The question of whether to intervene in other countries is among the toughest decisions in American foreign policy, if not the toughest. U.S. presidents wrestle with this question repeatedly: not only whether to intervene, but when and how to do so.
Over the years, I’ve attended many meetings in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill focused on intervention. The experts would make compelling arguments, pro and con. Presidents would ask serious and difficult questions but rarely tip their hands.
Should we step in to stop gross abuses of human rights? Should we push back against dictators who ignore democratic processes and accumulate power? Should we try to stop conflicts between nations and referee peace negotiations?
When Iran attacks Saudi oil fields, should we respond on behalf of our ally, Saudi Arabia? Should we assist it in the war in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands? Should we intervene to stop the brutality of Bashar al-Assad in Syria? Should we help the U.N.-supported government of Libya, which is under assault?
And how should we respond to a rising, assertive China that is bent on increasing its influence?
The decisions require asking what, precisely, are our interests and objectives and what resources we are willing to spend to achieve them. And how and when we will end the intervention.
Presidents are caught in a tug-of-war between restraint and intervention. Those who favor restraint often quote John Quincy Adams: “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to slay.” But we also talk about the United States as an exceptional or indispensable nation. That kind of approach encourages intervention.
America isn’t the preeminent power that it was decades ago, but we still have a lot of power, and we have often been helpful in solving problems. We see wrongs being done, and the temptation to intervene is strong. Even presidents who are skeptical of intervention — Barack Obama, for example — confront events that push them to intervene.
And if we do not intervene, other nations, including China and Russia, may step in. Failing to act may cost us influence and prestige on the international stage.
But intervention can backfire. Other nations have their own politics, history, and culture. Occasionally, we stumble when we intervene. We control what we do but not what others do. In past interventions, lives have been lost or shattered, and the results mixed.
Also, it is hard to sustain political support in this country for extended foreign engagement. And you can be sure that, once we intervene, a different challenge will come along to capture our attention.
We have many tools for intervening. We can use rhetoric and diplomacy, deploy development and aid and impose economic sanctions. But the temptation is always strong to use military power. We have dominance in that area, and our armed forces are ready to act. By some measures, the United States has engaged in war during 226 years of our history and completely avoided war only in 16 years. Those are disturbing figures, and they show our inclination to intervene.
Our major global competitor, China, intervenes largely with its economic power – by investing in high-speed rail, opening universities and building infrastructure. We do much less of that.
As Americans, we want a world that is peaceful, democratic and prosperous, but we have limits. Sometimes we have to say no. Sometimes we have to seek help from others. Sometimes we may have to limit our involvement; for example, to use aid and diplomacy but not military force.
We shouldn’t shrink from engagement with the world, but neither should we rely too heavily on military power. We shouldn’t be interventionists or isolationists. There are no simple answers, and, in each case, we have to look hard at what America’s interests require.
The question of when and how to intervene is one of the enduring questions of American foreign policy. It has been in the past and it will be in the future.
By Lee H. Hamilton