There are no isolationists in America. Despite what many anxious neoconservative and liberal interventionist pundits and politicians have been claiming in the last month, there are no Americans in favor of a foreign policy of cutting the U.S. off from the rest of the world. But the people issuing these warnings already know that. Using the isolationist accusation has nothing to do with describing a foreign policy view, and everything to do with controlling the terms and limits of debate. As part of what Andrew Bacevich called the "ideology of national security" in The Limits of Power, the specter of isolationism is useful for "disciplining public opinion and maintaining deference to the executive branch in all matters pertaining to foreign relations." Because of that, the isolationist label is always inaccurate and misleading, which is just the way that defenders of activist foreign policy want it.
"Isolationist" has always been a pejorative label intended to reduce an opposing policy view to an absurd caricature. It has also been used to stigmatize as deviant and un-American the pre-WWII norm of neutrality in foreign wars. Even during the interwar period, when so-called isolationism was supposedly at its height, the U.S. was very much engaged with the world commercially and diplomatically. While those labeled isolationists today are often accused of "blaming America first," it is the people applying the label who hold the "isolationist" U.S. indirectly responsible for "allowing" the events that led to WWII, by not becoming more deeply enmeshed in the affairs of Europe and Asia. Even then, so-called isolationists wanted to keep their country out of what they saw as an unnecessary foreign war.
Charges of isolationism are always linked to arguments in support of entering or starting foreign wars, and they can be triggered when public figures do as little as voice doubts or raise questions about the wisdom of a particular military action overseas. Most recently, skeptics and opponents of the wars in Libya and Afghanistan have been dubbed, in the words of Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, advocates of "decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal" from the world. Here we see how the disciplining Bacevich mentioned works. The dishonest framing of the issues has turned a debate over legitimate competing policies into a stark clash between two radically different roles for America in the world, and Pawlenty would have us believe that only those who wish for American decline can favor non-intervention in Libya, or timely withdrawal from Afghanistan. The less popular and more indefensible an ongoing war is, the more hawks rely on wielding this rhetorical bludgeon to try to marginalize and dismiss their opponents.
No less important is the distraction from the real foreign policy alternatives that the red herring of isolationism provides, because these alternatives have much to recommend them. Many realists on both the Left and the Right promote a foreign policy governed by restraint and acutely aware of the limits of American power, and they do this not to manage or hasten decline, but to conserve American strength as much as possible. Non-interventionists argue that the U.S. should not have to provide security for wealthy nations in Europe and Asia that can provide for their own defense, and they favor heeding the wise admonition of John Quincy Adams not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. What they all have in common is the understanding that absolute decline results from exhaustion and overstretch rather than restraint.
Looking back over the last decade of failed policies, we can see that the would-be anti-declinists have favored the policies that have undermined and sabotaged America’s position in the world the most. After all, nothing can be more damaging to the responsible, effective exercise of American power than the reckless, aggressive manner in which it has been used over the last decade, but this is the same foreign policy offered by those currently denouncing America’s "isolationist" turn. Few things are likely to make the public more wary of waging some necessary war for the national interest than repeatedly launching unnecessary ones, but that is exactly what we should expect from those lecturing us on the importance of American "leadership." The resort to the isolationist insult is the latest tired attempt to divert attention from this record of failure.
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