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January 03, 2010

Shifting Sands of Isolationism

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The concept of America avoiding foreign entanglements goes back to the 18th century when such avoidance was comparatively easy to do. But Barbary pirates, Napoleonic wars and other inconveniences intruded even in the early years of the republic.

Improved travel and communications (steam-powered ships, transoceanic telegraph cables) along with increasing population and economic power resulted in a 19th century drift from the Monroe Doctrine to a war with Spain that spanned nearly half the globe.

Disgust with the Great War and the focus on dealing with the Great Depression led to the America First isolationist movement as Europe began showing signs of a new war. Isolationists tended to be Republicans, perhaps in part because Franklin Roosevelt (by the end of the 30s) began to support the cause of Britain and France, something that held the potential to leading the U.S. into war.

The Pearl Harbor attack and American participation in World War 2 stifled isolationism and the advent of the Cold War and the efforts of Senator Arthur Vandenberg brought an era of "bipartisan" foreign policy that lasted for about 20 years.

Since the late 1960s, the mantle of isolationism has drifted to the Democrat side of the political aisle. As with 1930s isolationism, some of this was a matter of partisan opposition. Part, at the fringe, was an actual favoring of military defeat for the United States. This is where matters stand today, broadly speaking.

There remain some isolationists who claim to hold true to 18th century no entanglements doctrine and get upset because Congress has not explicitly declared war at any time since 1941 despite all the warfare the USA experienced over the last 60 years. Like all else in politics, the number of pure cases is probably small. But notable political figures who have isolationist tendencies include the increasingly marginal commentator Patrick Buchanan and the 2008 Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul.

My take, for what little it's worth, is that Isolationism was never a practical policy in its pristine form; compromises with reality are unavoidable. And the requirement that Congress declare war also has never been a practical absolute in this nation's history.

But ideas can have long lives and experience more than one fashion cycle. So we still have isolationists of various intensity and motivation in our midst. Some are ordinary citizens who see foreign relations as simply a big bother that ought to be ignored. Then there are the far leftists who criticize American involvement in wars they don't like, urging that troops be brought home while at the same time hoping to turn U.S. foreign policy over to the United Nations. (And much else: countries are such messy, nasty things, so world government would stop warfare forever.) Classical isolationists patiently keep restating their cause while bypassing the problem of defending the country in the presumed absence of overseas bases and foreign alliances (we'd have to get rid of those, wouldn't we?). Coupling that with the "requirement" for Congressional war declarations, the U.S. would not be able fend off potential attacks if Congress failed to act, having reaction to attack as its only military option. Dangerous policy in the atomic/missile age.

What, then, is 21st century isolationism? At its core it seems to be a sham, a cover for one's short-term political goals -- criticizing this war, but not necessarily that other potential war. This is probably as it should be because pure isolationism in the 21st century is utterly impractical.

Isolationism has its intellectual charms, but it never charmed me.

Doubtless, many of you will beg to differ.



posted by Donald at January 3, 2010


Utter impracticality has never been much of an impediment to political opinions or policies. My reading of the history of Prohibition (both alcohol and other drugs) is that it was primarily driven by true believers.

Certainly, leaders of such impracticalities are more likely to be cynical or duplicitous than followers. Much of the leadership of the isolationism movement in the 1930s-40s was driven by the fact that the Soviets were allies of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (no enemies on the left and all that). But most of the support (in numbers) was from sincere and misguided/clue-deficient believers in isolation.

I suspect the same is true today.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 3, 2010 2:55 PM

You should understand the difference between The I word and Neutralism.

"Coupling that with the "requirement" for Congressional war declarations, the U.S. would not be able fend off potential attacks if Congress failed to act, having reaction to attack as its only military option. Dangerous policy in the atomic/missile age." Oh c'mon. No one is suggesting we not defend ourselves pending a congressional vote.

Congress had months to deliberate after 911. They came up with the wrong answer. Maybe if they had to consider a declaration of war we might have been spared a lot of stupidity not to mention the defeat that has already happened, but has not been recognized.

We are bankrupting ourselves with our "engagement." We shall either take up a neutral policy or be destroyed. We have defeated ourselves.

Posted by: Joseph Moroco on January 3, 2010 3:21 PM

1. It wasn't quite as succinct as in 1941, but George H. W. Bush pretty clearly got a declaration of war against Saddam Hussein back in 1991. I remember it suprised the hell out of me -- I never thought to see such a thing during my lifetime.

