Isolationism once cleared the way for America’s ascent, making the country prosperous, powerful, and secure. Today, however, the Founders’ admonition against entangling alliances has fallen into disrepute, and the word isolationist itself has become an insult. In the absence of constraints on the nation’s ambition abroad, American grand strategy has fallen prey to overstretch and grown politically insolvent. The nation now confronts a seemingly unlimited array of foreign entanglements, two decades of errant war in the Middle East, and a pandemic that is causing an economic debacle of a sort not experienced since the Great Depression. The United States needs to rediscover the history of isolationism and apply its lessons, shrinking its footprint abroad and bringing its foreign commitments back into line with its means and purposes.
Americans have long deemed their democratic experiment to be exceptional, obliging them to spread liberty to all quarters of the globe. Even before the country’s birth, the passionate advocate of independence from Great Britain, Thomas Paine, counseled American colonists that “we have it in our power, to begin the world all over again.” But for much of the nation’s history, most Americans envisaged changing the world only by the power of their example; they wanted nothing to do with extending their strategic reach beyond North America. From the nation’s founding until the Spanish-American War of 1898, Americans restricted the scope of their overseas ambition to international commerce. They steadfastly expanded across North America—trampling on Native Americans, launching several failed attempts to grab hold of Canada, seizing a sizable chunk of Mexico in a war that ran from 1846 to 1848, and purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867—but pushed no farther than the Pacific coast.
Instead of running the world, Americans ran away from it. They stuck to the brand of statecraft laid out by President George Washington in his 1796 farewell address: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
Especially after the Civil War, this focus on domestic development helped the American economy take off, boosted by investment in canals, ports, roads, and railways—rather than battleships and colonies. Between 1865 and 1898, coal production rose by 800 percent and railway track mileage by 567 percent. By the middle of the 1880s, the United States had surpassed Britain as the world’s leading producer of manufactured goods and steel. The U.S. Navy on occasion defended the interests of U.S. traders, but all the while, the country, regardless of which party was in power, kept geopolitical ambition at bay. This is the story of America’s rise to greatness.
Isolationism, of course, has also had a dark side. During the 1930s, the United States ran for cover while fascism and militarism swept across Europe and Asia—with disastrous results. It would be a grave error for the country to repeat that mistake and rashly and instinctively flee from today’s world. But Americans have overcorrected for their interwar-era passivity and swung to the opposite extreme, producing chronic overreach and raising the risk of an abrupt and disruptive retreat from strategic excess.
Americans need to reclaim the enduring wisdom laid down by the Founders that standing apart from trouble abroad often constitutes the best statecraft. Rediscovering isolationism’s strategic advantages—while at the same time keeping in mind its downsides—offers Americans the best hope of finding the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little.
Isolationism became a dirty word on December 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. And with good reason. By failing to stand up to the Axis powers, the United States during the 1930s pursued a deluded and self-defeating quest for strategic immunity, deservedly giving isolationism the bad name it has today. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg, formerly a staunch isolationist, wrote in his diary after the Japanese raid, “That day ended isolationism for any realist.”
Many members of the foreign-policy establishment continue to deploy isolationist as an epithet against anyone who dares question America’s role as global guardian. Diplomats and scholars alike have pilloried President Donald Trump as un-American for questioning the value of the nation’s alliances abroad and straining to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East. The House last October—in a rare moment of bipartisan comity—dealt Trump a stinging rebuke, passing by a vote of 354–60 a resolution condemning his decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria. The late Senator John McCain dubbed Senator Rand Paul and the few other politicians daring to call on the United States to shed foreign commitments “wacko birds.”
Blanket condemnation of the strategic logic of isolationism not only distorts U.S. history but also does Americans a grave disservice. The country cannot and should not return to the hemispheric isolation of the 19th century. Economic interdependence and globalized threats—such as intercontinental missiles, transnational terrorism, pandemics, climate change, and cyberattacks—mean that adjoining oceans are less protective than they used to be. But the nation desperately needs a frank and open conversation, guided by a full account of the lessons of history, about how to responsibly scale back its foreign entanglements.
America’s endless wars have not gone over well with the electorate. President Barack Obama understood that, trying to get U.S. troops out of Middle East quagmires and running for reelection by calling for a “focus on nation-building here at home.” The region would not let go; Obama ended up keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan to help quell the chaos and sent troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State. (From 2014 to 2017, I served on the National Security Council in the Obama White House.)
