Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this past week brings to the forefront a divide between interventionism and isolationism that has long been debated in American politics. The policy of “America First’,’ pushed during the Trump Presidency, has created a new fault line within the Republican Party specifically. There are those who believe that domestic problems must be solved prior to dealing with foreign ones, with the U.S.-Mexican border often being cited. Those in opposition say isolating from foreign issues will lead to greater and more threatening ones down the road. In the arc of American history, the United States has become involved with the world more than it desires, often fighting from a deeper hole that was created by the refusal to act sooner.
Ignoring cases that can be made on the basis of supporting a fellow democracy, it is in the economic and security interest of the United States to be involved in Ukraine in some capacity. This does not mean sending in troops, but instead applying economic pressure to Russia and sending aid to Ukraine. Countries with vital strategic connections to the United States will be taking note of how America responds. Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia all come to mind. They are located in a region that includes a military power not aligned with the United States, namely China. Over the last decade, they have been able to resist becoming tied to China economically, knowing that American presence in the region offers a counterweight to whatever military or economic incursions China might attempt to make. There has been a degree of trust that America would not completely abandon them in the event of war, a belief that would waver if America decides to sit out on the Ukraine problem.
If China sees the United States as unwilling to take action, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan becomes much more likely. If successful, momentum would carry China throughout the South China Sea region and into the Western Pacific. What would America’s options be in this situation? Neither backing down and allowing China influence over East Asia, nor engaging and fighting a war are appealing. Russia is not a military threat the way China is. The Chinese economy, population, and military have the ability to fight and win a war with the United States, or at least draw it out long enough to force concessional deal-making. There is no need to describe the devastation that would come from the world’s two preeminent powers going to war with one another.
War would be horrific, but a United States withdrawal would have harsh consequences as well. It is taken for granted that America has been able to determine the rules for the world since the end of the Cold War, and has secured the freedom to trade in the decades prior to that. Free trade has brought America and the world a level of prosperity never before seen in human history. Just as important has been the way international agreements and institutions, backed up by American power, have brought freedom and democracy to many. A major war has not occurred since 1945, due to American presence throughout the world. None of these phenomenons would take place with China as the number one superpower. The Belt and Road Initiative is an attempt to create a new economic order with China as the decision-maker. Numerous countries in Asia and Africa have already bought in, with more likely to join if the United States is seen as withdrawing from the world.
Hobbes’ definition of life absent government and society was, “nasty, brutish, and short.” If America exits from its position as a world leader, the same could be said for the globe in general. While an invasion of Ukraine may not affect Americans directly, the consequences of consenting to it will be felt in the future. The age of unchallenged American supremacy is coming to a close. The United States can not afford to sit back and let someone else take the reins. In the coming decades, payment for foreign policy mistakes will be much more costly. America must secure its role in the world now, not fall into the temptation to push off responsibility and embrace isolationism.