Juliette Kayyem: Trump turns the U.S. into an outcast
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.