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The U.S.'s role in conflicts abroad is coming under debate in American politics


What role will the United States play in the world? It's a debate that reaches back to the founding of the country. But in recent months, a growing number of Republican leaders question some of America's global commitments. At the Munich Security Conference last week, with U.S. military aid to Ukraine stalled in Congress, Vice President Kamala Harris invoked memories of pre-World War II isolationism.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: If we only look inward, we could not defeat threats from outside. Isolation is not insulation. In fact, when America has isolated herself, threats have only grown.

SIMON: Stephen Walt joins us now. He's an international affairs professor at Harvard University. Professor Walt, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN WALT: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You have urged what you call restraint versus isolationism. What's that?

WALT: Restraint is a policy that suggests the United States should be fully engaged in the world. We should trade, we should invest, we should have active diplomacy, and we should have a strong military. There are some circumstances where the United States should be willing to use military force, but we should be using it much less often than we have been doing of late, avoiding the kind of unnecessary wars that we fought in Iraq or the long, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan. And in particular, restraint is about not trying to use American power to reorganize other societies to transform them, you know, along lines we might prefer. So it's not isolationism at all, which tends to be a label that critics use to try and marginalize people who are opposed to an excessive and unsuccessful American foreign policy.

SIMON: How would this apply to Ukraine?

WALT: Well, I think, first of all, you - restrainters (ph) would argue that the United States should have been much more sensitive to the risks involved of trying to expand NATO endlessly, moving it ever closer to Russia. This is a policy that was inevitably going to provoke a hostile backlash, as indeed it has, and one, of course, in which Ukraine has paid an enormous price. Restrainters support helping Ukraine and have from the outbreak of the war, but think this should have been accompanied by a much more energetic effort to bring the war to an end. We should have sought a cease-fire when Ukraine was doing well in the fall of 2022. The United States did the opposite, in fact, and Ukraine is in much worse shape as a result.

SIMON: Would Vladimir Putin only be boldened (ph) - emboldened if the United States stopped providing aid to Ukraine?

WALT: No one knows the answer to this question, and it hinges on what you think his ultimate ambitions were. If you think his primary goal was to prevent Ukraine from gravitating into the West, eventually joining NATO, then an end to Ukraine, which leaves Ukraine as essentially a neutral country, might be sufficient, and I think there's relatively little evidence that he wants to sort of reinvent the Warsaw Pact, recreate the old Soviet Union. It's also worth noting that Russia is having enough trouble in Ukraine itself. It took them months to advance a few miles and take one more city. So the idea that Russia is somehow poised to strike into the heart of Europe, I think, is just fanciful.

SIMON: With respect, Professor Walt, hasn't the world make that mistake before, thinking that the Nazis would be satisfied with Czechoslovakia and then with Poland? We could go on.

WALT: Well, this is the - everyone's favorite analogy. The good news here is that Hitlers are relatively rare in world history. There are not that many leaders who have these endless ambitions and, in Hitler's case, an endless appetite, willing to take risks. I don't think Vladimir Putin has those ambitions. It's worth remembering we think of Joseph Stalin as this great tyrant, but, of course, Stalin withdrew Soviet forces from Austria in exchange for Austrian neutrality. Stalin never made a serious bid to advance beyond what the Soviet Union had gotten in World War II. So we have to recognize that even tyrants have limited ambitions, and I think basing all of American foreign policy on one particularly dramatic episode in history is probably a mistake.

SIMON: Would the U.S. declining to materially support Ukraine now encourage China to move on Taiwan?

WALT: That's a harder question. You never know what conclusions the Chinese are drawing from this, but I think the situations are really different in many respects. And first of all, one of the lessons that China ought to learn from the war in Ukraine is that the best-laid military plans often do not work out that well. Secondly, they should note the response that Europe and the United States made to the war in Ukraine. I think that's what China has to worry about if it contemplates doing anything. Finally, it's worth just noting that the more time, attention, resources the United States pours into Ukraine without much prospect of reversing the military situation there, the less time, attention and resources it can devote to the balance of power in Asia. So you could argue that if we could get the war in Ukraine to be settled, that, in fact, would be a sign to China not to take a grab for Taiwan.

SIMON: Analytically, professor, what do you make of the profile in these events of the Republican Party? Has it changed under Donald Trump?

WALT: Yeah, I think there's no question it's changed in a variety of ways. I don't think of Trump as necessarily an isolationist. He's, I think, as much a unilateralist as anything else. But he has certainly opened the door to sort of views that are unorthodox in the tradition of American foreign policy. I also think what Trump and some members of the GOP have tapped into is a frustration with the course of American foreign policy over the last 30 or 40 years, where the optimism that greeted the end of the Cold War hasn't been followed by a series of successes. Instead, you've had a series of costly failures or tragedies, that we're running around the world doing lots of different things, and it's not working very well. And in fact, key constituencies here at home are being neglected as a result.

SIMON: Stephen Walt, international affairs professor at Harvard University, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

WALT: Nice talking with you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.