“Isolationism”, the Ideology that Wasn’t

It is darkly amusing to imagine what the New Left activists of the 1960s and 70s, born of the Vietnam War and its resultant culture clashes, would say at the sight of the first truly New Left president of the United States spending his first five years in office engaging the country in a series of unnecessary, aimless, and costly foreign conflicts around the globe.

From a US-led NATO intervention in Libya to the continuing war in Afghanistan to the administration’s attempts to involve us in the Syrian civil war in 2013, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has shown a perpetual eagerness to introduce the US into whatever foreign entanglements it can muster—each time without any adequate explanation of how said conflicts would be to the security or benefit of the American people.

Thus, it should come as little surprise that Americans have grown weary of unnecessary engagements and have said so in national polls. What is surprising, however, is that the so much of the left—once eager to withdraw our forces from extensive foreign engagements and multiple wars under the Bush administration—now rise to defend conflicts and engagements with far less merit.

Since no national debate today is complete without pejorative labels for the opposition, those of the ‘internationalist’ left and right have resorted to calling Americans ‘isolationists(!)’ and hope that the label alone will relieve them of any need to justify a military policy that is seemingly without any consistent criteria for engagement.

This rash of labeling and debate was roused in national media after the administration’s misfire on a Syrian intervention, but the most recent provocation was a Pew Research Center poll in December showing that a majority (52%) of Americans believe that the US should ‘mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’ With only 38% disagreeing with that statement, it makes for the strongest bias against foreign entanglements in the 50 years that Pew has posed the question.

So it seems that Americans are in favor of greater military restraint. This is no new idea. Whether on the left or right, Americans have always debated the merits of foreign engagements, and the result has been some of the most substantive, thought-provoking political exchanges in American history.

President George Washington included his own thoughts on the matter as part of his farewell address, writing that, “[t]he great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

Americans openly questioned the wisdom of engagement in World War I, giving birth to an anti-war movement that is rarely mentioned and appreciated today. When war came to Europe again in 1939, many Americans, remembering the incredible devastation and loss of life they suffered in the first war, hesitated at the thought of entering another without direct provocation. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor made the need for entry apparent, a debate ensued in which many (mostly Republicans) questioned the logic of another war, the consequences of which they could not know. FDR and those on the left who supported entry had a name for those who saw insufficient cause for entry: “isolationists!”

Those who questioned entry into wars in Europe in 1917 and 1939, however, weren’t advocating isolation from the outside world any more than those who challenge Obama’s engagements today. In each case, rational and concerned individuals recognizing the caustic effects of war challenged the wisdom of entry into conflicts that did not directly involve the US and in which the US may not have had a sufficient interest.

This kind of rational discrimination and cautiousness doesn’t sit well with those in 1917, 1939, 1960 Vietnam, or today who see the American military as either a tool for expanding US political power around the globe, the world’s policeman, or the world’s largest armed charity mission. In support of their cause, they attempt to bully and mischaracterize hesitant citizens and legislators, depicting them as having a hermitic view of global affairs.

In the past few months, Jennifer Rubin characterized Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as ‘isolationists’ in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal said the same of Paul and Justin Amash, and John McCain pointed out the differences between himself and Paul (as if they weren’t stark enough) by calling Paul an ‘isolationist’ and describing himself as an ‘internationalist.’

Setting aside that these are all vehement criticisms of Rand Paul by fellow conservatives (a point worthy of a separate article), the idea that they are conveying is clear: those who question America’s current trend of undertaking numerous foreign conflicts without ever having effectively resolved a twelve-year-old war, all without clear purpose or direction, are trying to isolate and cut America off from the outside world and renounce the field of international politics.

Contrary to this characterization, however, isolation has never been the ideal of war-wary Americans, and a clear-eyed look at the Pew poll reveals as much.  Two-thirds of those polled in the survey attested that greater US involvement in the global economy is a “good thing because it exposes the U.S. to new markets and opportunities for growth.” Seventy-seven percent say that business ties between the US and the outside world are either good or somewhat good, and support for increased trade and business connections has increased 24 points since 2008.

These are not the symptoms of a country that wishes to isolate itself from the outside world. These are signs of a country eager for productive economic engagement with other countries and weary of unnecessary conflict with them. After six years of economic hardship and twelve of war, who could blame them?

What’s more: the ‘isolationist’ label is more than misapplied. It is pejorative and bullying. Though it is hard to deny that there probably exists someone somewhere who is convinced of even the most absurd and illogical beliefs imaginable, the number of Americans who believe that the United States should cut off all military, economic, and diplomatic ties with the outside world is so negligible as to be politically insignificant.

Americans are not asking for a government that partitions them from the outside world. They are asking for one that represents them to the outside world, defending their rights against threats both foreign and domestic. It is time that those who level the ‘isolationist’ charge adopt a broader, more productive definition of the United States’ engagement in the international community. As for the term itself, to paraphrase Washington, here let it stop.


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