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Which Wars Are Worth Fighting?

How big a role should America play in the world?

March 2024

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

They’re the international stories we just can’t ignore.

A punishing military occupation that aims to reset borders and destroy a neighboring people’s identity.

Savage cross-border terrorist attacks victimizing innocent civilians.

A decades-long territorial dispute threatening to spill over into armed conflict.

Except, as Americans … we’re actually pretty good at ignoring these stories.

Because there are also attempts to reset borders … between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

And there are also cross-border terrorist attacks … happening in Pakistan.

And there’s also a volatile territorial dispute … between Guyana and Venezuela.

And odds are, you haven’t heard much about any of these.

The world is always rife with conflicts — so, how does America choose which ones to care about?

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

What do Americans really think about foreign policy? According to the polls … meh.

Despite the U.S.’s leading role in global affairs — and recent crises in places as varied as Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan — a 2023 survey found that the proportion of Americans who ranked foreign policy as the most pressing challenge facing the country was … two percent.i

To give you some context, that means it polled lower than “no opinion.”

Now, really, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. America has a history of regarding the rest of the world’s problems as … well, the rest of the world’s problems.

Part of this is geography. Given our isolation from our enemies, foreign affairs rarely seem like a matter of life and death here in the U.S. — or at least that’s what the Canadians want us to think.

Another part of it is historical. You’ve probably heard of George Washington’s famous advice to “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world”;ii Or Thomas Jefferson’s pledge of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”;iii or John Quincy Adams’ pronouncement that America doesn’t go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”iv

All right, maybe you haven’t heard that last one, but obscure presidents deserve love too.

In the centuries since the founding generation, however, America’s stance has shifted. As the world became more interconnected and we grew to superpower status, it became more widely accepted that the U.S. had a critical role to play on the world stage.

But here’s the thing: The world has a lot of problems.

At the end of 2023, the Council on Foreign Relations counted 27 different conflicts taking place all over the globe.v

Some of them matter more to America than others, but we don’t have the resources to deal with all of them. And even if we did, would the American people have the appetite for it?

So, how should we decide when an international issue is important enough for us to get involved?

Foreign policy scholars call this the question of the national interest — the issues so important to the country’s future that they justify putting aside our hesitations and getting involved in world affairs.

But here’s where this gets complicated: There are lots of different ways you can define “the national interest.”

For a sense of what this looks like in practice, consider the fears that China may invade Taiwan in the near future.

If you define the national interest narrowly enough, you may say “not our problem.” How does it affect the U.S. if China conquers a small island nation on the other side of the world?

But define our interests more broadly and all of a sudden it’s very much our problem. After all, if you care about American allies like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines — or if you don’t want to live in a world where China exerts more control over the world economy and global security — it’s pretty important that Taiwan sits at the center of an island chain that bottles up the Chinese navy and prevents it from dominating the entire region.vi

Now, a narrower definition of the national interest might say that’s nevertheless a problem for those countries to solve. But that still wouldn’t necessarily leave America unaffected.

After all, Taiwan produces nearly 70 percent of the world’s semiconductors and around 90 percent of our most advanced chipsvii — which is part of the reason researchers have cautioned that a Chinese invasion could cost the world’s economy as much as $2 trillionviii and even touch off a global depression.

And this is all before we get to moral considerations like what happens to the people of Taiwan.

Speaking of which, if figuring out the right definition of the national interest in Taiwan seems complicated, well … wait until you get to Ukraine.

A 2023 report from the RAND Corporation demonstrated exactly how complex the calculations are there.

Is it in America’s interest for the war to continue until Ukraine has won back more of its territory from Russia? Not only would it advance Ukraine’s freedom, it’d also make them less reliant on economic assistance from the U.S. and our allies.ix Sounds great!

Except it could also extend the war, thus costing the U.S. more in economic assistance, and increasing the risk of a broader conflict with NATO, which could even involve Russia using nuclear weapons. Sounds bad!

Except a longer war might further weaken the Russian military and deter China from invading Taiwan by showing that America will stand by its allies. Sounds great!

Except a longer war also means that Russia might gain more territory. Or that China will become convinced that we can’t defend both Ukraine and Taiwan at the same time — and actually become more aggressive.

Honestly, the whole thing is like Game of Thrones with less nudity — which, considering the kind of people who go into foreign policy … probably fine.

Bottom line: This stuff is more complicated than pundits make it sound. The best that policymakers and citizens can do is make judgments based on our values and a careful weighing of the potential consequences. Because in matters of war and peace, there aren’t many easy answers.

Except when it comes to the Canadians. Those guys just want to watch the world burn.

Source(s)

  1. Most Important Problem — Gallup
  2. Farewell Address to the People of the United States — George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon
  3. First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson — The Avalon Project at Yale Law School
  4. Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy (John Quincy Adams) — San Diego State University
  5. Global Conflict Tracker — Council on Foreign Relations
  6. “Why Is Taiwan Important to the United States?” (David Sacks) — Council on Foreign Relations
  7. Ibid.
  8. “The Global Economic Disruptions From a Taiwan Conflict” (Charlie Vest, Agatha Kratz, and Reva Goujon) — Rhodium Group
  9. “Avoiding a Long War” (Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe) — RAND Corporation

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Sources

  1. Gallup
    Most Important Problem
  2. George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon
    Farewell Address to the People of the United States
  3. The Avalon Project at Yale Law School
    First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson
  4. San Diego State University
    Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy (John Quincy Adams)
  5. Council on Foreign Relations
    Global Conflict Tracker 
  6. Council on Foreign Relations
    “Why Is Taiwan Important to the United States?” (David Sacks)
  7. Rhodium Group
    “The Global Economic Disruptions From a Taiwan Conflict” (Charlie Vest, Agatha Kratz, and Reva Goujon)
  8. RAND Corporation
    “Avoiding a Long War” (Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe)

Delve Deeper

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