2. All the pure isolationists I've ever met have been (right-wing) libertarians.

3. Isolationists in the 30's and 40's tended to be people of German or Italian descent who feared that US intervention in world affairs would be aimed at their original homelands. It's hard to view this as true "neutrality." Bipartisan unity during the Cold War was esier to achieve because so few Americans saw themselves as being Russians or Chinese at base. Such former Russians as lived here were generally regarded as refuges from Communism, and the Chinese generally self-identified with Taiwan.

4. Isolationism flourished in an age when foreign linkages were sparse -- there was little international news in most papers, and international corporations were inconceivable to most of us (despite the existence of Bayer and Nestles and others). As late as the 1960's foreign trade involved less than 3 % of US national prouct, and economic textbooks typicaly ignored it as unimportant. We don't live in that world anymore.

Which points back at (2). In the 1930's one might argue "What foreigners do is not our business." In the modern age this isn't doesn't ring with the same moral clarity; isolationists are forced to argue something like "Well, we'd just f*** it up if we got involved. The US government always screws up at everything." This goes over well with libertarians, not so much with leftists.

Posted by: mike shupp on January 3, 2010 3:55 PM

Isolationism or Isolationist. Both terms have come to have a pejorative ring. But what if the term used were Non-Interventionism or Non-Interventionist? Isn't that a proper stance to take if one is a citizen of a republic who wants his nation to go on being a republic? Yes, the United States has interests. Yes, the United States has sovereignty. And in the eyes of a republic so does every other nation. What right does the United States have to intervene in the internal affairs of any other sovereign nation? Of course we can and should enter into favorable trade agreements or withhold such favor, give aid or refuse aid, form treaty alliances with or treaty alliances against, we can even have military bases in a sovereign state with that state's permission. But by what right did we participate in the palace coup that installed the Shah of Iran and then participate in the coup that removed him? Does a republic act like a republic, remain a republic, when it goes to war preemptively? When it nation builds?

There is nothing unrealistic about non-interventionism. But we don't know that because we no longer act within its restraints. The United States would not be perceived as weak if it only used force when absolutely necessary, when its security was directly threatened, but then used that force overwhelmingly.

To shift gears here: the very people who are proud interventionists have a conniption fit even at the suggestion that the United States deport the muslim population within its own borders. But just as the Saudis reserve the right to KILL an infidel found in Mecca, the United States has the right to deport muslims if that is deemed necessary (and constitutional) in order to defend its internal security. What we do not have the right to do is conquer and occupy Saudi Arabia, no matter how repugnant its internal standards are to us.

Posted by: ricpic on January 3, 2010 5:31 PM

Many of the WWII isolationists were progressive Republicans or third-partiers (Farmer-Labor, Non-Partisan League, Progressive) who had supported Roosevelt up until about 1937. In 1933 there were various progressives of various parties in Congress (20 in the Senate) who supported FDR more reliably than regular Democrats did.

Isolationists in both world wars, and since, objected to the way war always trumps domestic issues.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 3, 2010 10:45 PM

The US has a schizophrenic foreign policy. We have been historically averse to colonialism, having rebelled against the British Empire. But after WW2, for worser or gooder, we inherited the mantle of empire in the guise of world peace keeper. It has been an uncomfortable fit. When you stop to consider that our ally in the struggle to contain Germany and Japan was a radical anti-colonialist power, you begin to see the bigger problem. We want to pretend that all nations are equal, but we don't really treat them that way. If they "misbehave", we "correct" them. If they fall into bankruptcy, we send food and money. The Pentagon has one set of foreign policy guidelines, and the State Department has another. And now the provinces are getting restless. I must confess to fall into the camp of the neutrals. "Isolationist" is a loaded term, and I'm not sure such a concept really exists. We should take a cold, hard look at the reality of the world and try to restrain our imperial tendencies more often. The post WW2 situation is rapidly evolving and we need to be in a position to get off this train if it looks like it's going off the tracks.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 4, 2010 9:33 AM

As far as I am concerned, the isolationists were right about WWI. Wilson was really delusional. To me that was the real collapse of civilization, not Hitler and Stalin (who were really late effects). Europe just seems to have sleepwalked into that disaster. People at the time had no idea what was happening.

WWII is a much more justifiable war, but unfortunately it put the US into a permanent war policy. We've never really demobilized. After the collapse of the USSR that possibility wasn't even considered. We now spend more money on our military than the next ten nations combined. Ever since 1940, any time anyone proposes not fighting a given war, they're called an isolationist.

As for WWII, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain were all neutral, with much less justification than the US since they effectively became German resources if not allies.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 4, 2010 11:02 AM

Begging to differ ... since the two actual contemporary political figures closely associated with Isolationism that you mention are Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, neither men of the left by any stretch, it seems a bit odd to make it seem as if current Isolationist tendencies are the province of the left.

