GW: If a presidential candidate, preparing his stump speech, asked you for a brief summary statement against the isolationist temptation, what would you suggest that he say?
EA: I would have the candidate give a little speech along these lines:
“During the Cold War, we had to lead a coalition of nations against the twin threats of communism and Soviet power. We rose to that struggle and won it, and our victory saved our own freedom as well as the freedom of hundreds of millions of others.
“Now that it is over, we can do less and spend less overseas. There are places on the globe that simply don’t matter enough to demand American involvement. But just as we had interests to defend before there was a Cold War, and just as there were threats to us before then, the same is true now. Some of these current interests are very old. The first American statesmen saw what we had at stake in Mexico and the Caribbean; today, drug and migration flows are still major issues. Some interests are new: the spread of nuclear weapons and missile technology now gives small nations and terrorist groups the possibility of striking a dangerous blow at America.
“It is clear that a world in which every petty tyrant is armed to the teeth, and our foreign markets are in turmoil, and our own region is plagued by instability, will not be a very good gift to our children. America still has an irreplaceable role to play if the world is to be a less dangerous place.
“Why us? Because our wealth, power, and freedom make us the inevitable leader of the world’s democracies. It is true that our power provides a continual temptation to meddle in situations where our interests do not require us to jump in, and one test of a president is to keep his cool and stay out of those. I will not search for foreign dragons to slay. I hope never to order a shot fired, and I realize that the very last thing you want is to see your sons and daughters under fire in some foreign land.
“But if we are to keep the world moving toward freedom, and protect our own freedom, safety, and prosperity, we cannot act as if we lived on some other planet. One test, as I said, is to know when to keep out of troubles that do not affect the United States. But another is to know when our interests really are at risk today; and the toughest test is to understand when they will be at risk tomorrow if we don’t act now. We can pass those tests or fail them, but we cannot avoid them.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.