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Great Powers, High Table

Stephen Wertheim, interviewed by Matt Seaton

Stephen Wertheim/Birkbeck Media Services

Stephen Wertheim, 2018

Stephen Wertheim/Birkbeck Media Services

Stephen Wertheim, 2018

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


On February 3, we published “Who’s Afraid of Isolationism?” by the historian Stephen Wertheim. The essay builds on ideas from his 2020 book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy, which argues that the charge of “isolationism” became from the 1930s onward a line of attack against critics of the use of US military power around the world. In Wertheim’s telling, a decades-long unholy coalition of liberal interventionists and conservative hawks used “isolationist” as a heuristic for weak-willed appeasement and irresolute abnegation of America’s supposed world-historic mission. He sees this alliance as now crumbling and, with that, an opportunity to bring to a close an era of endless wars.

Wertheim, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School and formerly a professor at Columbia and Birkbeck College, London, has forthrightly entered the fray on these topics as a public intellectual, with at least one foot outside academia and inside the Washington foreign policy forum. In 2019, he cofounded the Quincy Institute, bringing together a constellation of military intervention skeptics from across the political spectrum, with startlingly bipartisan funding from, among others, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Foundation. Wertheim recently left his position at the institute for a new perch at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

With the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan still fresh in the memory, and tension ratcheting up as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin surrounds Ukraine with a huge military force, we corresponded via e-mail this week about statecraft, superpowers, and satire.


Matt Seaton: Who coined “isolationism,” and when and why did the concept go mainstream?

Stephen Wertheim: Although the term isolation has deeper roots, isolationism became heavily used in American politics only in the 1930s. As best as I can tell, the term was first uttered on the floor of Congress in April 1935 by Representative Allen Treadway, a Massachusetts Republican. He complained that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was raising “the false alarm of isolationism” to tar its opponents. In fact, Treadway countered, “there is no such thing.”

As that example suggests, the moniker immediately sounded ill-fitting and pejorative to the people it named. But it was enormously productive for the people who wielded it. They wanted the United States to become a globe-spanning military power and abandon its tradition of non-entanglement in the wars and alliances of Europe and Asia. If the only alternative to armed dominance was all-out isolationism, then the choice became obvious. Suddenly, the global projection of military force no longer sounded selfish and imperialistic. On the contrary, it became the sine qua non of internationalism, of engagement and cooperation among peoples!

Yet the United Nations was also part of the Roosevelt administration’s vision for the postwar world. What about Americans who wanted international institutions to enforce law and order without the United States’ policing the world?

In the 1940s, a set of intellectuals and activists hoped to turn the UN into something strong enough to constrain the United States and other great powers. Their hopes were notable, but their power was marginal. By contrast, the Roosevelt administration, and most other elites, valued the UN chiefly as a vehicle to project US power globally—in a way that the American public and the international community would deem legitimate. Even Sumner Welles, who had a reputation for idealism and helped to design the UN in the State Department, said in 1942 that his aim was to provide “a sop for the smaller states” who should be “made to feel themselves participants.”

If the isolationist bogeyman is vanquished, does that also mean that the coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who used isolationism as a term of opprobrium is over and done with, too?

The bogeyman still exists and could resurge, but it’s fading. From FDR to Barack Obama, each and every president warned the public never to return to the supposed temptations of isolationism. Donald Trump broke the streak, and Joe Biden has yet to use the term as president.

Likewise, while neoconservatives and liberal interventionists remain influential they now face real competition in Washington and around the country. They’re losing their ability to set the terms of debate. The decline of the I-word is one symptom. The rise of the demand to end endless war is another.

Who and what should we credit for accomplishing this and finally making it seem like a good idea to end America’s endless wars?

After the September 11 attacks, ruling elites argued that waging wars would not only make America safe but also prove that American power had moral purpose. When the wars failed, the larger project of US military dominance was implicated as well. And those in power did little to admit failure and deliver accountability. Quite the contrary: unable to win the wars, successive presidents refused to quit them. The wars became, in an analytical sense, endless.