The definition of Isolationism you present seems curiously limited to those opposed to military interventionism. One can (as your depiction of supposed "world government" advocates shows) be against military interventionism without being an Isolationist. In fact, much of the criticism from the left during the post Cold War era has been that we've been too Isolationist in our engagement with other countries, absent a catalyst that results in military intervention. Rather than spending the foreign aid dollars, or sending teams of diplomats, teachers, doctors, and aid workers to troubled areas of the globe, we've often been content to fund "client" regimes deemed "stable" and compliant with our business or strategic interests, often led by despotic oligarchs. Our engagement has too often taken the form primarily of providing these regimes with military training and support, which they have, in turn, used all too frequently against their internal political opposition. Should they eventually fall to a coup or popular uprising, a not rare occurrence, the nature of our previous support for their regime results in the new regime being virulently anti-American. And who can blame them? When that happens we have too often tended toward encouraging or creating counter-coups to regain a compliant client regime.

So, too, we've taken a "go it alone" stance, an "Isolationism" of another sort, when our historic allies have urged caution and multi-lateralism in places like Iraq ... quite often with less than ideal results. What I see as the current face of Isolationism is a willful disregard for anything but the short-term self-interest of America's corporate and political elite. This is not the old stay-at-home version of Isolationism, but rather an Isolationism that intends to bring America to anyplace on the planet where there is something we hope to exploit. We set up our military bases, our green zones, our McDonald's franchises and all the rest and expect things to be just like they are in Burbank or Kansas City. When these places stubbornly remain foreign we find ourselves at a loss and when local resentment results in hostile acts against our outposts the cycle begins anew.

Twenty-first Century Isolationism is an Isolationism of the mind rather than of geography. Here at home it plays out in the backlash against multi-culturalism and immigrants and any engagement with the rest of the world that does not rely on superior firepower. It is all about deciding that the rest of the planet has nothing to offer us ... except whatever Stuff we currently desire that happens to be located someplace other than the middle of North America. It is all about dismissing other people, cultures, languages, and ways of life as beneath us.

And, as for those who call on Congress to live up to its responsibilities and declare war, if that is what we're actually going to be engaged in, shouldn't Congress follow the Constitution and avoid ceding the power of calling the military might of the U.S. down on other sovereign nations to whomever happens to occupy the White House?

Posted by: Chris White on January 4, 2010 11:46 AM

"As for WWII, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain were all neutral, with much less justification than the US": that's a very rum argument. The US fought Hitler because Hitler declared war on the US. He didn't declare war on the countries you mention.

Posted by: dearieme on January 4, 2010 1:29 PM

"Isolationism" is just a slur word. It's actually U.S. militarism that tends to isolate us diplomatically and culturally. How many countries is it uncomfortable for Americans to travel to today because of our foreign policies?

bypassing the problem of defending the country in the presumed absence of overseas bases and foreign alliances (we'd have to get rid of those, wouldn't we?).

I've never heard anyone claim that we need bases in 150+ countries and active wars in two in order to defend the continental U.S. In fact, I don't think anyone can claim with a straight face any more that the purpose of the U.S. military strategy is simply to defend our continental borders from foreign invasion.

Posted by: MQ on January 4, 2010 7:04 PM

WWII is a much more justifiable war, but unfortunately it put the US into a permanent war policy. We've never really demobilized. After the collapse of the USSR that possibility wasn't even considered. We now spend more money on our military than the next ten nations combined. Ever since 1940, any time anyone proposes not fighting a given war, they're called an isolationist.

Posted by: tn requin on January 4, 2010 8:53 PM

Dearie, the US could have stayed out of WWII by the same methods those other countries used, and with less need to collaborate. We would have had to have made clear out intention not to take sides. For political reasons, Roosevelt had to have the other side start the war, and he got them to do it.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 4, 2010 11:44 PM

-We are bankrupting ourselves with our "engagement." We shall either take up a neutral policy or be destroyed. We have defeated ourselves.-

This post is about welfare and entitlements in the US?

Posted by: Barney on January 6, 2010 10:54 PM

I disagree with the author here. I am a fervent isolationist for the reason that war is the health of the state. If you considered every war that we have entered, starting with WWI, you will see that it has resulted in the growth of federal government power that does not get rolled back following the conclusion of the war. This reason alone justifies entirely the isolationist position. Also, consider that our interventionist foreign policy has probably consumed trillions of dollars, with zero payback to the American tax payers that have been forced to finance it. Jerry Pournelle considers our interventionist foreign policy to be an example of incompetent empire. Lastly, our interventionist foreign policy has not exactly endeared us to the rest of the world. Ask any American traveling through out Latin America what the locals think of us and why.

