Short answer: No.
Medium answer: We don’t need to become isolationist but we do need to be more skeptical about our “allies.”
Read the longer answer for some context:
It’s time to admit something that few want to cop to: the United States of America doesn’t need the world. Not really. The world–and this has always been the case–needs us. No, I don’t believe that the United States should retreat from the world. I don’t think that we should be “isolationist.” Fact is, there’s no possible way for the United States to be truly isolationist–not a country of more 330 million diverse people, spread across a continent, with the world’s largest economy and the only military capable of deploying anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. We should be more reticent, however. For too long, the United States has been running on a geopolitical treadmill, convinced that the world was going to collapse lest America act as the global beat cop, busting the heads of bad guys and protecting the innocent.
Since the publication of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, people have debated whether the central thesis of that work, that the world exists in a state of anarchy, was accurate or not. Another component added into the mix comes from the realm of economics and the concept of scarcity. If all goods are scarce, and the world exists in a perennial state of competition and anarchy; if goods and resources do not cross borders freely, as Frederic Bastiat is believed to have argued, and armies soon do because of the lack of trade for necessary goods and services, then why doesn’t the United States “need” the world?
Simple (and this is by no means a novel argument): the United States sits atop geography that is both vast and favorable. Because of this large, favorable geography, that is chock full of arable land; has advantageous rivers and waterways; is surrounded by two oceans, a bucolic neighbor to the north, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to the south, and is essentially an island away from the larger Eurasian landmass, the United States is basically insulated from the rest of the world in a way that few other countries ever could be. As Michael S. Kochin and Michael Taylor have postulated in their brilliant new book, An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States, out from the University of Michigan Press, the United States exists as the most powerful nation in the world today precisely because of its unique geography and cultural history.
My colleague, Jeffrey C. Borneman, has formulated the MDEF equation to help analysts and investors understand geopolitics. MDEF stands for (Metals, Defense, Energy, and Food). I’ve encouraged him to make it MDEF/W (with the “W” standing for water). Most countries possess one or two of these basic elements–meaning that, in order to have access to the whole equation, countries must venture beyond their territory and compete for access to these finite resources in order to survive and thrive. The United States is one of the few countries that has a secure grip on MDEF/W. So, while we certainly do gain from interaction overseas (nearly 23 percent of the national GDP is generated from trade), the idea that the United States would wither and die from taking a significant step back from the world is prima facie absurd.
Again, no one should seek to have the United States self-isolate from the rest of the world. But, as Donald J. Trump has articulated over the course of his years in office, we should seek a more transactional foreign policy. Allies are great–so long as they do something; if they serve some purpose for us. Otherwise, they’re just deadweight. Neither we nor they are served by continued, mindless friendship. This was the basis of the “America First” movement that was spawned from the Trump Campaign for president in 2016.
In essence, because the United States controls so much of its own resources–the MDEF/W paradigm is quite favorable to America and few others–it should be the rest of the world clamoring to do business with us, not the other way around. If this were a real estate deal, you might say that we have all of the leverage over our counter-party (not only our actual rivals, like China, but certainly our allies).
So, why is it that we always seem to be getting rolled by so many of our allies?
Just look at the situation with Great Britain. Here is an integral NATO ally and a key member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, along with the United Kingdom belong to the Five Eyes) and now that the UK has necessarily abandoned its position in the European Union, London needs the United States more now than ever. Yet, the United Kingdom has opted to embrace China’s technology firm, Huawei, in its bid to build 5G internet in the United Kingdom.
As the Trump Administration warned the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson: allowing for a strategic rival, like China, to build out your next-generation national communication network will undoubtedly have profound consequences in terms of national security. It will give a Chinese firm with a track record of misbehavior directed against the West (notably the United States) access to sensitive technologies and could potentially compromise NATO and the Five Eyes operational security. As an ally enjoying a “Special Relationship” with the United States, Washington requested that London not go forward with the transaction. But London balked. It remains to be seen as to whether the British will ultimately follow through on the deal or not. Should it follow through, severe repercussions would be needed to be doled out by Washington as recompense for Britain’s bad decision on this matter. Britain, after all, needs the United States more than America needs the United Kingdom.
While the rest of the world must compete in an anarchic world for scarce resources in order to maintain regime stability and national prosperity, the United States does not really need such headaches. We are blessed in this great land to have raw materials, favorable geography, secure waterways, bountiful energy supplies, and mostly reliable food supplies. America’s rivals (and its allies, for that matter) are not so blessed. Thus, the United States has a great deal of advantages when compared to these other states and Washington should press those advantages to preserve US national interests.
Of course, the United States has made many commitments to its allies. As a matter of national credibility, Washington will have to work hard to balance the need to respect those commitments whilst not making any new ones. Further, Washington will have to reassess some other relationships on a case-by-case basis, in order to ensure that the alliances are not more of a liability to the US national interest than a benefit. This will be a brutal and painful process. But it is necessary. And it should have been undertaken immediately following the Cold War. Alas, it was not. So, here we are today. There can be no more kicking the proverbial can down the road. It’s do-or-die time.
The United States used to comprehend its true power. That was before the Second World War and before the Cold War warped everything that was beautiful about the United States into some manic war-state. Do we have enemies seeking to destroy us today? Yes. Will we have to take action–rapid and severe action–to put these enemies back on their heels? Absolutely. But not every threat we face is existential and most of these threats can (and must) be handled by a multinational coalition.
Think about it: we did not need to get involved in the world wars–certainly not the First World War. But we did. And when got involved, we saved the day (notably in the First World War). We really did save the world from its own darker impulses. As the Cold War broke out between the two former allies in the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union, the Americans understandably reached out and created an inclusive world order so as to contain and strangle the USSR over time. The plan worked. At no point, however, did the United States lose its leverage.
What, were the smaller, less fortunate nations of the world all going to give themselves over to revolutionary Communism? Maybe. Thankfully, we’ll never know (because the United States acted in its own interest which again disproportionately benefited most of humanity).
The threats facing the United States are more diffuse. We can now go to the other nations of the world and tell them: hey, you need to stop China or Russia or Iran or North Korea because these states are direct threats to your survival. While they are problems for the United States (notably China), we can probably endure whatever grief they give us without taking caustic actions in defense of a distant and small ally. But, you cannot allow for such risks. Now, we in the US are more than willing to help you out in resisting…but for a price. This is a controversial thing to state today in Washington. But this should be what every US statesman, regardless of political affiliation, believes.
The world needs the United States. America does not necessarily need the world. We are more than willing to help. If that help is wanted, though, it comes with a price; no more freebies. For anyone.