January 22, 2024

Young/Hendrix: Decline is a choice — America can’t return to isolationist policies

The following opinion column was originally published in The Hill on January 22, 2024. 

By Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jerry Hendrix

“Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”  

President John F. Kennedy declared these words from the snowy steps of the U.S. Capitol during his 1961 inaugural address. They were an unmistakable warning to nations recently freed from the yoke of colonialism: Resist the siren sound of the Soviet communist movement.  

But Kennedy was also issuing a subtle warning to his fellow Americans that they must not take their nation’s position as the leader of the free world for granted. 

When Kennedy spoke, it had been just under 14 years since Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. had delivered to the State Department a “blue piece of paper” — diplo-speak for a note of great importance — that effectively ended its role as a global great power and ceded that role voluntarily to the United States.  

Today, more than six decades since Kennedy’s promise “to bear any burden” to assure the success of liberty, prominent voices on both sides of our current political landscape are advocating that the United States return to isolationist policies. Sounding policy notes reminiscent of the 1930s, some leaders are calling for ending military aid to Ukraine, decreasing our commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and even ignoring China’s threats to Taiwan.  

These views ignore the lessons of history. During World War II, millions of Americans made incredible sacrifices to preserve the promise of freedom. In the aftermath of that conflict, Americans have benefitted immensely from the Atlantic Charter, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the founding of NATO, and the implementation of the Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe — all measures the United States took a leading hand in forging. 

This interwoven quilt of agreements was backed by American military power, its standing Army, and its overwhelmingly large and modern Navy. This quilt helped the United States win the Cold War. 

But America began to loosen its grip following President Reagan’s strategic victory (“we win, they lose”). Believing that we had won a final victory and that somehow there had been an “End of History,” policymakers took a peace dividend, began a generation of defense cutbacks, and encouraged consolidation in the defense industrial base, even as some warned about a rising China and the potential of a revanchist Russia.  

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, a generation of leaders from both sides of the political spectrum expended the nation’s blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, having made these substantial strategic investments, they capriciously withdrew our military presence in a slapdash fashion that prioritized domestic politics over strategic imperatives.  

In the aftermath of the last two decades, the American people are understandably tired and reluctant to sacrifice. But we cannot ignore the cost of such divestment to our global leadership role.  

The last two administrations have laid out national security strategies that framed the nation’s competition with authoritarian powers such as China, Russia and Iran in stark terms. This is the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that led us to support Ukraine after it was invaded by Russia for the purpose of territorial aggrandizement. This same consensus has renewed policy focus on strengthening Taiwan to deter an attack by Communist China. And it is this consensus that sought to aid and comfort our ally Israel after Hamas’s barbaric terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, 2023. 

Unfortunately, as we enter the heat of an election year, there are voices on the far left and far right that would see our nation abandon these allies and partners and return home to an imagined splendor of isolation. 

These voices do not consider, or possibly cannot imagine, what might follow in an era of reduced American influence and power abroad. They do not see the multitude of destabilizing trends that would be unleashed should the United States attempt to abandon our position of global leadership. Nations in Europe and Asia must step up and prioritize their own defense, and many of them are, but it would be unwise to discount the host of benefits the post-World War II order has accrued to the United States.  

Leadership comes with a price, but it also comes with rewards. Our nation needs to step back and carefully consider the basic diplomatic, economic and military calculus before we resign the benefits and burdens of global leadership — and tempt the rest of the free world to the back of a Chinese tiger.

Todd Young is the senior senator from Indiana and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Jerry Hendrix, Ph.D., is a retired Navy captain and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute.