Who's Afraid of Isolationism?Roundup
tags: foreign policy, American Empire, international relations, militarism, intervention, isolationism
Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting faculty fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School. Previously, he was Director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank he co-founded in 2019. His first book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy, was published in 2020.
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.