Trump then inherited a public more than weary of the nation’s exertions in the Middle East. Indeed, a poll from 2019 revealed that a plurality of Americans want the country’s role in the world to shrink or end altogether. The pandemic has only strengthened this inward turn. A survey from July 2020 indicated that three-quarters of the public wants U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan and Iraq. No wonder Trump has been busy extracting U.S. forces from the region. “I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that’s what I am doing,” he explained as he ordered the U.S. withdrawal from Syria’s north.
The inward turn is gaining momentum on both sides of the aisle, not just among Trump’s base. The 2020 Democratic platform calls for “turning the page on two decades of large-scale military deployments and open-ended wars in the Middle East” and asserts that the United States “should not impose regime change on other countries.” George Soros, a generous benefactor of liberal causes, and Charles Koch, a conservative philanthropist, recently teamed up to establish a new Washington think tank—the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—which “promotes ideas that move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war.” They named the institute after former Secretary of State and President John Quincy Adams, who in 1821 declared that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Even a handful of card-carrying members of the foreign-policy elite have begun to defect from the internationalist consensus, going so far as to call for U.S. withdrawal from Europe and Asia as well as the Middle East. The cover of Foreign Affairs, the mouthpiece of the foreign-policy establishment, was recently emblazoned with the headline “Come Home, America?”
The general failure of U.S. leaders to respond to these political pressures risks turning dangerous overreach into even more dangerous underreach—exactly what happened in the 1930s. Indeed, America’s current predicament worryingly mimics the conditions that prompted the nation’s deluded interwar retreat. The public senses strategic overstretch, just as it did after the nation’s acquisition of overseas possessions in the Spanish-American War and its entry into World War I soon thereafter. Amid the extraordinary economic hardship spawned by the spread of COVID-19, Americans want investment in Arkansas, not in Afghanistan, paralleling the inward turn that occurred during the ’30s. Protectionism and unilateralism are again in vogue, pushing forward the same go-it-alone U.S. diplomacy that made a hash of solidarity among the interwar democracies. And illiberalism and nationalism are on the march in Europe and Asia, just as they were when the United States turned its back on the world prior to its entry into World War II.
Under these political conditions, an American pullback is coming. What remains unclear is whether retrenchment occurs by design or by default. A planned, paced, and measured drawback by design is far preferable. That outcome will require the rehabilitation of isolationism and a careful and thoughtful national debate over the benefits as well as the costs of nonentanglement. Failure to have that debate risks producing a perilous retreat rather than the judicious pullback that is in order.
Americans spent their early decades disentangling themselves from the imperial designs of Britain, France, and Spain. They largely succeeded in doing so after fighting Britain to a standoff in the War of 1812, and they spent the rest of the 19th century extending their reach across the continent. In the meantime, European powers, one by one, pulled back from the Western Hemisphere.
As the union enlarged, Americans also regularly considered whether to take hold of territory beyond North America. Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, various pieces of Latin America, and Hawaii were among the targets of potential acquisition. Nonetheless, up until the Spanish-American War, the executive branch, Congress, or a combination of the two swatted down one such proposal after another.
Americans long shunned great-power entanglement and overseas territories because they believed that preserving their unique experiment in political and economic liberty required standing aloof from the perils and corrupting influences that lay beyond the nation’s shores. Guarding the country’s exceptional character required geopolitical detachment, not the global ambition that is today equated with American exceptionalism.
The Founders’ ready embrace of isolationism rested in no small part on the nation’s geographic good fortune—flanking oceans to its east and west and relatively benign neighbors to its north and south. As Washington affirmed in his farewell address, the country enjoyed a “detached and distant situation … Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” Protective oceans would keep predatory powers at bay while the continent’s resources and growing population would generate wealth. The American economy was dependent on international trade from the get-go, underscoring the need to avoid foreign entanglements that risked interrupting seaborne commerce. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none,” insisted Thomas Jefferson. Notably, even though the Founders sought to expand foreign commerce, they were hardly free traders, setting the country on a course that long relied on tariffs to raise revenue and protect manufacturing.
