Concerns about the wars that Russia and China may soon start over Ukraine and Taiwan are bringing out the worst in some conservatives. Libertarians, who don’t know better, are almost uniformly isolationist.
Some conservatives are having kneejerk reactions to those coming conflicts that are tinged with isolationism. I have seen it recently in The American Spectator. Others are simply screeching isolationism.
One such is Sean Davis of the Federalist. He wrote a column last week that condemned “interventionists” — those who we used to call neocons — in terms that embraced every anti-war liberal cliché we’ve heard since the Vietnam era.
Davis conveniently forgets that we went to war in Afghanistan because the Taliban had given Osama bin Laden safe haven to plan the 9/11 attacks and then refused to hand him over when George W. Bush gave them the choice between that and war. We didn’t go to war in Afghanistan to line the pockets of military contractors.
He confuses the nation-builders with those who wanted to win the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and he blames everyone — except Biden — for the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal that was Biden’s creation. He also blames the “establishment” for trying to force everyone to stop using oil and gas when it is only the Democrats who are trying to do that. And he argues that economic sanctions can stop Russian and Chinese aggression when history has proven otherwise time after time.
Davis’s isolationism, to be fair, partly a knee-jerk reaction to some idiotic statements such as Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-Miss.). Wicker said that if Russia invaded Ukraine, we should take military action. He said, “Military action could mean that we stand off with our ships in the Black Sea and we rain destruction on Russian military capability.… It could mean that we participate, and I would not rule that out — I would not rule out American troops on the ground. We don’t rule out first-use nuclear action.”
Wicker is a foolish interventionist. As I have written often, America should only use military force when our vital national security interests are threatened. In truth, Ukraine isn’t one of them. So what are they?
Our vital national security interests are those that we must defend to protect our freedoms preserved by the Constitution. That means we must have the freedoms of the seas, the skies, space, and the cyber realm. It also means that, like them or not, we are bound to defend our NATO allies and others, such as Japan and South Korea, if any of them are attacked. Ukraine is not a NATO member.
Davis and others of his ilk erroneously equate the ideas of the use of military force with any attempt to influence the outcome of foreign events. Conservatives, from James Monroe to Ronald Reagan, understood why that is a terrible mistake that usually results in the sacrifice of American national security.
In 1824, President Monroe issued a warning to Europe. It was in four parts. First, it promised that the United States would not interfere in the internal affairs of or the wars between European powers. Second, that the United States would not interfere with existing European colonies and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere. Third, that the Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonization and, fourth, that any attempt by a European power to oppress or colonize any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the United States.
Monroe’s Doctrine was entirely consistent with conservatism and John Quincy Adams’s admonition that America doesn’t go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
The wisdom — and need — to interfere in foreign nations’ affairs without the use of military force was demonstrated by many of President Ronald Reagan’s actions. He — along with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II — never ceased speaking about the evils of the Soviet Union and engaging in the continuous ideological warfare necessary to defeating it. And Reagan did more.
In 1981, Reagan addressed the nation to condemn the Soviet-backed Jaruzelski crackdown on Poland’s Solidarity Movement begun by courageous shipyard workers led by Lech Walesa, was arrested. Reagan’s high-profile support led to the Solidarity Movement’s victory over Soviet rule and Poland’s independence. Walesa later was elected president of Poland. The Poles later erected a statue of Reagan and John Paul in Gdansk where the Solidarity Movement began.
Conservatives as Professor Henry Nau has written in his book “Conservative Internationalism,” recognize the necessity to be involved in other nations’ affairs when they affect us. As Nau explains, we don’t believe that our nation’s foreign policy should be suborned by appeasement, isolationism, or by submitting American foreign policy to multinational groups such as the UN.
We recognize that our national security is, in many ways, dependent on the freedom of our allies even those who aren’t NATO members such as Japan and South Korea — with which we have mutual defense treaties much like the NATO Treaty — and Australia. (We also have a defense cooperation treaty with Australia.)
Both Japan and Australia, along with South Korea, are high on China’s list for conquest, but Taiwan is at the top. Taiwan, a democracy and an ally dependent on us supplying it with weapons to protect itself, will, in the next year or two, be attacked by China. Japan and Australia, concerned that they could be attacked at the same time, have said they would help us defend Taiwan. That means, as I have written, that we have to conclude, reluctantly, that Taiwan must be defended by military force if necessary.
That doesn’t make us the “interventionists” that Davis castigates nor are we “neocons.” Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, wrote in 2003 that “there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience.” In contrast, there are several conservative principles — deterrence and peace through strength among them — that guide conservative foreign policy.
For all of those reasons, conservatives aren’t the “interventionists” or the “elites” that favor war over other actions. We aren’t neocons. And, of equal importance, we aren’t isolationists.
We understand that, in the calculation history has proved time and again, diplomacy cannot succeed unless it is backed up by military force, the “mailed fist in the velvet glove.” We believe that deterrence is entirely preferable to war but that deterrence has to be formulated carefully to address our enemies’ capabilities and intents, and that if it fails the choice is between war and appeasement.
We have to guard ourselves from slipping into either isolationism or the foolish interventionism that Sen. Wicker advocates. We understand that there are many choices between peace and war that are available to us, and that autocrats such as Putin and Xi Jinping often cannot be deterred by economic and political sanctions such as Biden’s ridiculous “diplomatic boycott” of the Chinese Olympics.
We understand that deterrence cannot be successful the way Joe Biden conducts foreign policy. His often-stated commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is, as Russia and Ukraine both know, an empty gesture. Biden should, and won’t, flood Ukraine with military equipment — combat aircraft, tanks and anti-aircraft missiles and more — that they need to defend themselves.
Conservatives know that isolationism is a path to damaging or losing our national security. Deterrence properly calculated, diplomacy — the mailed fist in the velvet glove — ideological war, and support for free nations are the way we must go forward.