The myth of American isolationists

Neocons and liberal interventionists accuse the more restrained among us of fostering America's decline. But nothing could be further from the truth

Daniel Larison

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.

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Daniel Larison has a Ph.D. in history and is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He also writes on the blog Eunomia.