Unilateralism and the freedom of action that would accompany it reinforced these isolationist inclinations. Independence from Britain meant just that: The nation gained the ability to make its own decisions about the conduct of foreign relations. As Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton in 1796, “If we are to be told by a foreign Power … what we shall do, and what we shall not do, we have Independence yet to seek.” Washington’s isolationist and unilateralist instincts were strong enough to produce a bald act of infidelity, prompting him to renege on the defense pact with France that the U.S. had reluctantly concluded in 1778 to turn the tide in the Revolutionary War. When France and Britain again went to war in 1793, Washington refused to come to the aid of the nation’s ally, instead proclaiming neutrality and turning his back on the country that had enabled the United States to establish independence. Although the Founders were in general agreement that the country should not enter the war on France’s behalf, not all of them were pleased with Washington’s declaration of neutrality. James Madison called the move “ignominious perfidy,” and Jefferson soon resigned as secretary of state in part due to the shabby treatment of France. It would not be until after World War II—more than 150 years later—that the United States would again conclude a formal alliance.
Isolationism was to further not only America’s material ambitions but also its messianic mission as the “chosen” nation. As Herman Melville succinctly captured the nation’s sense of its exceptionalist calling, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” To fulfill its role as redeemer nation, America had to renounce the geopolitics of the Old World, pursuing a brand of statecraft guided by law and reason instead of imperial ambition. A good many religious New Englanders went further and embraced pacifism. The American Peace Society was founded in 1828, and pacifist voices would contribute to isolationism’s virtual lock on the country’s politics for decades to come.
Foreign ambition risked not only forcing the United States to play by the rules of realpolitik but also imperiling domestic liberty by requiring standing armies and too-powerful federal authorities. Washington warned in his farewell address that “overgrown military establishments” are “particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Other Founders feared that entanglement in great-power politics would siphon funds from productive investment and lead to high taxation, both of which would weigh on growth and prosperity and imperil the nation’s commercial ascent.
Isolationism was also intended to prevent the dilution of America’s predominantly white population, thereby furthering the racial component of its chosen status. In the words of Horace Bushnell, a Congregational minister, “out of all the inhabitants of the world … a select stock, the Saxon, and out of this the British family, the noblest of stock was chosen to people our country.” America’s treatment of its Black, Native American, and Latin American inhabitants was hardly consistent with its founding claim that “all men are created equal.” But the exceptionalist narrative attributed the nation’s special character only to its white immigrants; others were deemed unfit to be full members of the American experiment. The United States was to expand westward in step with the advance of its white settlers, but Manifest Destiny had to stop at water’s edge lest the country end up incorporating nonwhites into the body politic.
Although Jefferson in 1801 envisaged that the young nation would eventually span the continent, he warned against allowing “either blot or mixture on that surface.” In 1826, when President John Quincy Adams wanted to send a small U.S. delegation to a diplomatic gathering in Panama, Congress revolted, in no small part due to bigotry. Representative John Randolph was repulsed by the notion of U.S. delegates working “beside the native African, their American descendants, the mixed breeds, the Indians, and the half breeds, without any offense or scandal at so motley a mixture.” Amid Congress’s rejection of President Ulysses Grant’s effort to annex Santo Domingo in 1870, Representative John Franklin Farnsworth recoiled at the prospect of integrating into the nation’s population “Indians, savages, and negroes from every part of Western Africa.” Such racist attitudes repeatedly helped sink proposals to expand the union into the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific. Beginning in the 1880s, fear of diluting the nation’s citizenry led to tightening restrictions on immigration.
The United States may have believed that it was destined to save the world, but it would have to do so through the power of example, not through adventurous crusades. It passed on one opportunity after another to expand beyond North America and even refused to intervene abroad temporarily in support of republican causes, including in its own backyard. In 1823, when President James Monroe warned Europeans against new imperial ambitions in the Western Hemisphere, he offered little more than empty rhetoric. It would not be until the end of the 19th century that the United States was prepared to stand behind the Monroe Doctrine’s claim to hemispheric hegemony.
The isolationist course on which the Founders had launched the nation succeeded in meeting its objectives. By the end of the 19th century, the United States had built a stable and prosperous republic, with predominantly white settlers populating and taming a vast expanse of land that ran from coast to coast. Europe’s imperial powers had not yet completely withdrawn from the neighborhood, but they no longer threatened an America that had established its dominance over the Western Hemisphere. Except during the Civil War, the U.S. Army and Navy remained small and cheap; by the end of the 1880s, the nation’s economy was one of the world’s largest, but the Navy ranked 17th. The United States ascended while carefully avoiding the entanglement in alliances or great-power rivalry that could have compromised its security, its prosperity, and its liberty at home and abroad.
