What We Talk About When We Talk About Isolationism
August 10, 2012
The rise of China notwithstanding, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower. Its military (and, to a considerable extent, political) hegemony extends not just over North America or even the Western hemisphere, but also Europe, large swaths of Asia, and Africa. Its interests are global; nothing is outside its potential sphere of influence. There are an estimated 660 to 900 American military bases in roughly forty countries worldwide, although figures on the matter are notoriously difficult to ascertain, largely because of subterfuge on the part of the military. According to official data there are active-duty U.S. military personnel in 148 countries, or over 75 percent of the world’s states. The United States checks Russian power in Europe and Chinese power in South Korea and Japan and Iranian power in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey. In order to maintain a frigid peace between Israel and Egypt, the American government hands the former $2.7 billion in military aid every year, and the latter $1.3 billion. It also gives Pakistan more than $400 million dollars in military aid annually (not including counterinsurgency operations, which would drive the total far higher), Jordan roughly $200 million, and Colombia over $55 million.
U.S. long-term military commitments are also manifold. It is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the only institution legally permitted to sanction the use of force to combat “threats to international peace and security.” In 1949 the United States helped found NATO, the first peacetime military alliance extending beyond North and South America in U.S. history, which now has twenty-eight member states. The United States also has a trilateral defense treaty with Australia and New Zealand, and bilateral mutual defense treaties with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. It is this sort of reach that led Madeleine Albright to call the United States the sole “indispensible power” on the world stage.
The idea that global military dominance and political hegemony is in the U.S. national interest—and the world’s interest—is generally taken for granted domestically. Opposition to it is limited to the libertarian Right and anti-imperialist Left, both groups on the margins of mainstream political discourse. Today, American supremacy is assumed rather than argued for: in an age of tremendous political division, it is a bipartisan first principle of foreign policy, a presupposition. In this area at least, one wishes for a little less agreement.
In Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, Christopher McKnight Nichols provides an erudite account of a period before such a consensus existed, when ideas about America’s role on the world stage were fundamentally contested. As this year’s presidential election approaches, each side will portray the difference between the candidates’ positions on foreign policy as immense. Revisiting Promise and Peril shows us just how narrow the American worldview has become, and how our public discourse has become narrower still.
Nichols focuses on the years between 1890 and 1940, during America’s initial ascent as a global power. He gives special attention to the formative debates surrounding the Spanish-American War, U.S. entry into the First World War, and potential U.S. membership in the League of Nations—debates that were constitutive of larger battles over the nature of American society and its fragile political institutions and freedoms. During this period, foreign and domestic policy were often linked as part of a cohesive political vision for the country. Nichols illustrates this through intellectual profiles of some of the period’s most influential figures, including senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, socialist leader Eugene Debs, philosopher and psychologist William James, journalist Randolph Bourne, and the peace activist Emily Balch. Each of them interpreted isolationism and internationalism in distinct ways, sometimes deploying the concepts more for rhetorical purposes than as cornerstones of a particular worldview.
Today, isolationism is often portrayed as intellectually bankrupt, a redoubt for idealists, nationalists, xenophobes, and fools. Yet the term now used as a political epithet has deep roots in American political culture. Isolationist principles can be traced back to George Washington’s farewell address, during which he urged his countrymen to steer clear of “foreign entanglements” while actively seeking nonbinding commercial ties. (Whether economic commitments do in fact entail political commitments is another matter.) Thomas Jefferson echoed this sentiment when he urged for “commerce with all nations, [and] alliance with none.” Even the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States declared itself the regional hegemon and demanded noninterference from European states in the Western hemisphere, was often viewed as a means of isolating the United States from Europe and its messy alliance system.
In Nichols’s telling, however, modern isolationism was born from the debates surrounding the Spanish-American War and the U.S. annexation of the Philippines. Here isolationism began to take on a much more explicitly anti-imperialist bent. Progressive isolationists such as William James found U.S. policy in the Philippines—which it had “liberated” from Spanish rule just to fight a bloody counterinsurgency against Philippine nationalists—anathema to American democratic traditions and ideas about national self-determination…