The Limits of Noninterventionism

Before I get into the meat of this post I need to mention that I’ve opposed every U. S. military intervention of the last 25 years including the Gulf War, our interventions in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo, and our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Do I think that we’re too quick to intervene militarily overseas? Obviously, yes. But I also believe that an official policy of noninterventionism would be imprudent and wouldn’t achieve some of the objectives its exponents claim.

We’ve been down that road before. Until 1917 it was our dominant foreign policy but you don’t need to go that far back to consider the limits of noninterventionism.

Consider the case of China. China has an official policy of noninterventionism. That hasn’t insulated Chinese citizens from terrorist attacks. In July there was a series of attacks against Chinese citizens in Pakistan. The first was on July 8:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, July 8 (Reuters) – Unidentified gunmen killed three Chinese workers and wounded another on Sunday in what Pakistani officials said was a terrorist attack apparently linked to the bloody siege of militants at an Islamabad mosque.

The four Chinese, who worked for a motorcyle company making three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, were ambushed as they were leaving their factory on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar, a provincial government official said.

There were more on July 19:

More than 40 people have been killed in three separate bomb attacks in Pakistan, officials say.

In the latest incident, a bomb was detonated in a mosque used by military personnel in the north-western town of Kohat, killing at least 11 people.

The interior minister said it appeared to be a suicide attack. Most of the dead are feared to be army recruits.

Two earlier bomb attacks in Baluchistan and in North West Frontier Province killed more than 30 people.

Twenty-six died in the southern town of Hub, 35km (23 miles) north of Karachi, in an attack apparently targeting Chinese workers.

These weren’t the first attacks in Pakistan against Chinese workers. There had been prior attacks in 2006:

QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — Unknown attackers gunned down three Chinese engineers and a Pakistani driver in southwestern Pakistan Wednesday evening, police sources told CNN.

The attack happened in Hub in Balochistan province, a tribal area where recent violence has prompted Pakistan’s army to conduct operations.

The engineers were helping construct the multimillion dollar Gwadar seaport in Balochistan, a joint venture by Pakistan and its key ally, China.

The Chinese consulate in Karachi said the attack happened while engineers were in a car with three others, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. They worked for a cement company in Hefei, in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, Xinhua reported.

Balochistan’s tribal groups have complained that, although the province is rich in natural gas and will be the site of Pakistan’s second major seaport, residents do not receive basic resources, such as drinking water.

and before that in 2004:

Three Chinese technicians working on a port project in the volatile southwestern province of Baluchistan were killed in a bomb attack in 2004.

The same year, Islamist militants kidnapped two Chinese engineers working on a dam in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border. One was killed during a rescue operation, while the other was freed. (Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar)

Why go after Chinese workers when the Chinese government has a policy of nonintervention? The reasons are varied and include China’s domestic policies (treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority) and that people with grievances aren’t particularly concerned about the niceties of whether the country in question is interventionist or not. They’re there; they’re having an effect; they’re intervening. Unless you’re prepared to cut off all trade and diplomatic contact as well as military and economic intervention you can’t escape stirring up hostility.

We don’t call cutting off all contacts with other countries “noninterventionism”. We call it “isolationism”.

Commenters have given China’s policy of nonintervention credit for China’s success in gaining toeholds in African countries. China is, in one fashion or another, supporting the really heinous regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. One of the grievances that people in the Middle East have against us is our “support for repressive regimes”. I have little doubt that China will learn in time the lesson we should have learned: you won’t gain any friends that way.

There are perfectly good reasons to argue against our present willingness to intervene militarily in the absence of a specific threat to our own security. The reasons include moral ones, national sovereignty, and the expense but I don’t think we should kid ourselves into believing that we’ll make friends by not intervening. We won’t. Those with the inclination will find their reasons to hate us including the pervasiveness of American companies and culture.

And, like it or not, it’s American intervention that keeps the sealanes open, provides assistance to victims of earthquakes and tsunamis, and reduces the likelihood of major power war. We’re not going to return to a policy that was rejected because it had failed nearly a century ago.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Dodd says:

    the Gulf War, our interventions in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo, and our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq

    I’m curious why Afghanistan is included in this list. The invasion of Afghanistan wasn’t “interventionism” but was, rather, substantively different from the other actions on the list, non?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s a bit of a digression from the sense of the post but I thought that invading Afghanistan was imprudent and, as long as the border with Pakistan was open, little could be accomplished there without a permanent occupation.