Also, our current problems with terrorism is blow-back from our interventionist foreign policy. Countries like Japan and China do not have this terrorist problem and the airport security in Asia and Latin America is far easier to deal with than in the U.S.

Whenever I fly and have to put up with the hassles of post 9/11 airport security, I always mentally blame our interventionist foreign policy for it.

I believe that our interventionist foreign policy, that we have had since the Spanish-American war of 1898, is the most mind-boggling stupid policy that the imbeciles in Washington D.C. have ever cooked up. As a U.S. tax payer, I feel it has been a complete waste of tax payers money and feel it should be discontinued. I utterly despise our interventionist foreign policy and feel utter contempt for all of the people who supports our interventionist foreign policy.

Posted by: kurt9 on January 7, 2010 6:50 PM

Isolationism is a generic. I'm for intervention sometimes and not others. WWII - yes. Somalia, Panama, Kosovo, etc - no. Bush implied people who disagreed with him on the Iraq war were isolationists. It's easier to label someone than explain what we are getting out of our presence there, thats for sure.

Posted by: Ed on January 8, 2010 1:24 PM

Isolationist sentiment pre-dated FDR. It was strongest among Midwestern/Mountain Republicans, especially of the Progressive strain, and similar Democrats.

WW II killed that - partly because it showed that hostile nations could reach out and attack without warning a lot further than anyone had imagined; partly because it showed the U.S. was too big not to get entangled in the affairs of other parts of the world (the U.S. was the chief supplier of oil to Japan); partly because it left the U.S. as the strongest nation in the world; and partly because it showed just how bad things could get if the U.S. did nothing.

There is a lot of nonsense talked in this area. One hears of the U.S. propping up dictators and hand-picking the rulers of various countries. However there are very few actual cases of anything like this. The U.S. deals with corrupt and dictatorial regimes, but nearly all of them arose and stand on their own; it would be intervention for the U.S. to denounce and boycott every government we might disapprove of. During the Cold War, it would push such governments into the arms of the USSR.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 10, 2010 7:50 AM

" Isolationism was never a practical policy in its pristine form; compromises with reality are unavoidable. And the requirement that Congress declare war also has never been a practical absolute in this nation's history."

Is it practical that the US should try to nation build in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen? Why do we "need" bases in over 100 countries? Why can't Europe pay for it's own defense?

Keep in mind that while we have bases in over 100 countries and might try to manage Yemen the country on our southern border is a mess and we do not have a secure border. Why are people who criticize "isolationists" indifferent to our close neighbor?

What major war did congress not declare before Korea?

Posted by: Mercer on January 10, 2010 1:52 PM

Here is a "highlights" list of post WWII coups and military interventions often attributed to the US.

1949 Syria
1953 Iran
1954 Guatemala
1955 South Vietnam
1957 Haiti
1959 Laos
1963 Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, & Ecuador
1964 Brazil & Bolivia.
1965 Zaire
1966 Ghana
1970 Cambodia & Bolivia
1972 El Salvador
1973 Chile
1980 Liberia
1982 Chad
1983 Grenada
1987 Fiji
2002 Venezuela
2004 Haiti
2009 Honduras

There is certainly room to quibble about whether, or to what degree, each one of these widely claimed examples of US backed "regime changes" should be primarily attributed to covert actions or direct military intervention on the part of the US versus those in which a "regime change" by other than the ballot box was inevitable purely due to internal dynamics within the countries. One might argue that in some of these examples our government merely threw support in certain cases to factions we thought would be more conducive to serving our interests among the various internal political factions.

Still, it is nevertheless a long list and includes a fair number of sovereign, democratically elected, governments that have been interfered with by the US in ways that are reasonably well documented and acknowledged.

Some, like the 1953 Iranian coup that deposed Mosaddeq and installed the Shah, or our involvement in Chile, are both widely acknowledged as resulting from active US engagement and have, despite occasionally producing periods of time demonstrating what might be termed limited success, have created many negative unintended consequences that bedevil us to this day.

Posted by: Chris White on January 10, 2010 7:12 PM

The question really is do we possess the power to intervene anyware we want to, any time we want to? The answer is no. We have troops spread out over the globe, in places few Americans can readily identify. Imperial over-reach applies to us as it did to the Romans or the British. The limitations of geo-politics apply to us, as they do to any other political power. Imperial over reach translates into dead troopers and dead sailors. Don't believe me, ask the Romans.

Posted by: Turtle on January 12, 2010 7:18 PM

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