The Tao of Non-Interventionism


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.

The 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.

November 23, 2007