As Russia threatens a new invasion of Ukraine, a segment of politicians and pundits in Washington, D.C., are talking tough. At times, their rhetoric can recall the lead-up to previous wars. But this occasion looks different. From the start, President Joe Biden ruled out the use of force. “We have no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine,” he affirmed last week. His administration is hardly inactive; it is pursuing diplomatic negotiations to head off a conflict, sending weapons to help in Ukraine’s defense, and gearing up to impose significant economic sanctions on Russia should it attack. The emphasis, however, lies in what America won’t do. No longer are all options, as the saying goes, on the table.
Biden’s distinct approach toward this crisis reflects an evolution in what the country does, and does not, fear. Recent years have fostered much distress: about democratic disarray, racial violence, unending pandemics, American decline. Yet one specter may be receding. It is the worry that the United States, weary of world affairs, might revert to its purported tradition of isolationism.
Could that be? We are just one year removed from the presidency of Donald Trump, who was feared to be an isolationist incarnate. That, at least, was how foreign policy elites sought at once to interpret and discredit Trump, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, since the 2016 election. Their alarm was great, but their concern was familiar. If one concept has run through US foreign policy since World War II, it is the belief, professed by each consecutive president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama, that isolationism had previously held sway and must never return. The lesson they imparted: US global dominance, whatever its faults, is better than the alternative.
Today, though, as American preeminence wanes, so does the story that national leaders have told about America’s place in the world. Trump broke the eight-decade streak of presidents who warned the US public off isolationism. He had no use for the term, either to describe himself or to denounce others. And Joe Biden, after liberally decrying “the forces of isolationism” as vice president, has yet to utter the word as president, even as he seeks to project a new era of restoration in US global leadership.
This is a healthy development. Isolationism is not, and has never been, a real position, whereas fear of it creates problems of its own.
Only with the approach of World War II did Americans start speaking regularly of something called isolationism. The term, a new “-ism,” was pioneered by those who sought to throw America’s weight behind the British and French cause and ultimately install the United States as the supreme global power. To succeed, they had to discredit their country’s longstanding aversion to joining the alliances and wars of Europe and Asia. For most Americans, a seemingly fruitless foray into World War I had only reinforced the conventional wisdom against far-flung entanglements. This time, many believed, it would suffice to guard the Western Hemisphere from outside attack, thereby preventing any possible invasion of the US mainland.
To call this position “isolationism” was a misnomer from the start. Supposed isolationists stood accused of seeking to “confine all activities of our people within our own frontiers,” in the words of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In fact, they favored nothing of the kind. Most supported trade, diplomacy, and other forms of interaction across borders. Even militarily, they wanted America to dominate the entire Western Hemisphere.
The coalition they cobbled together was ideologically diverse: some, like aviator and America First Committee spokesman Charles Lindbergh, were nationalists and anti-Semites; others, such as democratic socialist Norman Thomas, were internationalists and anti-imperialists; many were mainstream liberals. But they were lumped together as isolationists simply for seeking to curb US involvement in European and Asian wars. As the historian Walter McDougall notes in his classic study of US foreign policy, “Our vaunted tradition of ‘isolationism’ is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.”
Nevertheless, once invented, the term caught on and inspired new anxieties. In particular, it crystallized a significant and legitimate problem created by the rise of totalitarian states before and during World War II. As Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union conquered territory, they effectively closed off parts of the world to liberal, US-style interaction. The more land the totalitarian powers took, the more they limited the activities and influence of Americans. This was a novel development. In the nineteenth century, Americans could let Europe quarrel while continuing to profit from trade with the continent. In the face of totalitarian conquests, however, an open world would have to be kept open by force.
That point could have been made without the caricature that the label of isolationism entailed. Yet it stuck because it served an agenda. Those who used the term sought to turn the United States into the policeman of the world, a role that the country had previously rejected as costly, domineering, and selfish. Casting the alternative as “ostrich isolationism,” to quote FDR, changed the equation. That way, not policing the world came to look like the height of selfishness; to accept limits on the nation’s power was to bury its head in the sand. Some had an aspiration for the United Nations to grow into an authority capable of enforcing law and order, but saw their hopes deferred and ultimately dashed. So long as their greater fear remained a resurgence of isolationism, they preferred to project American might worldwide, stopping aggressors in their tracks before another world war could start.
For decades, the I-word served its purpose. It disciplined debate during the cold war, when to be called an isolationist “was nearly as bad as being called a communist,” as the late, distinguished diplomatic historian Michael H. Hunt once observed. Even Walter Lippmann, the doyen of insider Washington, found himself accused of isolationism late in his life. His sin then was to have opposed America’s war in Vietnam.