Indeed, Washington’s “great rule” of nonentanglement worked so well that Americans, at least temporarily, discovered the allure of foreign ambition. Over the course of the 1890s, the United States built a battleship fleet, responding to growing calls for the nation to match its prosperity with proportionate geopolitical heft. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner popularized the notion that the closing of the western frontier would jeopardize the American experiment, arguing that “frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy.” He was joined by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan in insisting that only by taking Manifest Destiny abroad could the United States maintain its political and economic dynamism.
But enthusiasm for foreign entanglement did not come easily to Americans; it would take several false starts and another four decades to stick. When the expansionists first made their case, the isolationists fought back tooth and nail. A storm of protest ensued when President Benjamin Harrison in 1890 first proposed to Congress that the nation acquire a battleship fleet. Senator John McPherson argued that the battleship was “a class of ships which this country has no use for whatever,” and called the building program “the greatest scheme of mad extravagance that I ever witnessed.” Senator Joseph Dolph insisted that “a great navy is more likely to lead us into war with foreign nations than it is to preserve the peace.” But in the end, the temptation of geopolitical ambition prevailed. The Naval Act of 1890 approved America’s first three battleships, with many more to follow. The isolationist consensus was cracking.
In 1898, the United States put its new tools of warfare to use, not only abandoning nonentanglement but also embracing the imperial drive it had long sworn off. In response to a blood-soaked Spanish crackdown on insurgents in Cuba, President William McKinley, claiming that he was acting “in the cause of humanity,” launched a war to expel Spain from America’s neighborhood. The U.S. Navy handily defeated the Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and Pacific, and proceeded to wrest control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and the Wake Islands. McKinley called the annexation of Hawaii “manifest destiny” and portrayed the military occupation of the Philippines as a “holy cause,” explaining that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”
Many Americans didn’t buy it—especially after a bloody insurgency broke out in the Philippines that took the lives of some 4,000 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Americans thought they were taking their exceptionalist calling on the road, but they had become just another imperial overlord. The Anti-Imperialist League, founded during the summer of 1898, helped orchestrate a powerful political backlash. The United States kept hold of its new overseas territories, maintained its coercive ways in its southern neighborhood, and continued to build battleships. But it gravitated steadily toward hemispheric isolation, returning to a foreign policy focused primarily on commerce, not geopolitical ambition—what came to be called dollar diplomacy during the presidency of William Howard Taft.
With the nation having soured on McKinley’s realist internationalism, Woodrow Wilson pivoted to an idealist brand of statecraft that would align with rather than contradict America’s exceptionalist mission. He initially steered clear of World War I, calling it a conflict “with which we have nothing to do” and limiting the U.S. role to “impartial mediation.” After German submarines began sinking American vessels in 1917, Wilson changed course and asked Congress to approve the country’s entry into the war. Nonetheless, he continued to swear off realist ambition: “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion … Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right.” After the defeat of Germany, Wilson sought to guide the United States into the League of Nations, his brainchild for building a peaceful and democratic postwar order. As he traveled the country to build political support for the mutual-defense obligations envisaged in his proposed concert of nations, he foresaw “the culmination of American hope and history” and asserted that “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.”
But Wilson overreached both ideologically and politically. His lofty idealism did not wear well against the realities of trench warfare, and the Senate ultimately refused to approve the nation’s entry into the League of Nations, preferring to preserve the autonomy of unilateralism. Wilson would not give up, envisaging the presidential election of 1920 as a national referendum on the new internationalism that he and his fellow Democrats had put on offer. The Republican candidate, Senator Warren Harding, took the bait, proclaiming as he accepted the nomination, “We stand for the policies of [George] Washington and … against the internationalism and the permanent alliance with foreign nations proposed by the President.” He prevailed against the Democratic nominee, James Cox, in one of the most lopsided elections in American history, clearing the way for the America First isolationism of the interwar era.
Not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did Americans finally overcome their aversion to foreign entanglement. After the nation’s entry into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt effectively melded McKinley’s realism and Wilson’s idealism, giving birth to liberal internationalism. By embedding the nation’s preponderant power in international partnerships and becoming a crusader for democracy and not just an exemplar, the United States was able to simultaneously secure its interests and spread its values. The protection and promotion of democracy and capitalism would at once keep the nation safe and advance its redemptive mission. At the close of World War II, Washington oversaw the construction of the global network of multilateral institutions, military pacts and installations, and open markets that launched the era of Pax Americana.
