Spotlight: The Case for America Minding Its Own Business

The Boston Globe highlights "an increasingly energized phalanx" of new isolationists

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Practically speaking, those in favor of just staying the hell out of foreign wars have been ignored since FDR's presidency, observes The Boston Globe's Thanassis Cambanis. Thinkers advocating a "humbler" foreign policy are "hardly talked about in mainstream circles." Yet even though they're marginalized, he observes in an Ideas column for the paper, this "an increasingly energized phalanx" of new isolationists persist in arguing "that America needs to stop meddling far and wide and concentrate on its forgotten, core interests--if it is not already too late." So what are these "new isolationists" worried about? And who are they? And, the implicit question: should we be listening to them?

  • What's New in Isolationism:
Today's new isolationists are different. World events affect America, they say, and a great power needs a potent military. But America has conflated smaller threats like terrorism with major threats, like competition from a rising China. America should not withdraw from the world, or ignore it, they say; but it should minimize direct interference beyond its borders.
  • The Main Advocates: Cambanis lists MIT's Barry Posen, Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich, University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt, an "ornery Harvard political scientist."
  • Why They're Worried: America Is Squandering Resources:
Where the architects of America’s current foreign policy see 70 unbroken years of growing wealth and influence, these cosmopolitan isolationists see a story of ruin and decline. For starters, they point to America’s colossal defense budget. Washington spends about as much on security as the entire rest of the world. Politicians promised a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War, but defense spending has climbed from 3 percent of the American economy to nearly 5 percent.Then there are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have kept the professional military on a continuous deployment schedule. If a more direct conventional threat emerges — say, a North Korean missile attack — the vaunted US military will not be in a position to respond effectively, the restrainers say.
  • Why People Aren't Listening:
There are plenty of reasons why retrenchment should get more of a hearing in contemporary America, [Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Barry Posen] says, but he doesn’t think power brokers will take the idea seriously until a definitive crisis limits the Pentagon or the Treasury. “It’s almost as if in foreign and security policy, democratic debate peters out,” Posen says. “If you argue for restraint, people hold up garlic like they would against a vampire and shout ‘Isolationist! Isolationist!’"
  • The Bottom Line of the Isolationist Argument:  "We should be less interested in big ideas than in identifying what works, what’s affordable, what’s authentically American, and what’s morally defensible," says Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.