The case for U.S. engagement in the world
Photo by Steven Sobel/The American Legion

The case for U.S. engagement in the world

A central element of the mission of The American Legion, according to its founding document, is “to make right the master of might; to promote peace and goodwill on earth; to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy.”

This mission is as important and relevant today as it was in 1919, and it requires an America that’s engaged in the world. That doesn’t mean America should be hyperactive on the world stage. But to promote peace and safeguard freedom, America definitely needs to be on the world stage – active and engaged.

Headwinds. There are strong headwinds pushing against engagement. Just 20% of Americans favor engagement overseas; nearly 42% “favor greater isolationism.” Fully 51% of Americans say the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home, up from 30% in 2002.

We see evidence of these headwinds in the most important polls of all: elections. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, Americans elected candidates who advocated and implemented policies of disengagement: President Barack Obama announced, “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” Likewise, President Donald Trump declared, “We have to build our own nation” and “focus on ourselves.” And today, there are growing blocs in the party of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan and in the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy that want America to pull back from the world.

President Joe Biden has made efforts to reverse this drift toward disengagement, arguing that America should “defend democracy around the world,” “stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity,” “champion liberty and democracy,” and “rally the free world.” By coming to the aid of democratic Ukraine, Biden lived up to those words. But Afghanistan serves as a grim reminder that policy hasn’t always matched rhetoric. Recall that Afghanistan held seven free and fair elections in the 20 years before the withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 – a withdrawal negotiated by the Trump administration and carried out by the Biden administration. But again, this was a reflection of the national mood: In the spring 2021, 69% of Americans supported completely pulling out of Afghanistan and leaving its flawed and feeble democracy to fend for itself.

All of this is evidence of an enduring, if sometimes overlooked, truth: How a president defines and pursues the national interest must have national support, which means that policymakers and organizations of influence need to make a new and better case for engagement.

Tension. The Biden administration, it seems, is trying to carve out a middle-ground path between the Obama-Trump policies of disengagement and the sweepingly ambitious policies of President George W. Bush, who declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

This is just the latest example of the tension that has long existed between the American people’s desire to spread free government and their desire to avoid the headaches and heartaches that come with engagement. At its core, this is a tug-of-war between interests and ideals.

Americans have always embraced the ideal of promoting freedom and justice in the world.

Consider the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The primary author of these words, Thomas Jefferson, saw America maturing into “an empire of liberty” that would serve as a driving force for the “freedom of the globe.” 

President Theodore Roosevelt, foreshadowing the Legion’s constitution, declared, “The steady aim of this nation … should be to strive to bring ever nearer the day when there shall prevail throughout the world the peace of justice.”

President Woodrow Wilson argued that America should “fight … for the ultimate peace of the world,” for “the liberation of its peoples,” for a world “made safe for democracy.”

President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms … freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world ... freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world … freedom from want … everywhere in the world … freedom from fear … anywhere in the world … the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”

Good advice. These words represent America’s ideals, and at the heart of these ideals is promoting freedom. But as history repeatedly reminds us, that’s a thankless, endless task in a world shackled down by the two main enemies of freedom: tyranny and chaos. Promoting freedom in such a world requires the American people to invest time, treasure and blood. That understandably forces the American people to weigh and temper their ideals against their interests. And that leads to periods of disengagement (post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan), doubt (post-Vietnam) and isolationism (post-World War I).

The challenge for policymakers and organizations of influence is to remind the American people that turning inward seldom serves the national interest.

We hear about the costs of engagement – and they are many – but we seldom contemplate the costs of disengagement: Pearl Harbor in 1941; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which birthed the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaida, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq in 2011, which spawned the Islamic State and chemical warfare; Afghanistan in 2021, which is birthing another generation of nightmares.

Public support for planting and nurturing democracy may ebb and flow, but the benefits of engagement and the dangers of disengagement are constant. “In each cycle of retreat,” as former National Security Council official Henry Nau observes, America “leaves the world at its own peril.”

America engages the world not only – and arguably not primarily – to promote freedom, but to keep the enemies of freedom at bay. America engages the world – and maintains a military with global reach and global presence – not to go looking for problems, but to address problems before they explode into something unmanageable or unthinkable.  That was the lesson of 1941 – a lesson many Americans have overlooked in the wake of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In an earlier period of disengagement and doubt, President Gerald Ford challenged both the idealists and the realists by urging Americans to “accept the responsibilities of leadership” and reject the notion that “if we do not succeed in everything everywhere, then we have succeeded in nothing anywhere.”

That’s good advice for today.

With the American people wearied by the burdens of engagement, hyperactive interventionism isn’t politically sustainable. But with aggressive authoritarian regimes literally trying to roll back the free world, inward-looking isolationism isn’t an option, either. Next month’s Landing Zone column will explore a possible solution to this conundrum: “free world defense.”