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Column: Can the U.S. strike a balance between isolationism and policing the world?

A Taliban fighter with gear left behind as the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan
Taliban fighters are using American-supplied weapons and equipment after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Americans are tired of war.

We just got out of a 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan with little to show for it except the Taliban reinstated, burqa sales up and the country plunged into turmoil. Before that, the seven-year-long war in Iraq didn’t make Americans safer, nor did it make that country a thriving democracy or uncover weapons of mass destruction.

Trillions of dollars later and thousands of lives gone, many Americans — on both the left and right — are feeling skeptical about foreign entanglements and urging a retreat from the global stage while we focus on domestic issues.

That’s entirely understandable. Over the years, the U.S. has been quick to go to war. It has often galumphed in with great arrogance and little understanding, only to withdraw years later with mediocre results. It has engaged in follies, in misguided adventures; it has allied itself with unsavory partners; it has become stuck in quagmires; it has been responsible for unnecessary civilian deaths.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

Greater restraint is by all means called for when it comes to policing the world.

But let’s not pretend that it’s as simple as walking away, or that disengagement doesn’t come at a cost.

Right now, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing troops on the Ukrainian border and an invasion is a real possibility. The United States has threatened “severe consequences” if the Russians march in.

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But, thanks to the national mood, President Biden has also sent a clear message that we will not go to war over Ukraine.

“The idea that the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now,” he said in early December.

In other words: We care! But we don’t care that much.

To Americans, the end of the Soviet Union 30 years ago is a done deal. To Putin, it’s a catastrophe he longs to reverse.

Now you may or may not believe that Ukraine, a full 6,000 miles from L.A. on Russia’s border, is worth going to war over. You may not even think the U.S. is on the right side of the issue.

But remember this: Chinese President Xi Jinping is also taking stock of the U.S. mood, watching our actions in both Afghanistan and Ukraine closely as he decides what steps to take. If the U.S. is unwilling to fight for Ukraine, he is surely thinking, is it also unwilling to fight for Taiwan? If America won’t stick it out in Afghanistan, how much will it care about Hong Kong or the South China Sea?

And Iran is watching as well, and making decisions about whether the United States has the stomach to respond if it pushes forward with its nuclear program.

All across the world, the United States has made promises to its allies and set red lines for its adversaries. As we disengage, we send a message to the former that we may not be reliable and we embolden the latter to see what they can get away with.

In the process, we cede power and leadership to those who may wield it less responsibly than we do.

Is the U.S. prepared for that?

“We’re focused internally at the moment, with little appetite for large scale military involvement,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The problem is that the rest of the world sees this. So it’s no coincidence that Russia is mobilizing forces on its border with Ukraine and Iran is essentially well on its way to becoming a threshold nuclear power.”

So what are we to do? We can walk away and let the world guide itself without American leadership, risking what Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan has called “superpower suicide” and what Haass calls “a world in disarray.” Or revert to our old role as flawed, galumphing sheriff of the world.

But surely there’s a third way. One in which we remain globally engaged and stay true to our commitments, but with less hubris, less unilateralism — and less easy reliance on our military strength. One that puts more emphasis on creative diplomatic alternatives and less on armed intervention, and seeks new ways to work collectively with allies and like-minded liberal democracies to make the world a better and safer place.

Both sides would incur massive losses if their rivalry intensifies, untempered by any sense of shared interests, and leads to war.

The U.S. has moved in that direction in recent years, mostly under Democratic administrations. It can be frustrating — remember, for example, our impotence in the face of the Syrian civil war. But it’s the right inclination. The U.S. can work more closely with international institutions to build support for global policies. It can rely more heavily on the carrot and stick of foreign aid and economic sanctions, though they are imperfect tools.

I’m not saying the U.S. shouldn’t ever go to war as a last resort to defend its vital interests or most fundamental principles.

But I don’t think we need to worry that the U.S. is relinquishing that option. Last week, the Senate approved and sent to the White House a $770-billion defense authorization bill to fund the Pentagon.

It’s not like we’re beating our swords into ploughshares.

I’m just saying that greater caution, restraint and humility are appropriate.

Right now, the world faces rising illiberalism and authoritarianism, and great transnational problems that demand common, negotiated solutions, not force. Obviously the pandemic is one. The even greater challenge, which will require enormous leadership, courage and sacrifice, is climate change.

The point is this: There are dangers to both overreach and to disengagement, and U.S. policy often swings like a pendulum between them.

As new global challenges emerge, it needs, instead, to find the right balance.

@Nick_Goldberg


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