FDR forged a brand of U.S. engagement in the world that would prove politically sustainable because it rested on both realist and idealist foundations. Americans liked what they got from this marriage of interests and ideals, setting the stage for the material and ideological containment of the Soviet Union. According to NSC-68, the 1950 document that would guide U.S. strategy during the Cold War, the chief threat to the United States stemmed from inescapable power realities: “Any substantial further extension of the area under the domination of the Kremlin would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled. It is in this context that this Republic and its citizens in the ascendancy of their strength stand in their deepest peril.” But it was not enough “to check the Kremlin design.” According to NSC-68, the United States also had a responsibility “to bring about order and justice by means consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.”
This synthesis of realism and idealism enjoyed steady bipartisan support, ensuring that liberal internationalism long outlasted the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union and the nation’s growing polarization did weaken its domestic foundations, but Republicans and Democrats alike continued to support robust U.S. engagement abroad—especially following the September 11 attacks. After isolationism’s long run, liberal internationalism endured from 1941 through the presidency of Barack Obama.
“From this day forward,” Donald Trump proclaimed in his 2017 inaugural address, “a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” In his first minutes in office Trump swapped out liberal internationalism for the isolationist mantra of the interwar era. He has touted the merits of nonentanglement, nonintervention, and unilateralism ever since.
Much of the foreign-policy establishment has been up in arms as a result, dismissing Trump’s statecraft as the work of a know-nothing who has orchestrated only a temporary, even if destructive, detour from the nation’s global calling. Conventional wisdom holds that America will return to the liberal internationalist fold as soon as he leaves office.
But this interpretation misses the mark; the nation’s current predicament may well lend itself to the stubborn isolationism of the interwar years as opposed to the zealous internationalism that came after World War II. As after World War I, Americans are again confronted with a toxic combination of strategic overreach and economic crisis. The nation’s pullback from the world during the 1920s and ’30s offers sobering lessons for today. Indeed, Americans need to keep that history close at hand in order to avoid repeating the costly mistakes of that era.
After they rejected both McKinley’s realist internationalism and Wilson’s idealist alternative, Americans clamored to return to the isolationism that had come before. During the 1920s, the country reclaimed dollar diplomacy, seeking economic influence outside the Western Hemisphere but shunning strategic responsibility. Anti-immigrant sentiment surged; Congress passed legislation in 1924 that not only excluded Asians but also decreased by 90 percent the inflow of Jews and Catholics from eastern and southern Europe. The Great Depression then prompted a complete economic and geopolitical withdrawal. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt went it alone on trade and finance, ending solidarity with fellow democracies and tanking the global economy. Some 1 million persons of Mexican heritage—many of them U.S. citizens—were deported to Mexico.
Roosevelt is remembered as a great wartime leader and the president who finally forged a sustainable brand of U.S. internationalism, but he was anchored in the isolationist mainstream throughout the 1930s. As fascism and militarism began to sweep Europe and Asia, he oversaw the tightening of neutrality laws that effectively severed commercial contact with belligerents in an attempt to cordon off the nation from any risk of war. Even after he began to worry, in early 1939, that the potential fall of Britain and Nazi control of Europe would enable the Axis powers to threaten the Western Hemisphere, he moved cautiously and incrementally. Following the German invasion of Poland in September of that year, FDR convinced Congress to permit the victims of Nazi aggression to purchase American weaponry, but only if they paid cash and transported the materiel on their own ships. Americans were not permitted to put themselves in harm’s way, ensuring no repeat of the turn of events that had drawn the country into World War I. German and Japanese expansion continued apace.
In 1941, FDR stepped up assistance to countries resisting the Axis powers, but his exertions were in the service of defending hemispheric isolation, not joining the fight against fascism. Confronted with the America First Committee, which helped convince some 80 percent of the public that the country should stay out of the war, Roosevelt rallied support for his “aid-short-of-war” policy by assuring Americans that sending armaments was the best way to keep foreign trouble at bay. As he put it in one of his signature fireside chats, Americans had to send arms to those fighting the Axis “so that we and our children will be saved the agony and suffering of war which others have had to endure … There is no demand for sending an American Expeditionary Force outside our own borders. There is no intention by any member of your Government to send such a force. You can, therefore, nail any talk about sending armies to Europe as deliberate untruth.”
FDR kept his word until he had no choice but to join the fight; ultimately, Japan brought the war to the United States. Some 80 million people, including more than 400,000 Americans, perished in World War II, the deadliest war in history. If the 19th century was isolationism’s finest hour, the interwar era was surely its darkest and most deluded.
