24 August 2009

No Country is an Island

I don't think I've ever put much faith in those foreign-policy ideas variously known as "isolationism" or "non-interventionism - at least not as guarantors of world peace and stability. Indeed, I'm not sure how effective "isolation" is even for keeping one's own country at peace, and even with one's own neighbors and trading partners. Of course it may work for Switzerland or Bhutan or the Marquesas Islands. But for Britain and America? How far, I wonder, did "righteous isolation" keep the United States from going to war with Canada and Mexico in the first half of the 19th century? And how effective was "benevolent non-intervention" in preventing Britain's opium wars with China during roughly the same period?

Which brings me to another, I think rather closely related question. Isn't it strange how being "isolated" from a particular part of the world, or ignorant of it, or indifferent to the great questions of its Past and its Future, has never stopped Americans from investing in that place? Isn't it even stranger, that our American investments in a particular country never quite seem to keep us from going to war over that country? And then, when we are seemingly right in the thick of the action, from pulling out more or less abruptly? And then, strangest of all, sometimes we even go on to behave as though we barely knew there ever was such a country! Until, of course, the time comes when we might need a pipeline or two.

My point is not to argue against overseas investment, or overland pipelines, or even war when it becomes necessary. My point is to insist that we do everything we can to know - respectfully, thoughtfully, vigilantly - the places in which we are investing. And that means, I think, every place in which we have a substantial corporate or military presence. Even those places that we expect very shortly will become the most like us. After all, no matter how far we may engirdle the globe with our Starbucks and Best Buys and Costcos, things aren't always going to change in exactly the ways we expect them to. And that means an invasion of Iran or Pakistan is likely to remain - for the foreseeable future - a very different thing from acquiring Texas or California.

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