Sunday, October 9, 2011

US National Security Policy Term Paper Proposal

I propose to write on the motivations and justifications of intervention policy in the United States. Examples of American intervention (tentatively including Vietnam, the Balkans, the collective theaters of the so-called GWOT – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, etc – and the nations involved in the Arab Spring), as well as instances of American non-intervention or hesitancy (e.g. Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Burma, etc) collectively beg us to consider the role and question the place of pursuing a singular, blanket approach to American interventionist policy, especially one that allows for the veiling of pursuit of national interests in a rhetoric of human necessity and moral imperatives.

Throughout the 20th century (generally understood as the time during which the US entered and became a prominent actor on the world stage, and thus had to face for the first time the problems and competing interests that come with such a role), the balance of national interests and moral imperatives has weighed differently on the minds of American policymakers and the public in various situations. This case-by-case weighing of the situation, of course, is by itself not an issue, and in fact seems to be the only reasonable way to handle the variable nature of issues in the immensely complicated world of international relations.

However, it has often been the case that even when a decision to enter a conflict was based largely or solely on the national interest, languages of moral imperatives were used to justify the decision, demonstrating that pursuit of the national interest tends to be seen by Americans as ‘not enough’ to justify entering a conflict. On the other hand, though, a decision not to enter a conflict is often couched in the languages of national interest without much regard to moral imperatives.

Thus, we have a situation in which America is able to claim that it acts as an arbiter of justice and humanitarianism, but is perfectly willing to not do so when it is inconvenient, and it is this that makes possible American involvement in Vietnam or Iraq while avoiding the Rwanda or Sudan/Darfur of the time. I will argue that such a casual conflation of American intentions and responsibilities confuses the issue beyond repair, and causes an untenable requirement and/or expectation of intervention in all situations that would meet either the national interest or moral imperative requirement for action; such a degree of intervention is both untenable from a pragmatic (financial/matériel) standpoint and fraught with danger of overextension and misapplication of force.

Through a consideration of some of the major US intervention policy decisions of the 20th and into the 21st centuries, I will aim to draw out a general understanding of the national interest/moral imperative dichotomy, and illuminate some of the role that this dual strain in the American mindset has played, both in the particular decisions of a time and in our ever-evolving and ever-more-confused sense of what the past has taught us.

Such an effort can be a significant bolster to our understanding of why we have fought and have not fought, how we justify our decisions to ourselves and to others, and how to form from that understanding a better way forward – one that avoids useless and damaging wars without stifling the pursuit of moral imperatives and humanitarian intervention. I aim, in essence, for a moment of reflection, a look back at all the vagaries, the missteps and the good decisions, that have characterized the first century of the United States’ place on the world stage. In this last quarter of the ‘American Century,’ we have an opportunity and an obligation to reflect on those formative years, to admit our mistakes and celebrate our successes, and to continue forward with a renewed understanding of our responsibilities to ourselves and to others, and the possibilities of a humble America who does not presume to know what is best for the world, but has the fire and the conviction to stand up to injustices and crises.

The main question that faces us is not whether we should intervene in some circumstances – for as long as there are Rwandas and Sudans, there will be a need and a responsibility to do something about them – but rather how we can choose more wisely which situations require intervention and which would be harmed by it.

This is, of course, a large task for a term paper, and it will probably be pared down between now and November. But it's a good start, I think.

Thanks for reading! Sorry it's been so long.