The conditions that led to this misguided run for cover are making a comeback. Even though the United States prevailed in the Spanish-American War and World War I, Americans recoiled from both conflicts, preferring to return to the strategic detachment that had preceded them. Today, Americans are acutely aware of the nation’s overreach in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. These conflicts have killed or wounded tens of thousands of U.S. personnel, cost some $6 trillion, and left behind little good. Flanking oceans do not provide the natural security that they once did. But the United States is still far from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and the prospect of immunity from the dangers of foreign entanglement still has an intrinsic appeal. Trump’s questioning of the value of alliances and his pledges to end the era in which “our politicians seem more interested in defending the borders of foreign countries than their own” have found ready audiences. The nation’s enviable location will always sustain the isolationist temptation.
The unilateralism that sank Wilson’s bid to anchor the United States in the League of Nations has come back in spades. The current political landscape looks much more like 1919 than 1945. The post–World War II architecture—the United Nations, NATO, the Bretton Woods monetary institutions—could not possibly pass muster in today’s Senate. When Trump proclaims that he is “skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down,” he speaks for most Republicans. As during the 1930s, America is going it alone—imposing protective tariffs, pulling out of one pact after another, ignoring the concerns of its fellow democracies, and refusing to make common cause with like-minded nations.
Most Americans still believe in the nation’s exceptionalist calling but have come to regret playing the role of crusader rather than exemplar. The end of the Cold War was supposed to have cleared the way for the “end of history” and the completion of America’s messianic mission. American forays into the Middle East were to have advanced the cause; President George W. Bush pledged that a “liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region.”
Nothing of the sort has happened. Illiberalism is on the march worldwide, backed by a rising China and a pugnacious Russia. The recent targets of U.S. interventions are anything but stable democracies. The public now puts “promoting democratic values and institutions around the world” near the bottom of its list of foreign priorities. Trump has pledged that the country is “getting out of the nation-building business” and that “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” As during the 1930s, the United States is seeking to cordon itself off from, rather than transform, a world that is not breaking its way.
As the Founders warned, the nation’s exertions abroad are coming at the expense of liberty and prosperity at home. As a check on presidential power, the Constitution deliberately granted to Congress alone the power to declare war. The Founders would be aghast at Congress’s abdication of that role; many of the nation’s military missions in the past two decades have rested on the flimsy and inadequate legislative foundation of the war authorizations that were passed in 2001 and 2002. So, too, have foreign entanglements given rise to domestic surveillance—wiretapping, financial monitoring, electronic data collection—that has encroached on the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.
In the minds of many Americans, though, the economic costs of foreign entanglement have outstripped even the negative impact on liberty. Trump has explicitly linked globalization to the plight of American workers. To redress what he calls “this American carnage,” Trump has pursued a “nationalist” rather than “globalist” agenda, bringing back tariffs to protect the manufacturing sector and keeping out foreign workers. Bad times for the working class have, in the meantime, revived pacifist inclinations among progressives. During the Democratic presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders insisted that “it is time to invest in the working families of this country and not a bloated military budget.” For Elizabeth Warren, writing in The Atlantic, advancing national security means “promoting prosperity and lessening inequality” instead of launching “yet another unnecessary, costly, and counterproductive war.”
COVID-19, a disease that globalization helped rapidly spread across national boundaries, has furthered the urge to cordon the nation off from the outside world. The borders with Canada and Mexico are closed, and foreign travel has fallen off a cliff. The pandemic has caused a severe economic downturn that rivals that of the 1930s—the last time the United States made the mistake of beating a strategic retreat in the face of mounting trouble abroad.
Finally, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are once again feeding the nation’s isolationist impulses. Trump’s efforts to build a wall on the border with Mexico and radically cut back on immigration have been about not only protecting jobs but also making America white again. Amid the Black Lives Matter protests, he has only doubled down, touting himself as the guardian of the nation’s “great heritage” against “those who want us to be ashamed of who we are.” Trump’s America First agenda has deftly melded identity politics with economic protectionism and strategic pullback.
