George Washington was wrong
~by Creon Critic
Reacting to the news the US would deploy 100 armed advisers to central Africa to help defeat Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, Michelle Bachmann cited George Washington, “I will tell you George Washington was right when he said in his farewell address, be careful of unnecessary foreign entanglements.” George Washington was giving advice to a third tier power in the 18th century. Perhaps the young American republic would have been outmaneuvered by the ruthless calculations of European power politics. A fledgling regional power like the early US needed to tread carefully when the great powers were monarchies vying for supremacy. But is Washington’s advice applicable to today’s America? Does the present international order call for wariness towards foreign entanglements? More specifically, is Obama wrong to deploy 100 troops to central Africa to aid in efforts to defeat Joseph Kony?
Washington’s advice is ill suited to the US and its place in the international system today. Simply put, America is and will remain a first tier power in the 21st century. Though the immediate post-Cold War hyperpower days may have passed, America remains a country with global interests (and global reach). Failed states possess the capacity to export ills that impact important American interests.
Interests like open sea-lanes for global trade that need to be protected against piracy (e.g. Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean). Or the US interest in non-proliferation, preventing nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands (e.g. A.Q. Khan’s network). And a key US interest for the past decade, combating “terrorist group[s] of global reach” (Bush address). Pirates, criminal networks, and international terrorists find room for their harmful operations in states with only nominal control of their territory. Weak and failing states are vectors for transmission of troubles like international terrorism, the illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction plans, and radioactive materials As the leading nation in the international system, the United States is a target of crimes hatched in these un(der)governed spaces. As a consequence, the US must actively work in cooperation with allies to confront these dangers.
So far, I have hewn to a pretty traditional definition of the national interest, unimpeded commerce and national security threats are traditionally uncontroversial grounds for exercising American power. LRA related conflict in central Africa does not directly implicate either of these concerns. However, central African conflict does implicate worries about weak and failing states, see Foreign Policy’s 2011 Failed States Index. The US is deploying troops to Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; FP places Uganda in the “In Danger” category and the other three states are ranked as “Critical” (Using Sudan’s ranking for South Sudan here).
Humanitarian concerns also deserve inclusion in our construction of the national interest. The rape, pillaging, and murder of thousands should be of concern to us, not only because senseless brutality contravenes core values like human rights and not only because, theoretically speaking, that victim of senseless brutality could have been you. Humanitarian concerns are part of the national interest because others will not be concerned about our list of priorities if we are not concerned about their list of priorities. This represents a portrait of statecraft as reciprocity of interests. Destabilizing central Africa is an important concern to African nations. Brutality, like that practiced by the LRA, creates refugee flows for neighboring nations, drains their resources, and threatens their security. The US troop deployment to train partners in combating the LRA in central Africa will be joined by an as yet unspecified number of African Union (AU) forces (WSJ). The deployment could help leverage the AU into taking even more robust action, thereby laying groundwork for future AU cooperation elsewhere on the continent.
As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Martin Dempsey observed to the House Armed Services Committee on the US presence in Africa,
We’ve been involved in a conflict with violent extremist organizations, call them terrorists, who are networked globally, who are syndicated, and who are decentralized. So they are not sitting in one place to be acted against, they are networked… one of the places they sit is the African continent. In order to defeat a network of adversaries, we have to be a network… Our presence on the African continent is part of our network of building partners, of gaining intelligence…
(October 13, 2011 via C-Span at 45:50)
Overall, an interdependent world demands an active America. The Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean offer scant protection from the threats that face America today. It is ill-advised to turn to a suggestion offered centuries ago, from an era when insulation from the outside world was a viable option. Instead, the US needs to pursue a strategy of continuous, vigorous multilateral engagement. None of the major challenges in the international system can be overcome using any alternative course.