A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise?
The Limits of Power
Witness to History
The interesting question is not who started the cold war. The search for causes is as elusive in politics as in theology. Rather it is why the confrontation between America and Russia took the form it did. What was it about the way American leaders viewed the world—and America’s place in the world—that induced them to launch a global policy of intervention and counterrevolution? To study American postwar foreign policy is to examine why, in Henry Steele Commager’s words, “the nation which fought the first revolution [has] become the leading opponent of revolution throughout the globe.”
The debate between the globalists and their critics is still often phrased in archaic terms. Interventionists, obsessed with the misapplied analogies of the 1930s, label any criticism of American globalism as “neo-isolationism,” which is defined, to use Walter Laqueur’s description, as “opting out of world politics.”1 Most liberals naturally shrink from the term and explain that what they really mean is a “new internationalism.” This, on closer inspection, generally turns out to be a policy of global activism without the marines or the B-52s: the kind of vague moral involvement preached by George McGovern.
The United States, of course, was never an isolationist power. Certainly not toward Latin America, where since the Monroe Doctrine it has demanded and maintained a tightly controlled sphere of influence. And not toward Asia, where it has been intervening since the acquisition of the Philippines in 1898. Not even consistently toward Europe, where Wilson deviously supported Britain for three years before inducing the German U-boat reaction that justified American intervention, and where the interwar period was marked by persistent economic expansion.
But only recently has the taboo of isolationism begun to lose its force. “Compared to people who thought they could run the universe,” Walter Lippmann recently replied to his critics, “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.” Even Senator Richard Russell, long the Pentagon’s sugar daddy, confessed in 1969, “I guess I must be an isolationist. I don’t think you ought to pick up 100,000 or 200,000 or 500,000 American boys and ship them off somewhere to fight and get killed in a war as remotely concerned with their interests as this one is.”
The old taboo has been broken by Robert W. Tucker in his provocative short book, A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? “Isolationism,” he argues, “could be undertaken without sacrifice of or jeopardy to physical security, material well-being or the integrity of our institutions.” Tucker points out that isolationism in the interwar period meant only a refusal to guarantee the 1919 status quo against military change. The new isolationism would be different from that of the past because the conditions have changed dramatically. It would not be marked by the old suspicion of foreigners, or by insistence on complete freedom of action, or by the old belief that intervention was all right…
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