When, a quarter-century later, the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States did not pull its forces back and encourage other states to step forward. Believing isolationism to be real, dangerous, and innately appealing, successive US administrations have maintained America’s global deployments and searched to give them new purposes. “We face no enemy menacing our security,” President George H. W. Bush acknowledged in 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but danger remained within the United States. “Isolationism,” Bush charged, “flew escort for the very bombers” that had struck Hawaii to bring America into World War II. If allowed to return, isolationism would doom America and the world again. Avoiding its recurrence became the ultimate justification for US global primacy in the absence of major adversaries.
In hindsight, the panic over isolationism looks puzzling. In the 1990s, American officials faced perhaps the least resistance to their aims, at home and abroad, that they ever had. Yet it was still possible in 1995 for Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the United Nations, to promote the Clinton administration’s approach to international relations by warning of “a tide of isolationist thinking that is stronger today than at any time since the 1920s.” However dubious, such claims served to sustain a consensus around America’s distinction as the world’s “indispensable nation,” as Albright dubbed it soon after.
Prone to see isolationism everywhere, members of the establishment watched Donald Trump emerge proclaiming “America first” and believed their worst fears had come true. Put to the test, however, the isolationist charge lost its power. In 2016, it proved politically ineffectual, failing to keep Trump out of the White House and perhaps affirming the electorate’s appetite for a new foreign policy. Then it proved analytically mistaken: President Trump, favoring “unquestioned military dominance,” was at least as prone to escalate conflicts as to curtail them. His nativism revealed what should long have been evident from American and world history: animosity toward foreigners does not necessarily encourage isolation from them, but instead supplies fertile soil for aggression.
What catharsis has transpired is certainly incomplete. Commentators and politicians continue to use isolationism as a bogeyman. But as the United States enters a more competitive age in world affairs, even mainstream policymakers may find it helpful to get past an always exaggerated and now badly outdated fear. Doing so would free American statecraft to adjust to twenty-first-century realities. Ending wars, sharing burdens, and setting limits look inherently suspect if we continue to believe any reduction in US engagement anywhere will presage wholesale withdrawals everywhere. Today, America’s alliances have nowhere safe to expand and a solvency problem as they stand. US policymakers need to approach the future equally disposed toward relinquishing unnecessary commitments as to preserving worthwhile ones.
Getting over the reflexive fear of isolationism would also improve debate in times of crisis, enabling Americans to focus on the concrete stakes at hand and the likely consequences of alternative courses of action without writing off restraint as inconceivable or impermissible. For years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of the positions that could have proved most valuable were nearly impossible to voice candidly. These included leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, letting Afghans determine Afghanistan’s politics, and making Congress continually re-declare war if war was to be waged. Had the United States dispensed with its hang-up over pullbacks, it could have ended the war in Afghanistan a decade earlier, with better results.
Now, as China rises and Russia asserts itself, the United States will require more sobriety externally, and more openness internally, in order to avoid a ruinous great-power war. The current standoff with Moscow is a case in point. Russian military aggression would be abhorrent and illegal, but would not threaten the United States or enable Russia to run roughshod across Europe. For removing the use of force from consideration, President Biden deserves credit for being wise, not blame for being weak. In coming years, Taiwan may pose an even more consequential challenge, pitting the world’s two superpowers against one another. The risks for both countries, the Asia-Pacific region, and 24 million Taiwanese people are weighty enough; what ought not skew American calculations is a false anxiety that the United States, by limiting escalation, would be shirking some sacred duty.
Finally, losing our isolationism fixation would reward a cardinal virtue: it would accredit diplomacy and other forms of engagement. These methods seem empty so long as anyone championing them is tarred as a sinful isolationist; peaceful interaction looks like negligent inactivity unless backed by overwhelming force. Often, however, diplomacy should be not only the first resort but also the last. If negotiations with Iran break down, say, will it truly serve US interests to launch a war with the Islamic Republic to keep it from acquiring a nuclear weapon whose use could be deterred instead?
In an era of climate change and pandemic disease, many of the foreign policies that will determine the safety and well-being of the American people will be non-military in nature: setting standards on emissions, providing developing countries with renewables, establishing mechanisms to distribute vaccines. For such actions to look less like a sideshow to national security concerns and more like the main event, American leaders and US citizens must no longer perversely conflate international engagement with the use or threat of force. It is time to rescue internationalism from its corrupting affiliation with one nation’s power.
Isolationism is a myth that continues to do harm after its reason for being has passed. In the years to come, the United States will neither dominate nor withdraw from the world. Americans will have to forge, first of all among themselves, a new place within the world.