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 in Asia but not in Europe. On the contrary, a new isolationism would probably first be applied in Asia.
As Tucker makes clear, isolationism is not the refusal to enter into any foreign relationships, but only certain ones, particularly alliances. It precludes not involvement but intervention. Alliances which formerly were necessary to shore up a nation’s security can no longer be justified on such grounds by nuclear powers. No alliance can enhance the physical security of the US now that it is no longer dependent on what happens outside North America so far as military defense is concerned. That is the revolution caused by nuclear weapons. As these weapons become dispersed to other nations it will become obvious that peace is more divisible than it has been for a very long time.
While the revolution in weapons has transformed the military situation, the abatement of the cold war has undermined the fear that hostile powers could unite to shut out America from the rest of the world. It is no longer possible to believe that an American withdrawal from any region would lead to world communist domination. Similarly, it is unrealistic to assume that the United States would be denied access to the Third World. Most under-developed states, even those headed by revolutionary regimes, have even greater economic need of America than America has of them. And any rival that tried to control such states would run into the same opposition that has greeted American intervention. There is little to indicate that the Soviets would be more successful than we have been.
When they raise the specter of isolationism, most critics usually have Europe in mind. Tucker observes that it is perfectly possible to follow an isolationist policy toward one region and not toward another. But even if the United States were to withdraw from Western Europe, there is no convincing reason why the Europeans should not be able to provide for their own defense. This would inevitably require that nuclear weapons be under European control. Yet such weapons would make the American presence and the American guarantee redundant. The implications are clear: “…either our dominant military position in relation to Western Europe remains, or the alliance eventually lapses.” Equal partnership demands a European nuclear force. But with such a force there is no need for a military partnership.
Tucker is under no illusions about the likely effects of an American withdrawal. It would not be accompanied by a parallel Soviet withdrawal: the Russians are in Eastern Europe because they think control of their client regimes essential to their security. Further American withdrawal would probably be accompanied by a decrease in American influence and an increase in Russian influence over European affairs. This need not pose a danger to American security, and certainly does not mean Soviet domination of Western Europe. But could Americans accept it?
Here Tucker strips away the rhetoric of orthodox interventionists and radical revisionists. By “security” both really mean something more than physical security. If a new isolationism poses no serious dangers to the nation’s survival, it does threaten America’s view of its place in the world. “The price of the new isolationism,” Tucker makes clear, “is that America would have to abandon its aspirations to an order that has become synonymous with the nation’s vision of its role in history.” This is what is hardest of all to accept.
Tucker’s tightly reasoned analysis undercuts most of the clichés that both the right and the left use in discussing American foreign policy. It is a pity that he did not take the space to develop his argument further and elaborate some of the touchy issues—such as the psychological and political effects of an American withdrawal from Europe—that he examines with such deftness. Nor does he deal adequately with American economic interests and their increasingly fierce competition with Europe and Japan. A full analysis of the alternatives to global interventionism has yet to be made. But as a starter, Tucker’s is a valuable essay whose thesis is presented imaginatively and with a relentless logic.
Its argument still seems heretical to those who view American postwar interventionism not only as the necessary response to communist aggression but as unsullied by such crass considerations as self-interest or economic and political advantage. George Ball, then undersecretary of state, explained shortly after Lyndon Johnson launched the bombing against North Vietnam that the United States was engaged in “something new and unique in world history—a role of world responsibility divorced from territorial or narrow national interests.”
The Vietnam war made such statements increasingly hard to swallow, even by those who were convinced of American benevolence. When liberals turned against the war they explained it as a terrible mistake—a mistake not because our motives were wrong, but because we misunderstood the stakes involved and thus overreached. “The tragedy of Vietnam is the tragedy of the catastrophic overextension and misapplication of valid principles,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in 1969. According to this argument we misjudged China’s intentions and erroneously applied the containment doctrine to an Asian civil war. Step by step we got more deeply involved, the victim of our own good intentions and of a military machine geared to victory. Thus the quagmire theory.
The Pentagon Papers, with their documentation of a deliberate policy of deception and planned aggression, make it hard to go along with the quagmire theory, and least of all with the view of the war as the failure of good intentions. The effort is not made any easier by the spectacle of leading officials of the Johnson administration suddenly discovering the folly of the Vietnam war on Richard Nixon’s inauguration day. For radicals, of course, there was nothing benevolent, misguided, or accidental about our actions in Vietnam. The war was an essential part of a global policy of suppression of revolutionary movements and the extension of an American-directed world order along capitalist lines. Vietnam was seen as a proving-ground for the preservation of the American empire. It was the kind of war that the American military machine, vastly augmented and equipped for counter-guerrilla warfare by the Kennedy administration, had been groomed to fight. In an age of nuclear stalemate, the future of the world, the Kennedy liberals believed, would be decided in the jungles and mountains of the Third World.
While they take opposite views about the virtues of the American empire, both radicals and liberal-interventionists share the belief that America has a world order to maintain. Both view the empire not as a burden that can be discarded when it becomes troublesome, but as an essential part of what America is all about. Both share a belief in American exceptionalism—that this country is either the salvation of the world or its destroyer. “The world does rely on American power, does count on American power, does look to American power,” according to Irving Kristol, “for the preservation of a decent level of international law and order.” For Gabriel Kolko on the other hand, American imperialism is the cause of most of the world’s miseries. “The elimination of American hegemony is the essential precondition for the emergence of a nation and a world in which mass hunger, suppression, and war are no longer the inevitable and continuous characteristics of modern civilization.”2 The demise of the empire will—depending on which of these writers one believes—usher in either the abyss or the millennium. The possibility that it might involve neither is a truly un-American thought.
Kolko’s ponderous assaults on the liberals’ assumption of American benevolence have had a powerful effect on the interpretation of the cold war and its origins. In The Politics of War Kolko concentrated on the period 1943-1945 and drew a dyspeptic portrait of Roosevelt’s diplomacy. Instead of a war-weary country eager to disarm and live peacefully under the charter of the United Nations, he showed official Washington in conflict with Great Britain for the control of world capitalism, eager to restore the prefascist status quo, and determined to stop the tide of change in Europe and the Third World.
"Neo-Isolationism and the World of the Seventies," Center for Strategic and International Studies (Georgetown University).↩
Kristol, "We Can't Resign as the World's Policeman," New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1968; Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (Beacon, 1969), p. 87.
But as Barrington Moore, who is hardly unsympathetic to radical criticism, has commented: " the Marxist tradition has not established liberal-capitalist institutions as the main source of contemporary destructiveness and misery, nor as inherently unchangeable. Nor have the Marxists established socialism as a very effective and promising cure for these plagues" (Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery, p. 132).↩
“Neo-Isolationism and the World of the Seventies,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (Georgetown University).↩
Kristol, “We Can’t Resign as the World’s Policeman,” New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1968; Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (Beacon, 1969), p. 87.
But as Barrington Moore, who is hardly unsympathetic to radical criticism, has commented: “ the Marxist tradition has not established liberal-capitalist institutions as the main source of contemporary destructiveness and misery, nor as inherently unchangeable. Nor have the Marxists established socialism as a very effective and promising cure for these plagues” (Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery, p. 132).↩