while new technology in transport and military gear had broken the ‘blessed isolation’ enjoyed by America in the first century of her existence and taken for granted by Sumner. In modern times, isolation is not an option. In the Cold War, the old adage applied to Western democracies: We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.

However, it is not always easy to discern between legitimate and illegitimate intervention abroad. For example, US military support of South Korea and Taiwan in the 1950s, against communist aggression, has been amply justified by history: These countries have done very well, adopting first capitalism and then constitutional democracy. They are staunch allies of the West. While the conflict in South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s appeared to have similarities to that in South Korea, three factors made American intervention more problematic: It was a civil war rather than a full-scale invasion from the north; the war dragged on for decades, because the United States was unwilling to defeat the communist insurgents in a swift, massive effort; and a volunteer army would have been more practical in the circumstances, as the draft had become quite unpopular on the home front where the war was ultimately lost. It is however difficult to argue for US military intervention in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011: Sometimes, the alternative to a cruel despot is not liberal democracy but menacing chaos, coupled with Anti-Americanism. This is what has happened in these countries.

I would argue that the initial intervention in Afghanistan was justified, because the Talibans then ruling the country gave shelter to terrorists who had attacked the United States in September 2001. The American operation against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan was swift and successful. Perhaps with the wisdom of hindsight, what followed was however misguided and naive, to try and establish a Western-style liberal democracy in Afghanistan. Why did the American military force not leave once its original mission had been completed? You cannot force foreign nations to be free. The emancipation of Afghans can only be accomplished by Afghans themselves, or not at all. The West needs a strong America. This means a superpower which does not waste its resources in attempts to do the impossible, at the same time as it responds firmly to any clear and present danger and supports its friends and allies. The Chinese are already rattling their sabres.