The benefits of American disinterest in world affairs
John Bolton’s book, In the Room Where it Happened, has triggered a controversy by suggesting President Trump shows little interest in the details of the foreign policy process. In interviews, Bolton has called the president “incompetent.” In response, Trump described Bolton as a “wacko” and a “disgruntled boring fool.”
But below the surface, there is much more to the tension between Bolton and his former boss. The two represent opposing views over the appropriate role of the United States in the world. Like many career foreign policy professionals, Bolton wants to operate globally, taking sides in other peoples’ conflicts and ensuring U.S. interests prevail.
Opposite of this is the president’s perspective, prominently articulated in his June 13th speech at West Point. “We are ending the era of endless wars.” Indeed, this view also appears in Trump’s attacks on Bolton: “He likes dropping bombs on people, and killing them.” Bolton, I am sure, would rather characterize his perspective as intelligent engagement, based on U.S. interests and caring about the world.
Caring is usually considered a virtue. When it comes to foreign policy, it is all too common for experts and commentators to lobby for more considerable attention or action to any number of issues. Yet strangely, disinterest may be America’s most essential and underappreciated asset. Despite his many flaws as a leader, the president seems to understand this instinctively, if imperfectly.
Nations have historically shown too much interest in one another. Just about every civilization has sought to intervene in the affairs of its neighbors. Often, meddling becomes predation, even conquest, as momentum builds and interest increases. Even distant cultures have had to remain leery, as new technologies allowed states or empires to project power over the horizon.
Core theories of international relations hinge on the assumption that predation is an inherent part of the politics of nations. Under anarchy, no nation is safe unless it imperils the security of others. This is unfortunate for the capable, creating a “security dilemma” where states must arm to protect themselves, in turn posing a risk to others. The situation is even worse for the weak, who must recruit protecting patrons, or band together to “balance” powerful states.
Influential voices anticipated balancing would occur in the wake of the Cold War. Yet, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most countries chose to cooperate with the United States.
The United States certainly could have turned the aggressor in the 1990s. Even the mere presence of preponderant power could have triggered a security dilemma. But America is different. We don’t much care to “dominate” or to meddle in the minor squabbles of other nations. We don’t thirst for colonial possessions. Whatever America’s faults — and there are many — Americans can be trusted not to covet others’ territory, and indeed to tread rather lightly on their politics, too.
This fact is so well understood that other nations chose not to balance against the United States, despite the historical risks. America could be trusted because Americans were disinterested most of the time, at least when blessed with competent, prudent leaders.
This American virtue of disinterest is often cast in a negative light. However, resistance to military intervention stems from a healthy desire to live and let live. Of course, disinterest can be overdone, but Americans have shown they can care plenty when core interests are at stake.
As any subject of predation can attest, the problems of the world are much more keenly tied to excess, rather than a deficit, of interest. Like soccer hooligans, citizens of powerful empires typically revel in the ability of their nations to commit excess. A reticence to engage in foreign adventures is, in fact, a highly attractive national attribute. Given exceptional power, it is indeed comforting to many globally that Americans do not show more interest in their affairs.
Explaining U.S. restraint — and the resulting trust and legitimacy that it inspires — is quite simple. Americans have never had a direct, personal stake in the trivia of the rest of the world. At the end of World War I, as other victorious powers sought to dismember Germany and its allies, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson advanced principles of national identity and liberty designed to ensure that the world would not witness a repeat of the “war to end all wars.”
This objective failed, in large part, due to plundering and interventions by other great powers. In the wake of World War II, America tried again, reluctantly accepting a larger role in world affairs, mostly because the Soviet Union did not look disinterested enough. These efforts were successful in no small part because nations that were free to choose preferred the American approach to the Soviet alternative.
A key element of U.S. strategy has been the lack of a direct stake in the details of local conflicts. The United States did not seek to own, dominate, or dictate. Instead, the goal was to create safe, prosperous partners whose economies would make America rich and the world peaceful. Where the Soviets installed puppets, America advocated self-determination and popular rule. It is this lack of interest in the details of local politics or territory that made the United States so attractive as a partner, and ensured that rising U.S. power did not trigger anxious reactions.
A hallmark of successful U.S. foreign policy has thus been a paradoxical pattern of ambivalence. Precisely because Americans are reluctant to become involved, the United States is sought out as a partner. Lacking a stake in the resources, territory, or petty squabbles of other nations means that America can be trusted to operate in a legitimate, if often imperfect, manner.
Critics chastise U.S. foreign policy for numerous reasons — the current administration is notable for its blunders. But few accuse the United States of possessing designs on their territory or seeking to profit from plunder. We are preoccupied with our issues, and this disinterest is what makes America attractive and stabilizing, especially in an increasingly contentious world.
While Americans should certainly remain aware of world affairs, showing too much interest may well undermine the very quality that has secured our legitimacy. The risk is that foreign policy experts are not disinterested enough. Indeed, the excessive interest of other powers, such as China and Russia, continues to the bulk of the world’s nations to seek protection from the disinterested superpower.
Erik Gartzke, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego, where he has been a member of the research faculty since 2007. He has written on cyberwar, trade and conflict, and the effects of economic development, system structure and climate change on war.