The international relations word of the week is “isolationism.” Some suggest this is a crisis of epic (read: world war) proportions.  Others consider it an exaggeration.  And some, such as Gordon Adams writing in FP National Security, see this era as one where “America’s not retreating–it’s just going undercover.”

Where will this approach lead? (Ask Senator Mike Lee.)

Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the NYT thinks about what isolationism means in the US, as seen in the Tea Party and anti-war movement:

Of course, 2013 is not 1940. The Middle East is not Europe. President Obama is not F.D.R. But America is again in a deep isolationist mood. As a wary Congress returns from its summer recess to debate Syria, as President Obama prepares to address the nation, it is instructive to throw the two periods up on the screen and examine them for lessons. How does a president sell foreign engagement to a public that wants none of it?

Take a look at this film short on the history of an idea: Think Back: America and Isolationism.  (Remember: other nations can look inward, as well.)


14 thoughts on “Isolationism”

  1. While the idea of isolationism is appealing, it is not always the best answer. Had America not been so bent on staying out of WWII, the death toll may have been a lot lower, especially in the concentration camps. There are times when it is necessary for the United States to intervene because by not doing so, many innocent lives are lost. Now, that is not to say that we should respond to every civil war in any given country with military force, but when international laws are violated, as with WMD’s, we need to be prepared to act with some sort of diplomatic or military force.

  2. I definitely agree with Ryan that in situations like WWII, we should add our power to global conflict and help to end the conflict, thus sparing lives. However, we can’t do it alone. If every other country is going to adopt an attitude of isolationism, we can’t be expected to shoulder the entire burden of enforcing international law. If we are going to have international laws, the international community should help to enforce them.

    I also don’t understand why we define isolationism, which has somewhat negative connotations, as a country that is unwilling to engage in armed conflict with another nation. Even if we are shutting ourselves in militaristically, we are still involved on the international scene in almost every other way, diplomacy, humanitarian efforts, business, etc. There are hundreds of countries across the globe who don’t send their troops to invade other countries and no one writes articles on how isolationist they are.

  3. Jonah Goldberg is right to criticize the term “isolationist”. Wars should not be entered for unjust or insignificant causes. You can believe that it would be wrong to bomb Syria without believing that the U.S. should ignore the rest of the world.

    The world today is tremendously changed from the world of 1940. In 1940, the Great Powers were locked in a contest for control of the world, and being isolationist meant believing that the U.S. should not concern itself with the outcome of that contest. But the U.S. won that contest, and today its military superiority is unchallenged. Its navy and air force have the power to deliver mass destruction anywhere on the globe.

    I oppose bombing Syria because I believe it is wrong for the U.S. to take advantage of its strong position to impose its will on other countries through violence simply in order to secure its own “vital interests”. Bill Keller’s justification for the war is in direct opposition to Thomas Aquinas:

    If the U.S. wants peace in Syria, there are plenty of peaceful ways to push for that.

    [Side Note: Jennifer Rubin’s argument is even more appalling than Bill Keller’s. She argues that, if Americans want to be safe, they must support the keeping of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, ESPECIALLY when we don’t have proof they engaged in any crime, and send flying killer robots to bomb restaurants when we have no proof that anyone there is our enemy.]

    1. I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that the U.S. considered bombing Syria to “take advantage of its strong position” or “impose its will.” We considered bombing Syria because they massacred their own people using illegal weapons. It’s interesting that you would link to the wiki article on just war, because our intervention in Syria would have passed all of the conditions:

      First, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. (Proper Authority is first: represents the common good: which is peace for the sake of man’s true end—God.) Check; we are a state, and it would be representing the common good (I don’t think you can argue that measures to prevent massacres by chemical weapons is contrary to the common good).
      Second, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (for example, “in the nation’s interest” is not just) or as an exercise of power. (Just Cause: for the sake of restoring some good that has been denied. i.e., lost territory, lost goods, punishment for an evil perpetrated by a government, army, or even citizen population.) Also check; “punishment for an evil perpetrated by a government.”
      Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.[14] (Right Intention: an authority must fight for the just reasons it has expressly claimed for declaring war in the first place. Soldiers must also fight for this intention.) Another check, as one of the central themes has been to have an intervention that could help end the war.

