As tensions continue to rise between the U.S. and North Korea, it would perhaps serve us well to keep in mind that this is what our forefathers warned against. In Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address he declared, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations. Entangling alliances with none.” This was a reaffirmation of George Washington’s policy, also known as “The Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances”. Washington, in his farewell address, stated: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Regrettably, we have strayed far from that doctrine.
Some disputes are unavoidable being that it is a complex world. However, in the building of our empire, the United States has become far too involved around the globe. While our intent was to expand our military presence (in many cases our leaders may have wanted to make the world a better place) the unintended consequences have been many entangling permanent alliances. Since our current situation with North Korea is the reason I’m writing this, I’ll set aside the easy examples like the United Nations and NATO to instead focus on examples in the Pacific region. We clearly did not listen to the words of Jefferson in 1898 when we took Guam and Hawaii to use as Pacific military outposts. We definitely did not heed Washington’s advice when we intervened in Korea and made promises to the South Koreans. Likewise, we did not listen to Washington or Jefferson after World War II. Japan was a cruel, violent, aggressive empire and it is easy to see why we wanted to cripple its military. However, Japan acted as a counterbalance to the Chinese empire until our occupation of Japan and subsequent rewriting of their constitution, which prevented them from having offensive military capabilities.
Without competition, China has been able to take over the entire region through economic means, creating a nearly uncheckable Chinese empire with a pit bull named North Korea. This puts the United States in a difficult situation because China benefits from us being over extended and we have made commitments to the people of Guam, South Korea, and Japan. If we do not respond to North Korea’s aggression, then our word means nothing and our allies would rightly look elsewhere to protect themselves. Personally I am okay with breaking these commitments, but if we are indeed to break them, we need to be decisive and open about it. If we are to tell these people, “Sorry we made promises we shouldn’t have made. You are on your own”, then we have to fully commit to that position and to the implications that come with it. Implications such as; actual attacks by North Korea, Russia moving further into Europe, and Iran going all out in their own nuclear proliferation. I’m willing to face all of that, but I don’t believe most Americans are. More importantly I don’t think the people making these decisions are ready to take ownership, disengage, and accept responsibility. Until the people in the White House and at the Pentagon summon the courage to face the backlash that would come from such a withdrawal, the United States will continue to dig the hole deeper and create more unintended consequences further down the road. While more immediate and noticeable consequences may be stalled or eliminated, the current foreign policy will indeed catch up to us and leave us with an even more painful situation in the future. My fear is that we will continue to ignore the words of our forefathers and instead we will make the same misguided mistake of intervening that we made once before in Korea as well as Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The investment was not worth the consequences in all those cases and intervening in North Korea now would likely be no different.