The Tao of Non-Interventionism

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Madeleine Albright,
who quipped that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were
“worth it,” infamously called America the “indispensable nation.”
Max Boot echoes her saying that “we guarantee the security of the
world, protect our allies, keep critical seal-lanes open and lead
the war on terror.” Madeleine and Max and their neoliberal and neoconservative
interventionist ilk would be wise to give ear to this parable told
by the Chinese Taoist Chuang Tzu, translated here by Lin Yutang:

Tsech’i of
Nan-po was traveling on the hill of Shang when he saw a large
tree which astonished him very much. A thousand chariot teams
of four horses could find shelter under its shade. “What tree
is this?” cried Tsech’i. “Surely it must be unusually fine timber.”
Then looking up, he saw that its branches were too crooked for
rafters; and looking down he saw that the trunk’s twisting loose
grain made it valueless for coffins. He tasted a leaf, but it
took the skin off his lips; and its odor was so strong that it
would make a man intoxicated for three days together. “Ah!” said
Tsech’i, “this tree is really good for nothing, and that is how
it has attained this size. A spiritual man might well follow its
example of uselessness.”

The moral of
the story: make yourself indispensable and you are likely to get
cut down. Earlier in the text, our sage also contemplates a useless
tree and draws a lesson from which interventionists of all stripes
would be wise to learn:

Hueitse said
to Chuangtse, “I have a large tree, called the ailanthus. Its
trunk is so irregular and knotty that it cannot be measured out
for planks; while its branches are so twisted that they cannot
be cut out into discs or squares. It stands by the roadside, but
no carpenter will look at it. Your words are like that tree –
big and useless, of no concern to the world.”

“Have you
never seen a wild cat,” rejoined Chuangtse, “crouching down in
wait for its prey? Right and left and high and low, it springs
about, until it gets caught in a trap or dies in a snare. On the
other hand, there is the yak with its great huge body. It is big
enough in all conscience, but it cannot catch mice. Now if you
have a big tree and are at a loss what to do with it, why not
plant it in the Village of Nowhere, in the great wilds, where
you might loiter idly by its side, and lie down in blissful repose
beneath its shade? There it would be safe from the ax and from
all other injury. For being of no use to others, what could worry
its mind?”

America’s geography
has been her greatest blessing. Like “the yak with its great huge
body,” her land is large and bountiful, protected on either side
by vast seas. She is far away from the rest of the world, in the
“Village of Nowhere” if you will. She has no need to imitate the
“wild cat” that “springs about, until it gets caught in a trap or
dies in a snare.” Let her rather remain contentedly at home “in
the great wilds” to “loiter idly” and “lie down in blissful repose.”

Our Founding
Fathers understood this without ever having read Chinese philosophy.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned us of “foreign entanglements”
and “entangling alliances.” The original Taoist, Lao Tzu, would
agree. In the Tao
Te Ching
, translated here by James Legge, the sage reminds
us that “[w]herever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring.”
Yet America has had troops stationed in Germany, Japan, and Korea
for more than six decades! Lao Tzu might laugh, but the founders
would be appalled.

John Quincy
Adams said of America that “she goes not abroad, in search of monsters
to destroy.” But what has America been doing since 1898 if not “go[ing]…
abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” After 105 years of “spring[ing]
about,” America was duped into the biggest foreign policy blunder
in her history. Like Chuang Tzu’s “wild cat,” she has been “caught
in a trap.”

There is a
time for legitimate military action when attacked, but prudence
and restraint is always called for. America would have been spared
the quagmire that followed the justifiable pursuit of terrorists
in Afghanistan and the unjustifiable invasion of Iraq had her leaders
followed the advice of Lao Tzu:

    A skilful (commander)
    strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does not dare (by continuing
    his operations) to assert and complete his mastery. He will strike
    the blow, but will be on his guard against being vain or boastful
    or arrogant in consequence of it. He strikes it as a matter of necessity;
    he strikes it, but not from a wish for mastery.

“Now arms,
however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may
be said, to all creatures,” Lao Tzu continues. “Therefore they who
have the Tao do not like to employ them.” Not so our chickenhawks.

imbroglio in the Middle East and the resulting isolation of America
can only be turned around by America returning to her founding principle
of non-interventionism. And there is only one presidential candidate
who is suggesting this sagely course, the author of this brilliant
essay: The
Original Foreign Policy

23, 2007

An American
Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send
him mail
] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where
he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science
and technology university. He blogs at The
Western Confucian

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