      So all in all, I’m confused by your position because it goes against what you say qualifies a “just war.” A U.S. intervention in Syria would be a textbook example of a just war. And as far as your comment that, “If the U.S. wants peace in Syria, there are plenty of peaceful ways to push for that,” this war has been going on for two years with us “peacefully” pushing for peace. As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But maybe we should just keep negotiating for two more years and let another hundred thousand people die.

      1. First, a small point: It is certainly true that the U.S. wanted to “take advantage of its strong position to impose its will through violence”. The U.S. has military supremacy, so it has a unique position as the only country with the power to intervene across the globe. And bombing Syria would certainly be a violent attempt to make things happen that the U.S. desired, even though other powers did not desire them (hence “impose its will”).

        But the real question is what the U.S. is trying to impose, and why.

        I referred to Thomas Aquinas because Bill Keller argued that war in Syria was justified solely because U.S. “vital interests” were at stake (in the final paragraph of his editorial). As you quoted above, according to (Wikipedia’s summary of) Thomas Aquinas, a war “in the nation’s interest” is not just.

        Now, perhaps, when Keller speaks of U.S. interests, he is referring solely to the U.S. interest in respect for international law, but that’s not at all clear.

        But I should respond to your justification for bombing Syria as well as Keller’s.

        On the first point, U.S. does NOT have standing to engage in a unilateral war. Aquinas wrote that a private individual does not have the authority to make war, because, “to obtain justice, he can have recourse to the judgment of his superior”. By direct analogy, the U.S. today has recourse to the U.N. Security Council, so a unilateral war is not justified unless under extraordinary circumstances such as a response to foreign aggression.

        On the second point, when Aquinas says war is justified to “avenge injuries […] or to restore what has been unjustly taken by it”, clearly that means injuries against the party making war, and restoring things unjustly taken from the party making war. Thomas Aquinas was not arguing that any state should have the authority to punish any other state for alleged crimes. It would be absurd to claim that Mexico has a right to invade the United States to stop NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens.
        [Now, perhaps there would be circumstances where humanitarian conditions would be so abject as to justify an intervention. But Aquinas doesn’t spell out such circumstances, and it’s not obvious why Syria qualifies].

        On the third point, it has NOT been a central theme to intervene in a way to end the violence. Hence President Obama’s “shot across the bow” comment and Kerry’s “unbelievably small” comment. Rebels are frustrated because the U.S. and proxies are arming them enough to continue the fighting, but not enough to win.

        U.S. policymakers are seriously considering trying to prolong the war indefinitely (one brutally honest quote from an analyst: “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here”

        U.S. has not been peacefully pushing for peace for the last two years. The U.S. has been actively involved in financing and arming the rebellion, which has made the war last longer. We have been actively involved in doing so from the beginning, for reasons of grand strategy. There were protests across North Africa and the Middle East in the Arab Spring. In Egypt the U.S. supported the opposition once it became obvious Mubarak couldn’t hold on. In Saudi Arabia the U.S. quietly ignored government repression of the protests. And in Syria the U.S. encouraged a long bloody civil war. These different responses came because of differences in strategy.

        In Egypt, Mubarak could go because the army still had control, and the army is tied to U.S. funding. Saudi Arabia has a long-term relationship with the U.S., so they had to be protected. And Syria could be used to weaken Iran and potentially deprive Russia of a warm water port.

        I hope this helps to clarify why I’m suspicious of U.S. motives and of the legitimacy of a unilateral intervention in Syria.

        Here’s the link to my source for the Aquinas quotes:

  4. Deciding when we should add our power to global conflict is a difficult thing to do. It’s not a clear issue that everyone will agree ‘yes’ or ‘no’ too. I also agree with Ryan that if the United States had not taken so longer to intervene, then a lot less people may have died during WWII. However, if the United States were to to get involved or try to intervene when any country was experiencing conflict then we would always be in the middle of someone else’s war. World peace is idealistic but unrealistic. There will always be conflicts going on somewhere in the world, and it is unrealistic to think that the US, as well as other powerful countries should always interfere.
    I agree jmmmorgan242 when she says that the US cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of enforcing international law. International law is a tough conflict to handle because, even with the United Nations, there is not one end-all power that can truly force other countries to comply.