Trump is a symptom, more than a cause, of the nation’s inward turn. He is tapping into popular discontent over the nation’s foreign policy: its strategic excesses in the Middle East, counterproductive efforts to promote democracy, protection of allies that do not do enough to protect themselves, and pursuit of trade deals that have disadvantaged American workers. A recent poll by the Center for American Progress—a left-leaning think tank—revealed that liberal internationalists represent only 18 percent of the public, while a majority of the country favors either America First or global disengagement. Younger voters are much less supportive of a traditional internationalist agenda than their elders, meaning that this inward turn is likely to deepen in the years ahead.
Isolationism is making a comeback because U.S. statecraft has become divorced from popular will. A strategic adjustment that puts the nation’s purposes back into equilibrium with its means is inevitable. The paramount question is whether that adjustment takes the form of a judicious pullback or a more dangerous retreat.
America’s isolationist past should not be its future. Global interdependence makes it both unfeasible and unwise for the United States to return to being a North American or hemispheric redoubt. With U.S. forces still scattered around the world at hundreds of overseas bases, a precipitous strategic retreat hardly seems in the offing. But that may be exactly what lies in store unless the United States gets ahead of the curve and crafts a strategy of judicious retrenchment by design.
Isolationism is the default setting for the United States; the ambitious internationalism of the past eight decades is the exception. A yearning for geopolitical detachment has from the outset imbued the American creed and been part and parcel of the American experience. The allure of nonentanglement reemerges even when the internationalists deem it to be extinguished for good. When the likes of McKinley, Mahan, and Roosevelt launched the Spanish-American War, they had no idea that their actions would trigger a potent backlash and a quick retreat to dollar diplomacy. When Wilson entered World War I with the overwhelming support of Congress, little did he know that U.S. participation in the Great War would set the stage for the dogged isolationism of the interwar era.
Isolationist pressures are again building—and will only strengthen as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the global economy. Trump has been channeling those pressures, but without competence. He is right to head for the exits in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but he has done so without a coherent strategy, leaving behind chaos and ceding ground to adversaries. His recent decision to downsize the U.S. presence in Germany blindsided not only NATO allies but also his own Pentagon.
This is exactly how pullback should not happen. Instead, the winner of the November election needs to launch the nation on a searching debate about how to craft a grand strategy that aims to do less while still doing enough. Rather than taking cheap shots at each other, the die-hard internationalists and the Come Home crowd should be discussing what a responsible and well-paced retrenchment should look like.
The starting point for this debate should be recognition that isolationism, no less than internationalism, has both strategic upsides and strategic downsides. Isolationism succeeded in enhancing America’s security and prosperity during the 19th century and helped the nation resist the imperial temptation after 1898, but led it into dangerous delusion during the interwar years. Liberal internationalism was an effective and sustainable grand strategy during the Cold War, but the nation’s internationalist calling has since gone awry, producing pronounced strategic excess.
A judicious retrenchment should entail shedding U.S. entanglements in the periphery, not in the strategic heartlands of Europe and Asia. America’s main misstep since the end of the Cold War has been unnecessary embroilment in wars of choice in the Middle East. In contrast, pulling back from Eurasia in the face of Russian and Chinese threats constitutes precisely the kind of rash overcorrection that the United States must avoid. The nation learned that the hard way when it failed to confront Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Obstinate unilateralism is a nonstarter in today’s world. Managing international trade and finance, combatting climate change, shutting down terrorist networks, preventing nuclear proliferation, overseeing cybersecurity, addressing global pandemics—these urgent challenges all necessitate broad international cooperation. Moreover, as the United States retreats from its role as global policeman, it will want like-minded partners to help fill the gap; the necessary partnerships become stronger only through diplomacy and teamwork. Since the Senate can be a tough customer when it comes to ratifying treaties—as Woodrow Wilson found out to his chagrin—informal pacts and coalitions of the willing need to be the new staples of U.S. diplomacy.
An increasingly illiberal world desperately needs the United States to again anchor democratic ideals; the progressive flow of history may end if America is no longer interested in or capable of tipping the scales in the right direction. The top priority, however, must be getting the nation’s political and economic house in order rather than going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. The U.S. cannot serve as a model for the world unless its republican institutions earn their keep.
Working to spread democracy through advocacy and example rather than more intrusive means will help the United States find the middle ground between isolation and overreach. This middle course will require that Americans become comfortable operating in the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. For much of its history, the nation cordoned itself off from a world that it feared would spoil the American experiment. Beginning with World War II, it sought to run the world and recast the globe in its own image. Moving forward, Americans will need to engage in a messy and imperfect world while resisting the temptation either to recoil from it or to remake it. The United States needs to step back, without stepping away.
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