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McGough ’23: America can fight for liberty abroad without militarism

The war in Afghanistan was one of America’s most expensive mistakes yet. Having cost a staggering $2.3 trillion  and the lives of over 5,000 Americans, the prolonged conflict accomplished none of its long-term goals, neither rooting out the Taliban and terrorist groups nor establishing a functioning liberal democracy in the region. Worse yet, American involvement seems to have outright backfired: The Taliban is stronger than ever as the Afghan nation reels economically after decades of violence that left 170,000 Afghans dead. Today, a democratic Afghanistan seems farther away than ever. 

Post-9/11 interventions beyond Afghanistan have also been total failures in both concept and execution. Fueled by raw fear of global terrorism and inspired by blistering American hubris, George W. Bush-era leadership lashed out at any nation standing in the United States’ way. America’s ham-fisted wars against ill-defined ideologies needlessly entangled its military and economy in conflicts from Libya to Somalia, displacing millions, costing trillions and producing few benefits to the people of the United States or the world.

The Afghan experiment is the most recent evidence that American foreign policy is in shambles. While China and Russia reassert themselves as world powers, our star fades. Even as democracy expands in some parts of the world, it recedes in far more, creating a world less friendly to America for the future. Thus, two decades after 9/11 and two weeks after the end of America’s longest war, our nation is at a crossroads: Will we continue the ruthless cycle of militaristic intervention while we shrink in economic and diplomatic spheres, or will we find a new path forward? The time is now for an approach to foreign policy that recognizes the importance of the homefront and confronts our internal challenges. 

As America’s military interventions fail, we have also fallen behind in so-called “soft power” arenas, which test our economic and cultural influence. Since 2000, America has gone from being the top trading partner of 80% of the world’s nations to just 30%, losing many to China, whose exports dominate 70% of world markets today. Across the Global South, newly forged economic ties with China strengthen cultural and institutional ties  as more nations emulate Chinese autocratic social control and surveillance policies every year. 

Worst of all, the global perception of the United States has fallen off a cliff in recent years. Donald Trump-era attitudes toward global institutions and the coronavirus reduced America’s approval rating to its lowest level ever. While America is still the preeminent world power to most elder statesmen, this reputation is weakening as decades of good-faith economic and diplomatic cooperation are forgotten. Someday soon, leaders will come to power who have watched the United States flail in war after war and mismanage crisis after crisis. These leaders, having seen little of its best and much of its worst, will not invite the influence of America, but scorn it.

American foreign policy should shift to viewing another nation’s slip into extremism or authoritarianism not as an aberration for us to correct, but instead as a reflection of our own shortcomings. Currently, American foreign policy is founded on an unsatisfying binary: Either a foreign government is despotic enough to draw the United States into war, or it is not worth our time. It imagines America as the world’s police force, setting the rules of the road and breaking them at will. But making foreign policy a question of whether or not a foreign nation needs American intervention is a mistake, and one that our enemies rightly point out is hypocritical. America has no right to parade as the infallible global force for good. It was only Jan. 6 when the loser of the 2020 election watched giddily while supporters attempted to sack the Capitol and overthrow Congress. So long as American democracy looks like a glass house, we have no right to be throwing stones through militarism.

Put another way, the United States is the birthplace of modern democracy and should strive to be its torchbearer. If the global tide of extremism is rising, we should lead by example by stomping out extremism at home. 

This may sound like a fresh coat of paint for old-fashioned isolationism, but it is an entirely different approach to foreign affairs. Isolationism implies no response to a foreign crisis — indeed, doing nothing about autocracy would leave ample room for key ideological rivals to fill the void. Leading by example instead demandsan active posture. Rather than responding to international crises by sending troops, America should react by looking inward, understanding how its own example has failed and making the necessary fixes. Once our example proves succesful and replicable, fewer nations will tolerate the siren songs of authoritarianism or extremism. 

Some will scoff at the idea of leaving interventionism behind, feeling that it essentially leaves dictators to indulge in their most awful vices without accountability. No doubt, it puts American leaders in the uncomfortable position of denying calls to action, but they must remember that previous interventions have seen little success and massive costs. Forcing the currently imperfect American model on foreign nations is a recipe for failure, one demonstrated many times. Nations must be allowed to develop liberal democracy of their own accord and in their own time. The strongest democracies in the world, like those in Norway, Iceland and Sweden, developed as the results of homegrown movements, not international meddling. A nation should take pride in its democracy as its own, not resent it as a foreign installation. 

As more nations reject democracy or solidify autocracy, it is our job not to pull them back with force, but to turn inward. Pulling back from direct military involvement allows the United States to reset the example of the ideal liberal democracy and reinspire a globe tired of holding hope in flawed republics. By rejecting both intervention and passive isolationism, we can refocus our efforts, strengthen our own nation and lead first by example.

Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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