    So while I do agree that the United States should not should not consider it’s self an isolationist country, I also think it is difficult to know when another country’s conflict is big or bad enough for us to get involved. No one person is capable of making that decision on their own either,

  5. In reply to Mady and Ryan about World War II:

    Maybe earlier entry by the U.S. into the war would have lessened the number of deaths. But it’s not clear. Not a lot of people were dying (relatively speaking) between June 1940 (the fall of Paris) and June 1941 (the German invasion of Russia).

    That’s because British strategy was more or less to wait for the U.S. to find some reason to enter the war before commencing major operations. Even after the U.S. declared war, the U.S. and U.K. waited two and a half years to invade France and force Germany to fight a two-front war. There were legitimate logistical reasons for the delay, though Stalin believed that the decision was also part of a strategy of letting the Soviets bear the worst of the fighting. Anyways, it’s not clear how much D-Day’s timetable could have been (or would have been) accelerated with earlier U.S. involvement.

    Maybe it’s not worthwhile to spend too much time talking about hypotheticals, but I do think it’s valuable to observe that even while fighting Hitler (who was, most of us agree, a rather unkind individual), it’s not obvious that simply being more bellicose would have worked out any better.

    1. But just in case hypotheticals are worthwhile, here are more detailed possibilities for an alternate history:

      (1) The U.S. declares war in 1939, and the added threat of the American military convinces Hitler to negotiate more seriously with the Soviets. Germany holds to the Non-Aggression Pact, and with significantly larger forces are able to defeat the eventual D-Day-style landing by joint U.S.-U.K. forces. The Nazis are only defeated by a second invasion reinforced with nuclear weapons (the U.S. would’ve had 9 bombs by the end of October of 1945, 30 by June 1946). Massive destruction and death on both sides. The Soviets kindly join the Allies at the very end of the war, getting the same Warsaw Pact countries without losing 20+ million dead.
      (2) The U.S. is actually isolationist, never embargoes Japanese oil and steel, and doesn’t support the U.K. war effort with equipment or money. Japan becomes the dominant power in the Pacific. Without U.S. support, the British see no other option than to negotiate a peace settlement with Germany in Spring 1941. Perhaps the war ends there, or perhaps Operation Barbarossa goes forward in June as planned, and with their forces no longer divided, the Germans defeat the Soviets before winter. Perhaps with complete control of Europe, the Holocaust and other Axis atrocities would have been even worse. Or maybe without war to provide a cover for supposed “emergency measures”, far fewer would have been killed.

    2. Your comment about the British strategy in WWII is factually inaccurate. To suggest they were “waiting for the U.S.” to enter the war is ludicrous considering they had committed troops since 1939, been driven out of France, lost thousands of men at Dunkirk, were being bombed DAILY in their capital city….and yet they were waiting for us? No, they were simply not capable of pushing back the Germans at the time.

      Also, while the Allies didn’t invade France until two and a half years later, it is also wrong to say that they didn’t “force Germany to fight a two-front war.” If you know your WWII history, you know that the Allies invaded North Africa in 1942 (thus opening a second front) followed by Italy in 1943, before invading France in 1944.

      Additionally, your statement that not many people were dying between 1940 and 1941 is also not true, and I’m not sure where you’re getting your history from. A stat from the Battle of Britain:
      Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded.
      In addition to the Battle of Britain, the war was definitely still going on in the Balkans, Mediterranean, and North Africa. To act like it was some sort of a slow period during the war is completely false.

      Having said that, I’m really not sure what point you’re trying to make by bringing up a fictional British strategy. The real fact of the matter is that if the Allies (mainly Britain and France) would have reacted to Hitler appropriately (and according to the international treaties at the time) when he started annexing the Sudetenland, Austria, and other areas (not to mention breaking the limits on their military that was specified in the Treaty of Versailles) THAT is how the real loss of life would’ve been prevented. Rather than Chamberlain coming back to Britain talking about “peace for our time” or mockingly responding to Churchill’s concerns by saying, “to listen to Mr. Churchill you would think that Hitler wanted to kill every Jew in Europe,” if they would have enforced the terms of the treaties that had been agreed to (or seen the obvious warning signs), tens of millions of lives could’ve been saved.

      1. I was a little concerned that talking about military history might be such a boring topic that nobody would actually bother reading what I’d written. Your comment happily removed that fear. You seemed rather skeptical of several of my claims, so I would like to explain my argument a little more fully.