    I was wrong on the imprudent part—the strategy used by our military was brilliant. I still think I was right on the limits of what can be accomplished in Afghanistan.

  3. Triumph says:

    But I also believe that an official policy of noninterventionism would be imprudent

    Im not sure what your point is–who is arguing for a blanket “official policy of noninterventionism”?

  4. Cody says:

    True. We’ll always be vulnerable. There’s no escaping that fact.

    However, an aggressive interventionist foreign policy advocated by many neocons would likely put us in more danger. Fore one, our bombs will (and are) essentially create anti-Americans-for-life by destroying families and infrastructure. Intentional or not, these scars will last a long time and which the effects will not felt until many years down the road.

  5. Christopher says:

    Big lib that you are, Dave, why would we be surprised that you’ve “opposed every U. S. military intervention of the last 25 years”. Gee, what about Vietnam? Korea? WII? WWI? Revolutionary war? You pacifists liberals (sorry, being redundant) would have us living under British or German or Communist or radical Islamic rule if you had your way.

    But I digress. What do terrorists attacks on China have to do with anything at all? The Chinese govt. could care less what happens to their citizens. Heck, its citizens don’t even know what happens to their countrymen overseas unless the govt. cares to tell them about it.

    Get real, Dave.

  6. Tano says:

    This seems to be a pretty fallacious argument.

    “I don’t think we should kid ourselves into believing that we’ll make friends by not intervening. We won’t”

    The evidence you present would support an argument that “we should not kid ourselves into believeing that everyone on earth will be our freinds, by not intervening.”

    Which is very different than the argument you make. You dont raise any points that contradict the claim that we might make some friends, or many friends with a non-interventionist policy. Only that there still might be some who attack us.

  7. wolfwalker says:

    I’ve opposed every U. S. military intervention of the last 25 years including the Gulf War, … and our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Then you’re a fool with no concept of global economics or international power politics, and there’s no reason to read the rest of your post.

    So I didn’t.

  8. TheHat says:

    ‘Consider the case of China. China has an official policy of noninterventionism.’

    Well thank God that China has an official policy of noninterventionism! I’d dread to think what might happen if they sent parts of their army into Korea to help the North Koreans! Opps they did! Or maybe if they attempted to destabilise all of Africa as the English, French and Dutch started pulling out of their colonies. Again, they did. Is it noninterventionism to send arms to South American terrorist groups? Suppose an America plane was flying in international airspace and a Chinese plane crashes into it forcing it down? Is that noninterventionism? Do you suppose Taiwan sees them as noninterventionist? Suppose a Clinton took millions from the Red Army for favors to be announced later, is that noninterventionism? Suppose they did it twice?

    I guess it takes a Neo-Socialist to be propagandist for an aggressive socialist nation.

  9. Barry says:

    Gawd, what an incredibly bad post! What’s the name for this fallacy – arguendo ab lackus perfectionus?

  10. Tlaloc says:

    Why go after Chinese workers when the Chinese government has a policy of nonintervention?

    Is there reason to believe these attacks were specifically targetted at the people *because* they were chinese?

    Regardless you seem to be arguing with something of a strawman. I don’t think anyone, not even Ron Paul, has suggested that a policy of non-interventionism will mean an end to any attacks on our citizens by foreigners. The point is simply to reduce (hopefully drastically) the amount of animosity there is for us world wide.

    I suspect you agree with that sentiment.

    Non-interventionism will not end war, will not even end war that we are likely to be involved in, but it will reduce the sheer number of wars we fight.

  11. John Tabin says:

    Until 1917 [non-interventionism] was our dominant foreign policy

    Not really true. See the first 200 pages of Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace.

  12. Dilan Esper says:

    Norway doesn’t intervene in other countries. Neither does Switzerland. Does everyone hate them?

    Look, I am not a peacenik. Multilateral intervention can be a good thing, when you can get everyone aligned. And unilateral intervention is fine if the defense of the country is at stake.

    But the fundamental issue here isn’t either of those two things. It’s the idea that the US needs to be anywhere and everywhere, with bases and power projection all over the world, policing everything from the growing of coca in Colombia to the acquisition of weapons by the militaries of middle eastern dictatorships.

    THAT’S what we need to stop. And I don’t know if the proper term for that is “noninterventionism” or not.