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Is America the defender of sovereignty?

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With the long-overdue rise of realism and restraint advocacy in the American foreign policy community, a perfectly sensible question arises: what would a less imperious and more peaceful strategy look like? The cost/benefit ratio of fewer wars and more diplomacy is obvious but is there a way to offer a restrained and dynamic vision for foreign policy. This question meets greater pertinence now considering the deteriorating domestic situation in Belarus.

Restrainers do have an argument for a constructive policy regarding situations like Belarus, one that enables both proactive diplomacy and an avoidance of the past interventionist quagmires. By upholding the principle of state sovereignty, the United States can both discourage outside powers from intervening within the internal affairs of other countries as well as check its past impulses in that direction.

If a government’s internal structure changes, Washington’s argument should be that it is an internal affair for that nation to be resolved within its borders. Such approaches could have been used (and perhaps still can be) in Belarus’ neighbor, Ukraine. One can wish Belarusians well and make the international community well aware of the danger of Russian intervention without committing to another regionally destabilizing proxy-war.

Superior resource endowments have given the U.S. de facto dominance in the Americas and an advantageous naval presence in the Atlantic and the Pacific alike. What we have seen since the era of George W. Bush and onwards, however, is that these advantages are being squandered in exchange for an over-extension, harming the country’s image abroad. This globe-spanning naval interest, coupled with a less interventionist posture regarding inland conflicts, invite the U.S. to choose a path of upholding and defending the sovereign rights of smaller countries. As a more distant defensive guarantor, Washington can reduce its reputation as a threat to the sovereignty of weaker powers. This can be done at no additional cost to the U.S. defense.

This means dropping interventionist rhetoric and instead emphasizing the right of smaller states to determine their destinies. As the U.S. becomes more and more important as an honest broker interested in maintaining the sovereignty of smaller countries rather than undermining them, it will become more difficult for revisionist powers to upset the balance of forces anywhere deemed vital to Washington’s national interest.

This sequence of events has already played out in the modern history of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout the Vietnam War, the most common refrain of those opposed to withdrawal was that it would undermine U.S. alliances around the world, empower a triumphalist Soviet Bloc, and expand Chinese influence. The collapse of American-aligned South Vietnam and Cambodia immediately after U.S. withdrawal was taken as only the first stage of this dire prediction coming true.

But then, without the common element of the U.S. helping South Vietnam to survive, the entire Cold War consensus did break — but on the opposite side. Preexisting trends of Sino-Soviet rupture only expanded, reaching a fever point with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the toppling of the Khmer Rouge, prompting the limited Chinese invasion into northern Vietnam. Beijing and Moscow came to see each other as intense rivals. China, then still the underdog in this matchup, would go on to assist the equipping of anti-Soviet forces in southern Africa and Afghanistan.

In the post-1979 world, East Asia has been a region of nearly perpetual economic growth, massive international trade, and a surprising level of stability given its past Cold War difficulties. No doubt, many challenges will arise from China’s growing position, but Beijing’s neighbors are stable and prosperous enough to be able to meet such a challenge on relatively even footing. The existence of multiple rival power poles across the Pacific strengthens both U.S. regional credibility and its potential for coalition building.

Compare this to the situation in the Middle East since the U.S. invasions of Iraq, Libya, and (via proxies) attempt to topple the government in Syria. While there are distinct power poles in the region, Washington’s sway with Turkey is constantly decreasing. Iran is placed on a permanent enemies list, driving it toward China and Russia out of necessity, and Egypt is a bit of a wild card as it forges a new foreign policy focus. 

Refugees surge across the region and into Europe while the U.S. finds itself trapped in the quagmire of supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia to the hilt. While those alliances may be longstanding, they increasingly trap U.S. freedom of action into what is becoming a sectarian proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh in a region of ever-diminishing geopolitical significance to a North American based power. Were the U.S. to withdraw from direct military intervention and regime change-oriented policies in the region and pivot towards selling itself as a protector from the overreach of other ambitious countries, it could reduce its costs and increase its diplomatic goodwill.

Sovereignty should be at the core of any reexamination of U.S. foreign policy. The location, nature of naval power, and resource plenty of the U.S. means that its geostrategy operates optimally when it concerns itself with situational interests rather than permanent existentially couched commitments. The U.S. presently has a chance to use its diplomatic power to shore up Belarus against Russian expansionism. Still, it can only do so as a credible actor if it does not directly intervene in that country itself.

Christopher Mott is a research fellow at Defense Priorities and an international relations specialist. Mott is the author of “The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.”

Tags Cold War Diplomacy International relations United States law

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