March 20, 2022 by Anders Ingemarson
This past Wednesday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his address to the U.S. Congress, proposed to “create an association, U24 United for peace, a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflict immediately, provide all the necessary assistance in 24 hours, if necessary, even weapons if necessary, sanctions, humanitarian support, political support, finances, everything you need to keep the peace, and quickly save the world to save lives.”
In the heat of the moment, with the entire free world justifiably abhorred and disgusted by Russia’s aggression, this may seem a good idea. But from a U.S. point of view, would such an association be in our interest? More precisely, as individual Americans, would it be in our rational self-interest that our government participate in such a venture as part of protecting our individual rights from being violated by foreign aggressors? And, if yes, on what conditions?
The main building block of a rational foreign policy does not involve interacting with other countries at all but leading by example at home. This may seem contradictory, but as I wrote when Ukraine was front page news during the Crimea invasion back in 2014:
“If we turn our focus to protecting individual rights and expanding capitalism, […] we will send a very strong signal to the rest of the world as they see our policies bearing fruit.
“Cutting taxes, regulations and government spending will unleash growth and lead to an increase in wealth all around. You think China’s 10% annual growth is impressive? (assuming you can trust any numbers coming out of a totalitarian regime) I’m convinced we can match that in a heartbeat once we get the reducing of government on the right track. Do you think the rest of the world will take notice? Any chance they will start copying our policies? You bet they will. They may initially do it reluctantly, but the power of our example will not go unnoticed among the citizens of other countries. Over time, the pressure will build on their politicians to follow our example as watching us improve makes them realize what they’re missing out on.”
We saw this when the American Revolution inspired people in other countries to emulate us throughout the better part of the 19th century. And, following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many communist and socialist countries looked to the U.S. and other more free countries for inspiration and guidance. It is true that historically, their level of success was at best mixed. But today, the Baltic states—the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are squarely in the success column, all ranking higher than or equal to the U.S. on the Frazer/Cato Index of Human Freedom. And although Ukraine ranks far behind, one of the main reasons for Putin’s war is the fact that Ukraine is looking west, not east, for inspiration, which in his twisted mind is unforgivable.
As Americans, we should salute both the Baltic states and Ukraine for their efforts to move towards more freedom and capitalism. But we should also be embarrassed because we are not leading by example at home. Individual rights violating government spending—most recently trillions of dollars in Covid relief and Build Back Better earmarks supported by both democrats and republicans—is out of control. And since we don’t have the money to pay for it, the government is using banana republic tactics to create the funds out of thin air, which results in rampant inflation that erodes both our pay and savings. And the regulatory burden on both American individuals and businesses is record high and keeps growing. The practical result is anemic economic growth, which along with the seemingly unending culture wars project weakness and diminish our standing in the world.
But if we assume we could get our house in order—increase freedom, strengthen the protection of individual rights and embrace capitalism by reducing government spending and regulations, and again lead by example at home—what else should our foreign policy consist of?
Obviously, we will need our military to protect us against foreign threats. With economic growth unleashed, military expenditures could be increased if needed even as military spending as a fraction of the economy drops over time. However, a drastic increase in military spending likely will not be needed, because the countries following our example, will move toward more freedom, better protection of individual rights and more capitalism. Over time, our trade with them increases, our social values converge, and they become more prosperous. They will increasingly start to see that it’s in their self-interest to treat us as friends and allies, and this drastically reduces the potential threat of military aggression.
Given our military strength, other countries will be interested in entering defense alliances with us; even in our present state of not leading by example at home many countries enjoy or wish for American protection both in Europe (NATO) and the Pacific (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines). Which brings us back to Pres. Zelensky’s “association” proposal. We should only entertain it if our terms can be met, that is, if it’s aligned with our rational self-interest. What are those terms? (1) We should require each country to get on a path to freedom: strengthen the protection of individual rights by reducing taxes and government spending, roll back regulations, and eliminate tariffs and subsidies; in short, embrace capitalism. (2) The path should come with a timeline; follow it and you’ll enjoy the benefits of American military protection, deviate, and you’re out. And (3) we should insist that each country pays its share of the costs, probably in some proportion to its population and size; the U.S. has sacrificially footed the bill for the defense of the so called free world for way too long.
This should be a take it or leave it proposition with little room for negotiation that over time replaces our existing, mostly American funded defense alliances. Smaller countries feeling threatened by larger neighbors will probably transition to or join the new alliance early (think the Baltic states and Taiwan). As their “leading by example at home” policies start to bear fruit, others will follow and the alliance grow organically. We have to allow members of our current alliances time to decide whether to join the new alliance on our terms, and if their decision is “no,” allow them a transition period to take on their own defense.
This type of defense alliance would be in our rational self-interest. Thanks to economies of scale, the cost of defending ourselves will be reduced, as our military together with that of our allies can protect more territory without proportionally increase costs. And as more countries become friends and allies, real defense expenditures will start to go down as well. And, most importantly, with more and more countries moving toward freedom and capitalism, the world will become a more prosperous and peaceful place. And the more prosperous and peaceful the rest of the world, the more prosperous we become.
See this as a vision. It assumes we have earned our international standing by leading by example at home, which unfortunately is a tall order in the current moral, cultural and political climate. But without having earned it, we won’t have the moral authority to impose the terms that would serve our self-interest, as we cannot demand more of our partners than we do of ourselves. The U.S. is currently 20th in the Frazer/Cato Index of Human Freedom ranking. It’s a disgrace that we’re not #1. Absent getting our own house in order, we should not take on additional international responsibilities. Our lack of moral, cultural and political clarity would continue to bog us down in divisive international engagements, as has been the case since at least the Vietnam War. But if this vision could be realized, we’d be on our way to achieving that elusive goal strived for by so many—world peace.