In 1796, our first president warned us about becoming too involved in foreign affairs and entanglements in which we had no national interest, especially among the European countries. He recommended staying away from alliances altogether, except during times of extreme or severe danger, and then maintaining them only for the duration of such necessity. Washington worried that allies and alliances would distract us from the good faith and republican values upon which the young United States of America had been founded.
The famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, on the other hand, describes the eternal bond that is established by those in battle: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” For those who have fought together, that phrase is more than just a slogan or a bumper sticker.
George Washington could not have envisioned the world of the 21st century on the cusp of his retirement. America’s ascension to superpower status after World War II and as “Leader of the Free World” during the Cold War could never have been predicted in his time. Nuclear weapons, globalism, international terrorism, transnational drug cartels, world commerce, and even cyberwarfare have forced America into various international alliances by virtue of our position in the world. With our ongoing trade wars with China and the European Union, as just one dimension of our contemporary foreign entanglements, would it even be possible to disengage ourselves from the rest of the world and just go back to the simpler times of 1796?
Many of our warfighters and military leaders, who have fought with the Kurds against ISIS, have criticized our sudden abandonment of their “blood brothers” in favor of an invasion by Turkey, which lately has not been acting much like an ally. Others with no first-hand experience in the fight simply take a cold, objective, dispassionate view and believe it is time to cut our losses and heed George Washington’s advice (at least in Syria).
Who’s right and who’s wrong? That will be decided by history.