        When I described British strategy in terms of “waiting”, I was referring to strategy post-France, when the U.S. and Britain were engaged in secret talks about how they’d fight the war after (if) the U.S. entered. I’m ignoring the invasion of France because I feel that Allied strategic failures (see: Maginot line) were so severe as to negate the value of any extra divisions in Europe at the time.

        British actions in North Africa and the Middle East in 1940, and later Allied action in North Africa and Italy did have strategic significance. They denied Hitler oil, captured or destroyed a great deal of Rommel’s army, and secured Allied shipping through the Mediterranean. I’m not denying that, nor am I pretending that people weren’t dying through the war. World War II was an incredibly complex strategic enterprise, and all sorts of things were happening all the time.

        But I’m talking about RELATIVE intensity, as I tried to make clear in my original post. 23,000 dead is less than 0.1% of civilian deaths in the war. This graphic (on military casualties: seems to confirm that:
        (1) The period from June 1940 to June 1941 was RELATIVELY calm in the European/North African theater. [British planners anticipated U.S. involvement and so focused on defense, positioning, and control of the Mediterranean, holding off on more significant operations to wait for future strength.]
        (2) Even after U.S. and Soviet entry into the war, the Eastern Front was far bloodier than the Western Front, especially before D-Day. [The planning documents I’ve seen aren’t consistent with Stalin’s interpretation, but his frustration is understandable]

        I dealt with the scenarios I dealt with because I was responding to arguments about how the U.S. should have been less isolationist, not Britain or France. Anyways, a war in 1938 might have been better for Germany than a war in 1939, since the RAF would have been much weaker (and the Maginot line would have been just as easy to flank). Neville Chamberlain (despite his failings) knew about the disparity in air power, and used the two years between the Munich Agreement and the Battle of Britain to close the gap: (and later bits in the article)

        You could go back further (1936, 1934), but the further you go, the more the war starts to look like an act of Franco-British aggression, which could only add legitimacy to the complaints of the Nazi Party concerning Versailles.

        So what’s my “point” with all of this?

        World War II was an incredibly horrible event, and it’s important to think about why it happened and what we should learn. It is commonly cited as evidence that sometimes it’s just obvious that people need to stand up to evil. I have tried to argue here that keeping the strategy the same while making one year adjustments to the entry date for one of the Allied powers would not have obviously improved the results of World War II.

        More fundamentally, I believe that knowing what to do is often far harder than knowing whether something should be done. We must not only stand up to evil, but we must stand for good. And building up good is harder than tearing down evil.

  6. As Brigadier General Amos A. Jordan shared in his address to the Wheatley Institution on Thursday evening, “isolationism is irrational.” Though America is clearly declining, it is still the undisputed hegemonic power in the world. Unfortunately for the world, Americans are growing weary of their international role as enforcer of international law and provider of peace and security.

    The basics of the argument against isolationism as a country is that the rest of the world needs us. Our European allies, let alone other countries around the world, are unable to project their own military power around the world, and rely on American military power for security. The world is reliant on the world’s biggest economy and many countries would suffer from a withdrawal from international trade markets, the U.S. itself included. The world also relies on the U.S. at the negotiating table. Even when the U.S. isn’t directly involved, many countries come to the U.S. as a mediator in their discussions. It is clear that the U.S. cannot simply pull out of the international system and isolate itself from the world. While negotiations and other forms of international engagement are assuredly needed, and cannot be dropped by the U.S. either, it is a lack of military power around the world that scares me most about the call for American isolationism. It is irrational to think that the U.S. can remove itself. The world would be much worse off if the U.S. were to pursue isolationist policies.

    However, it can be difficult to explain this to the general populace of the U.S., who remain largely uneducated on international affairs and economics. How this can be sold to the population is a question that I cannot answer.

    1. You seem to be arguing that isolationists believe that:

      (1) The U.S. should dramatically weaken its military.
      (2) The U.S. should stop trading with foreign countries.
      (3) The U.S. should never participate in negotiations with foreign countries.
      (4) The U.S. should pull out of all international institutions.

      I don’t know of a single person who holds all four of those beliefs. There is basically zero chance that any of these policies will be enacted by the U.S. government. The American people opposed the bombing of Syria because bombing Syria was unjust, not because they are pacifists.

