The people in Venezuela have started a revolution against the Nicolás Maduro government. Considering their deplorable state of the average person and continued abuses by the government, this is a welcome development. It has led to all sorts of questions and debates surrounding the use of American military force in Venezuela. The arguments are incredibly similar to previous debates about intervention, and that is why it is important to understand fundamental principles.
The first two consist of what are the primary motivations for an active foreign policy, and they are self-interest and humanitarian concerns. Without self-interest there are usually similar arguments to that given by German leader Otto von Bismark who said he wouldn’t give the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier for problems in the Balkans. This apocryphal statement reflects how Americans don’t want to give up American lives for humanitarian crises and often intractable problems around the world. Pundits like Tucker Carlson and isolationist libertarians often complain that there are problems here in America that need addressing, and that we shouldn’t indulge the war lobby or military industrial complex that often generates more problems or blowback.
The response to that often relies on both humanitarian and self-interested arguments. The former says that great power comes with great responsibility. As a superpower the U.S. has the ability to stop genocides from Bosnia to Rwanda, and the millions of deaths from inaction produces a moral imperative for the U.S. to act. The self-interested argument says that small problems that don’t seem like America’s concern often become big problems that are very expensive to solve in terms of men and material once they become apparent. In other words, the Taliban seemed like a radical regional group and a small problem not worth American action until they sponsored terrorists that killed 3000 people on 9/11.
The self-interested argument offers compelling reasons to fight but often does so without using moral arguments. Otto von Bismarck, for example, fought the French to seize key regions that held coal deposits in Alsace and Lorraine. The United States was often willing to defend its sphere of interest in the Western Hemisphere, so Central and South American countries couldn’t be used as a base in which to launch attacks or harm American business interests. The negative to this is that Americans don’t want to sacrifice soldiers for what seems like amoral causes. Seizing Iraqi oil, doing what some call “bullying” Central American states, or carving up Open Doors in China for business doesn’t seem very noble or high-minded and often finds little support, especially in modern times.
Thus, in his book “Diplomacy,” Henry Kissinger proposed a middle way that combines the two. This means the U.S. pursues its self-interest around the world while also providing humanitarian or moral reasons for doing so. The result is that intervention to stop small problems from becoming big ones often dovetails with securing strategic resources like oil and stopping foreign adversaries like China or Russia from expanding their sphere of influence at the expense of American interests.
We can see these arguments playing out in the media as we speak. It’s important for those that hear or read these arguments not to rely on emotional over-the-top rhetoric to make their decisions. Instead, they should realize that America has self-interest and it’s not immoral or evil to have reliable sources of oil or stop bad actors (like Russia inserting special forces in Venezuela) from spreading their influence. Americans are a good and compassionate people that should care about the good they can do in stopping human rights abuses by taking an active part in places in Venezuela.
Both action and inaction have consequences and recent Syrian history plainly shows this. Not intervening in Syria was at least partly based on the belief in blowback, that American actions can cause an even bigger problem down the road. But inaction has consequences as well. The most militant fighters survived, the chaos invited radical terrorists who consolidated control, the internally displaced persons and flood of refugees destabilized neighboring countries, and the victories of ISIS inspired lone-wolf terrorists around the world.
If both action and inaction can have severe consequences, we must use as many examples and as much insight as possible when making a decision. We don’t know what intervention might look like, but both courses will have consequences that affect the lives of millions of Americans, and Americans should consider the fundamental concepts as they make their decisions.