In the piece below, excerpted from the blog of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Christopher Nichols draws on his recently published book Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age to help make sense of what he describes as the “unsettling transition toward a more inward-looking perspective in American foreign and domestic politics today.”
Wherever the public’s attention roams these days, looming in the background is a renewed danger: Americans, and especially elected officials on the right, are becoming more isolationist. National polls and the statements of GOP presidential candidates reveal a widespread insistence for the U.S. to pull back from its global commitments. Even apparent successes, such as the limited multilateral intervention in Libya, do not restore, much less rebuild, confidence about the positive payoffs from U.S. engagement. What is worse, today’s isolationists are both different from and in some ways more dangerous than those of the so-called “heyday” of isolationist politics, the 1920s and 1930s.
Traditionally, Americans who opposed the restrictions on national sovereignty imposed by entering into global institutions and agreements advocated loudly for political isolationism. In the 1920s and 1930s—at the peak of such arguments—isolationist advocates such as the so-called “irreconcilable” Republican Senator William Borah and his colleague Senator Gerald Nye heralded a Washington-Jeffersonian freedom from “permanent alliances” and foreign “entanglements.” But, we must be mindful that even as they rejected most forms of international organizations and binding treaties, Borah and Nye did not call for cultural or commercial separation from the world. They hardly conformed to the caricatured version of a walled-and-bounded “isolationist.” Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in January 1934, Borah put his position succinctly:
In matters of trade and commerce we have never been isolationist and never will be. In matters of finance, unfortunately, we have not been isolationist and never will be. When earthquake and famine, or whatever brings human suffering, visit any part of the human race, we have not been isolationists, and never will be. … [I]n all matters political, in all commitments of any nature or kind, which encroach in the slightest upon the free and unembarrassed action of our people, or which circumscribe their discretion and judgment, we have been free, we have been independent, we have been isolationist.
Later, leading up to the 1952 presidential campaign, Democrat Adlai Stevenson famously warned of the “challenge of a new isolationism.” Stevenson found allies among Democrats and Republicans in the wake of WWII to help defeat isolationist calls, such as from Republican Senator and GOP presidential candidate Robert Taft, who advocated the doctrine of the “free hand” (a la Borah) and urged the nation to spurn NATO and strictly limit its commitments to Western Europe and the world.
Today, America is confronted by a similar challenge. Yet it is failing to take account of the lessons of history or the benefits of an engaged U.S. presence in the world. Moreover, when a bloc of “Kucinich Republicans” emerged in June in the House of Representatives to de-fund U.S. activities in Libya, they went further—pushing hard for trimming or even eliminating many traditional U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic commitments. In addition to opposing “further military” action in Libya, Republican Speaker John Boehner argued that the U.S. can and should strategically withhold funding from the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
In recent GOP Presidential debates, Governor Rick Perry articulated a similar view and pledged to “zero out” foreign aid. “I think it’s time not only to have that entire debate about all of our foreign aid, but in particular the U.N.,” said Perry. “Why are we funding that organization?” So, too, the more pragmatic Mitt Romney defended the concept for foreign aid but argued against “spending more than we ought to be spending.” Representative Michele Bachmann goes a step further. Her opposition to American intervention in Libya sets the threshold for action abroad incredibly high. She maintains that there must be a “vital American national interest” in order for the U.S. to be involved anywhere and claims “we should look to Iraq and Libya to reimburse us for part of what we have done to liberate these nations.” (Shades, perhaps, of Saudi Arabia repaying the U.S. for rescuing Kuwait!)
Representative Ron Paul, for his part, has rejected the label “isolationist” (thrust upon him and many of his retrenchment-oriented colleagues by Senator John McCain among others), which he rightly notes is inflammatory and lacks clarity. (See Michael Hunt’s trenchant analysis of the term and its frequent misuse.) Paul differentiates himself from fellow conservatives by blending arguments for large-scale global disengagement with assertions for sweeping budget cuts. Calling himself a non-interventionist, he stresses that the nation is “going broke” and sounds more than a bit like Borah as he pushes for cutting practically all foreign aid as well as U.S. bases and embassies abroad. Such a policy, Paul says, is “what the Founders advised … [w]e were never given the authority to be the policemen of the world.” Paul’s libertarian individualist ethic also would not do much even to help in cases of famine and relief. Many Tea Party Republicans comparably now aim for pulling troops back from virtually every deployment abroad and for drastic reductions in defense and foreign spending.
Some of this is merely political posturing. But consider the latest poll data by the Pew Research Center revealing that, by most measures, roughly half of all Americans are weary of extensive worldwide military, diplomatic, and aid commitments. They yearn for the nation to “mind its own business internationally” and “reduce military commitments overseas” to help decrease the deficit. So we can’t help being struck by the continuing salience of a heavily circumscribed vision of the U.S. role in the world. Call it what you will: isolationist, non-interventionist, or perhaps some narrowed, crass form of realism. Wherever one lies on the political spectrum vis-à-vis U.S. worldwide commitments, there can be no doubt of the power that the word “isolationism” and the appeal of many concomitant ideas still possesses in our national dialogue. In short, the recent depictions of a rising “neo-isolationism” particularly in the Republican Party and across the electorate seem accurate and more than merely ephemeral politics. Given that more than three-fourths of Americans approve President Obama’s decision to pull troops out of Iraq and 70 percent reject U.S. efforts at democracy promotion abroad, particularly in terms of military action to overturn the rule of dictators, it is clear that Bush era hubristic unilateral interventionism is profoundly unpopular.
For more of Nichols’s analysis and historical contextualization of these trends, read the full post at the SHAFR blog.