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Biden got a lot of criticism for finally getting the US out of Afghanistan. What’s your view of that criticism?

Biden deserves credit. No president should find it acceptable to send Americans to fight a war indefinitely only for the purpose of losing the war more slowly. And the conflict was only getting deadlier for Afghan civilians, contrary to the fantasy of low-cost, sustainable war propagated by retired US generals on TV.

With respect to the execution of the withdrawal, you don’t get to lose a war and have the result look as though you won it. That said, the administration should have moved heaven and earth to process visas prior to the fall of Kabul. And how dare the United States freeze Afghanistan’s foreign assets and prepare to divert half of them to Americans suing over the September 11 attacks. In the coming months, millions of Afghans may starve to death.

Considering all that, it was perhaps predictable that Russia would choose this moment to test the mettle of Biden and American resolve by menacing Ukraine. Do you think Putin may have mistaken Biden for an isolationist?

Events on the ground probably did the most to drive Putin’s actions. That said, rather than mistake Biden for a weak isolationist, Putin may have taken Biden to be a shrewd pragmatist. The Afghanistan withdrawal showed that Biden seeks to set strategic priorities, reevaluate inherited commitments, and use force only as a last resort, when vital national interests are at stake. All laudable aims, to my mind.

To Putin, however, they may have indicated, correctly, that Biden would not be so reckless as to go to war with Russia in defense of Ukraine. If I’m correct, then Putin should also appreciate that Biden would behave very differently if a NATO ally were attacked.

Is the White House’s response to the Ukraine crisis, then, the sort of “responsible statecraft”—to use the Quincy Institute’s phrase—that you could applaud?

The Biden administration has gotten two big things right. First, Biden took the use of force off the table from the start. The stakes in Ukraine warrant the use of carrots and sticks to shape Russia’s response, but not the risk of war with a great power and nuclear peer. Second, the White House has engaged in substantive negotiations with the Kremlin despite justifiably fearing the worst from Putin’s intentions.

However, the administration has not appeared willing to foreclose further NATO expansion, and I don’t see progress toward resolving the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. And those may be dealbreakers for Russia, assuming the Kremlin was ever open to a diplomatic solution.

Now that you have moved on from the Quincy Institute, how do you assess its achievement to date, if the central purpose was to change the character of the foreign policy debate in Washington?

The ultimate purpose is to change US foreign policy, not just the debate about it. That will take a generational effort. To me, the real achievement to date has been to lay a foundation, intellectual and institutional, for the long haul.

That said, changing the debate is essential. Four years ago, when I was still a full-time academic historian, I could not have imagined the debate being thrown open to the extent it has since then.

Besides the move to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, you retain a foothold in academia at Yale Law School and Catholic University, and your book Tomorrow, the World was published less than eighteen months ago. What’s the focus of your work now?

Presently, I’m planning a book on the rise and possible fall of American global primacy since the end of the cold war. I want to explain why the United States, in the absence of major rivals, kept expanding its military commitments and interventions instead of reaping a so-called peace dividend.

One could denigrate the enterprise as simply collective hubris, but I hope to capture the uncertainty and anxiety of ruling elites. Rather than use power in pursuit of strategic purpose, US leaders possessed global power that they couldn’t imagine giving up, and then searched for a purpose that would justify wielding it.

Your website profile ends, unexpectedly, with the line “In his spare time, Stephen thinks up comedy ideas, talks about them, and fails to carry them out.” Please talk us through one…

I’ll give you a seriously good idea, which stands out because my other ideas are bad. Someone in Cambridge and Oxford should start a restaurant called High Table. Have the patrons wear the gowns, say the Latin prayers, the works. Everyone pretends, under dim lighting, that the cuts of meat are considerably better than they are. At each table, an ancient don staves off death by horrifying younger generations with remarks that would have sounded bigoted even a century ago.

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Think of the tourists who would flock to High Table. Think of the revenue.

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