Perils of the New Isolationism
Recently, Congressman Peter King fired a warning shot across the bow of Republican politics stating that isolationists like Rand Paul won’t defeat Hillary Clinton, the prospective Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. It’s a warning Republicans would be wise to heed.
Yet, in the second decade of the 21st century, Republicans are not merely divided over the budget but also America’s role in the world. Last week I lunched with an elderly gentleman whose views about economic and social policy are in harmony with my own. I mentioned my concern about the Republican Party embracing isolationism and becoming timorous about exerting any muscular influence in world affairs and how vexing it is that so many young Republicans support non-interventionists like Ron and Rand
Paul. My lunch companion, however, was unmoved by my animus and to my astonishment expressed support for the non-intervention wing of the Republican Party, stating that America no longer has the resources to police the world.
So the winds of isolationism are again blowing underneath the wings of the Grand Old Party and what once felt like a mere zephyr are now full blown gales. Though Americans generally trust Republicans more than Democrats in matters of foreign policy, it’s been Republicans who are more likely to find isolationism congenial to their tastes and this has been true ever since Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism and the putative profiteering during WWI by the so-called merchants of death and British plutocrats. President Harding and Americans felt used and turned inward focusing mostly on domestic affairs.
After WWI, The Lion of Idaho, Republican Senator William Borah, successfully argued against U.S. participation in the League of Nations since America had won respect from the international community by “minding its own business.” Twenty years later, as tenebrous clouds loomed ominously over Europe the lion, now 74, was still roaring about
American non-involvement. Despite Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary charm and persuasive powers, intransigent members of Congress resisted amending the Neutrality Act despite the president’s warning that the world was hurtling toward another cataclysmic war. William Borah would contemptuously shake his great mane at these reproaches, scowling that such threats were manufactured and hysterical. There will be no war in Europe, the lion roared. Two months later, German tanks rolled over Poland igniting a worldwide conflagration claiming at least 55 million lives — 60 percent of them civilians.
Isolationism was not an invention of the Republican Party, indeed repudiation of Europe was, as John Dos Passos said, the reason for Americas’ being. In bequeathing one last gift to the nation he was most responsible for founding, George Washington in his Farewell Address cautioned, among other things, the danger of entangling alliances and needless foreign connections. America, Washington warned, must avoid these temptations for such postures would only draw us into unnecessary wars. It would not be until 1949, with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), that America entered into a permanent alliance.
From its creation, America was genetically predisposed to isolationism; geographical realities bounding the continent between the Atlantic and Pacific reinforced it. While
Washington’s sage advice was a good guidepost in the 18th century, it’s impractical and risky statecraft for the 21st. Recognizing America’s industrial power, its immense natural resources and its vast population — fourth largest in the world, Republican Theodore Roosevelt boldly declared that even if she wanted to, America could not in the 20th century avoid playing a major role on the world stage.
After World War I anti-interventionist sentiment experienced a re-birth, nesting particularly in the Republican Party and shaping America’s foreign policy for the next 20 years, the consequences of America cocooning itself from international affairs were incalculable and would prove to be one of the fundamental causes of WWII. So deep seated was
America’s inclinations toward isolationism, that even with the war’s culmination it still failed to absorb the lessons of its inertia between the two world wars. Massive demobilization and calls for America to preoccupy itself mostly with domestic issues remained prevalent in the face of blatant Soviet aggression during the immediate post war era. Republican Senator Robert Taft, one of the most powerful senators in American history, opposed NATO and only reluctantly supported the Truman Doctrine. Yet it was exactly these security arrangements in combination with the Marshall Plan and Bretton Wood on the economic front, which was the cornerstone of both restoring European civilization and averting another World war. None of this would be possible without direct American involvement
Fatigued by Iraq and Afghanistan where instability and danger still prevails, critical of America’s overreliance on power politics in the international arena and 9-11 now fading in the receding past, many Americans are again being seduced by the charms of isolationism. While a discriminating reflection regarding America’s international obligations is always desirable, history is clear that isolationism is a dangerous mistress to court and one whose meretricious smile menaces the future. America should not be, as President Truman noted 65 years ago, the world’s policeman. But neither can a global superpower be an indifferent bystander.
The unvarnished truth is that there is no viable alternative to American involvement. The American economy and its military apparatus is so integrated with the world’s economic and international security it would be foolhardy, even if the world desired it (which it doesn’t) to negate or ignore it. International necessities and historical experience demand maintaining a balance of power and only the United States has the wherewithal and resources to exercise that leadership. Paradoxical as it might sound, there is no greater instrument for peace than American military and economic might. To believe otherwise is to exhibit a woeful incomprehension of those forces and influences that are presently moving the counsels of men and the principalities of the earth for the better.