      The American people may be “largely uneducated on international affairs and economics”, but at least there is a general (and growing) awareness that government power is sometimes exercised unjustly and sometimes foolishly. I believe it would be more democratic (and better) to pay attention to what the public believes and why, instead of worrying about how to “sell” to the public the policies of the powerful.

      Americans are not “weary of their international role as enforcer of international law and provider of peace and security”. They are weary because they sense (even if they do not know all the details) that their government often deals with foreigners in ways that are violent, selfish, and manipulative.

      Some examples:
      Children killed by the Bush-Obama drone strikes:
      About a million people killed or with serious disabilities from U.S. chemical warfare in South Vietnam:
      U.S. support for a coup that replaced a democracy with a brutal military dictatorship in Chile: (a similar story occurred in almost EVERY Central and South American country at some point in the last 70 years).,

  7. The United States has been the lynchpin of international order since 1945. To abandon our commitment to the use of force after drawing a line in the sand weakens the U.S.’s power in the international system; shaking the trust generated by years of unfailing support during the Cold War. The weakening of American power in the world may be inevitable in the face of China and India’s rise in the next decades, but expediting our decline will only make the transition to a multi-polar world more volatile and dangerous. There MUST be norms and rules that govern a multi-polar world or it will devolve into conflict. Obama invoked international law as the justification for military intervention, and then abandoned it in the face of domestic pressure. If he had no intention of intervening in Syria, he shouldn’t have committed himself in the first place. By invoking international law and then discarding it, he is undermining the international system that will need to govern our world in the near future.

    The NY Times video displayed a nice history of how the U.S. feels a false sense of security before we are thrown into war. We seem to think that our place at the apex of the international system is an optional position we didn’t sign up for and that our prosperity is a divine right. Wake up. Our place in the international order after Bretton Woods and the formation of NATO gives us a huge advantage economically and militarily. If we want to maintain that advantage, then we need to maintain our commitment as enforcer of international law and norms. It was frightening to watch Obama turn to congress for approval on a military strike; the American legislature is notoriously short-sighted. Our congressmen can’t balance a budget or reform finance law after the worst recession since the 40’s. Why do we expect them to accurately weigh the pros and cons of a military intervention? To expect them to collectively understand the benefits they gain by supporting international law is a real stretch; that’s why we have an executive branch. We elect leaders with the expectation that they will represent our best interests; and sometimes that requires taking a longer view then just to the next congressional election.

    Regardless of how foreigners may feel about certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy, we have allies in the world because we are seen as relatively reliable and peaceful. The PRC and the Russian federation do not have international support because their governments are viewed as opportunistic and not interested in mutual benefit. By breaking our commitment to military force and international law in Syria, we are demonstrating to our allies that we are no different. The cumulative result of strategic blunders like these is a more rapid retreat to an anarchical system that makes the world a more dangerous place. We shouldn’t wait for a 9/11 or a Pearl Harbor to realize that we must be involved in the world, we don’t have that luxury anymore. As General Amos said in his lecture on Foreign Affairs last thursday; “We are a part of the world, and it will affect us whether we like it or not”. The cards are still stacked in our favor, we should remember that before we give the deck for someone else to shuffle.

  8. How interesting it is that Obama presented a plan for no boots on the ground. The focus for world powers seems to be how to stay out of conflicts, like a game of hot potato. See France’s intervention in Mali, France stepped in, reluctantly, and put boots on the ground while The other Nato troops were reluctant to give any aid (even planes for France to transport boots to Mali) for fear of becoming involved in a lengthy campaign for years.
    Problems often times cannot be solved over night, no matter how expert staff or how many resources are poured into it. I feel like the 1st world will get what it pays for in intervening and staying to build up after conflicts start to resolve.

    Iraq & Afghanistan- 12 years, 7000 US Soldiers lives. Not that long, we are talking about complex multilevel issues between millions of people. Yes there has been a tremendous amount of spending, around 7 trillion, but that is the tradeoff for having such a comparatively small loss of US lives in the campaigns. I would argue that the US’s position in Iraq and Afghanistan are better off than it was before the conflict, and even in the middle east the relationships seem less tense than the early 2000’s.

    Syria- This time there is mass gassings of civilians that has been verified, and a non-US induced civil war going on for 2 years. I dont pretend to know the best course of action, but I feel that foreign boots on the ground could stop a lot of killing

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