The Non-Return of American Isolationism

Why are leading politicians in both parties being accused of a foreign policy sin that none has actually committed?

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Mitt Romney and Ron Paul at a GOP debate in New Hampshire in January / Reuters

At a time when Washington can't seem to agree on anything, there is one area of growing consensus -- a new wave of isolationism is on the rise, and it must be stopped.

During last month's first Republican presidential debate, several of the candidates, found surprising areas of consensus on the foreign policy issues dominating headlines this summer. Mitt Romney advocated withdrawal from Afghanistan. Michele Bachman and Herman Cain questioned whether the U.S. truly has vital interests in Libya to justify its intervention there. The next day the New York Times said, a "renewed streak of isolationism" had emerged in the GOP. President Obama took up the charge, arguing that "some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face." Such conservative writers as Mark Thiessen and Max Boot responded that Obama's call for "nation building at home" (rather than in Afghanistan) revealed Obama's own isolationist impulses. GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty even went after his own party, saying, "America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal. It does not need a second one."

Seemingly everyone in Washington is being characterized as an isolationist. That the word has apparently become such a slur is revealing, largely because most of those accused of "isolationism" appear to be anything but. Aside from Ron Paul, who has unashamedly called for ending America's military engagements, disbanding NATO, pulling out of the United Nations, and slashing "hundreds of billions" out of the "military-industrial complex," it's next to impossible to find a single prominent U.S. politician who is calling for the country to reduce its preeminent role on the world stage.

No major political figure and certainly no presidential aspirant is calling for the U.S. to end its membership NATO or other international institutions; none are suggesting that the U.S. bring troops home from East Asia, where more than 60,000 US troops are stationed, predominately in South Korea and Japan; and few are talking about closing down overseas U.S. military bases. Even in a time of economic uncertainty, calls for greater protectionism or an end to trade agreements are few and far between. If anything, expanding trade seems to be one area where Congressional Republicans and the White House are on the same page.

When it comes to the defense budget, few political leaders are pushing for military spending to be cut. Republicans balked at Obama's call for $400 billion in Pentagon savings over ten years, accusing him of insufficient fortitude in maintaining American defenses. Just last week, the House, with only 12 dissenting GOP voices, passed a defense spending bill that would increase the Pentagon budget by $17 billion. There seem to be more warnings today about incipient isolationism than actual examples.

What the accused "isolationists" in the GOP and the Democratic Party are really describing would be far more accurately defined as foreign policy realism. The notion that the U.S. should be more restrained in where it chooses to engage militarily, for example, is rooted in the assumption not that the United States should never intervene but that perhaps it should do so more selectively. The "isolationist" argument that vital national interests should take precedence over notions of humanitarianism or global leadership, such as those that led the United States into Libya, is really about modifying the nature of America's dominant positions in the world, not about ending it.

After ten years of foreign wars that have cost the country trillions of dollars, resulted in thousands of American deaths, and provided minimal benefit to larger U.S. security interests, it's hardly surprising that polls show a majority of Americans agree with these arguments. The Chicago Council of Foreign Relations annual survey of foreign policy attitudes suggest that most Americans would prefer the U.S. adopt a smaller overseas military footprint and share the burden of global leadership more equally with its allies. In fact, less than one in ten of those polled believe that the U.S. should "continue to be the world's preeminent world leader" and 71 percent believe it should work together with other countries to solve global problems.

Recent polling also suggests that a large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should not be involved in fighting a war in Libya. A striking 8 in 10 support the president's plan to begin a more rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. It's hard to imagine that many of these voters would consider themselves to be isolationists.

To be sure, hurling the "isolationism" epithet is something of an old game in American politics. In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt went after his GOP opponents (and not unreasonably) for opposing rearmament and active support for European Allies in the face of rising German aggression. That position did great damage to the Republican Party brand at the time. Only when Dwight Eisenhower defeated the isolationist wing of the party at the 1952 Republican convention did the GOP finally begin to wipe away the isolationist stain. Since then, the charge has remained a dirty word in American politics, even as it's frequently misaimed.

In 1972, when George McGovern (also quite reasonably) called on the country to "come home" from foreign entanglements after the disaster of Vietnam he, and the Democratic Party, were branded as too weak and too defeatist to safely manage global affairs. In the 1990s, when I served in the Clinton Administration as a foreign policy speechwriter, my colleagues and I regularly trotted out the claim that Republicans, by questioning the President's foreign policy positions, were returning to the isolationist spirit of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It wasn't, but the sobriquet was an effective one that brought with it connotations of appeasement and weakness in the face of foreign threats.

Its return today, as well as the ease and frequency with which it is made, are a reminder that a step away from foreign policy orthodoxy and toward a position of urging restraint -- no matter how tepid -- can make one susceptible to the isolationist charge. It's only from the perspective of that orthodoxy would the recent warnings of American overstretch could be considered a retreat from the global stage.

If anything, the political debate in Washington is not between isolationists and internationalists. It's a far more constricted discussion between those who want to see the U.S. maintain its position as the world's predominant power and those who want to see the U.S. maintain its position as the world's predominant power slightly less. A debate about whether U.S. global dominance is actually in the country's best interests is one that the United States need to be having - not a false one over whether a new wave of isolationism is afoot. It isn't.