Friday, October 24, 2008

Isolationism has been a dirty word since 1941 - could that change?

On Thursday evening I posted a long comment in Duncan Riley's blog, which I am repeating here in full:

The attitude here predates George W. Bush by several centuries, going back to "Manifest Destiny" or even "a city on a hill" - namely, the idea that the United States was founded and settled based on an ideal, rather than a search for gold or a place to establish a penal colony. Even though the original ideals of spreading Christendom to the savages have long since died off, you can see how the concept survives, in various forms, in the philosophies of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Each of the Presidents that I named believed that the U.S. had something special to offer to the world, and by God we were going to offer it whether the world liked it or not (Kennedy saving Vietnam from the Communists, Carter saving Iran from the Shah, etc.). However, through much of our history, there has been a battle between isolationism (George Washington) and internationalism (every President since FDR). While the isolationists have been in the minority since World War II, they have still been very vocal (U.S. out of the U.N., etc.), the pendulum could swing back toward isolationism, in which the question "Should we send Americans/aid to [foreign country]" becomes "Why would we WANT to send Americans/aid to [foreign country]"?

I'd like to delve into the latter part of my comment further.

Perhaps a good place to start would be Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a former isolationist who announced a major change in his philosophy in 1945:

Vandenberg had supported President Woodrow Wilson's proposal to establish a League of Nations in 1919 but drifted toward isolationism after a visit to Europe in 1935 convinced him that war was inevitable. The acknowledged but unofficial spokesman of Senate Republicans on foreign policy matters, he advocated strict neutrality and a rigid arms embargo to prevent American involvement in the war....

Vandenberg began to moderate his isolationist stance after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but remained bitterly partisan, placing much of the blame for "Roosevelt's private war" on the president's "secret diplomacy which pointed straight toward war for many months preceding" the attack....

In the fall of 1943, both the Senate and the House of Representatives approved resolutions calling for United States involvement in an international peacekeeping organization to be established after the war....Advocates of an international organization to prevent future conflicts feared that Vandenberg would scuttle any settlement that demanded of the United States an active role in the postwar peacekeeping effort.

Vandenberg broke the stalemate on January 10, 1945, with an address that paved the way for a bipartisan postwar foreign policy. He...was apparently persuaded by [James] Reston's argument that "the only possible remedy" for Stalin's determination "to protect his country from the revival of German power" was "a postwar treaty of alliance" among the Allied powers "to oppose any future German aggression that would threaten the peace of the world."...

"I do not believe," he reasoned, "that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action." Restraining himself from condemning Stalin's plan to erect "a surrounding circle of buffer states" around the Soviet Union to prevent a resurgence of German aggression, he suggested "collective security" as an alternative approach. To Roosevelt's surprise, the Michigan Republican offered an "olive branch" to promote a closer working relationship between president and Congress: "we can agree," " he conceded, "that we do not ever want an instant's hesitation or doubt about our military cooperation in the peremptory use of force . . . to keep Germany and Japan demilitarized." But "there should be no more need to refer any such action back to Congress than that Congress should expect to pass upon battle plans today. The commander in chief should have instant power to act, and he should act."

But Vandenberg was not the only one whose views were changed by the war. One of the servicemen who fought in the war was a Michigander named Gerald Ford:

One underappreciated aspect of Ford’s that he was a committed internationalist. When Ford won his first race for Congress, in 1948, he ran as an internationalist Republican, defeating an isolationist incumbent.

Ford only had to battle an incumbent. John F. Kennedy, who also served in World War II, had to battle his father:

By early 1940, when Jack began his last semester at Harvard, most of Europe had been crushed by the Nazi war machine, and Britain lay under siege. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy faced harsh public criticism for his appeasement of Hitler, as well as for his public assertions that Britain would be destroyed by the Nazis. But Jack Kennedy had his own ideas about England's response to Hitler's rise to power, and he developed them in his Harvard senior thesis.

Published and promoted by Joseph Kennedy. Sr., Why England Slept, became a national bestseller. In the book, author John F. Kennedy argued that it was the isolationist character of the British population as a whole, and not Britain's political leadership, that had led to Hitler's appeasement. This isolationist tendency, compounded by the sluggish nature of democracy, had delayed the buildup of Britain's military and allowed Hitler to gain the upper hand.

Note that this development in Kennedy's philosophy occurred before PT-109.

So Vandenberg, Kennedy, Ford, and others who served in World War II helped to shape the bipartisan, internationlist outlook of the United States in its postwar years. While all of the postwar Presidents were dedicated (in varying degrees) to fighting communism, some also used their internationalism to advance other causes (e.g. Jimmy Carter and human rights). Even in the post-Communist world, America's internationalism has led it to foreign shores in Kuwait, Bosnia, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet at the same time that the bipartisan foreign policy was flourishing, a strong isolationist minority refused to die out. Wikipedia provides a history of U.S. opposition to the United Nations, going back to the John Birch Society and extending to the present day in politicians such as Ron Paul.

A recent (May 2008) statement against internationalism was voiced by Andrew J. Bacevich:

The truth is that the United States, with rare exceptions, has demonstrated little talent for changing the way others live. We have enjoyed far greater success in making necessary adjustments to our own way of life, preserving and renewing what we value most. Early in the 20th century, Progressives rounded off the rough edges of the Industrial Revolution, deflecting looming threats to social harmony. During the Depression, FDR's New Deal reformed capitalism and thereby saved it. Here lies the real genius of American politics....

Salvation does not lie abroad. It's here at home.

The two leading candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election are popularly considered to represent two different strains of internationalism. While perception may not precisely equal reality, the idea is that McCain will continue to harrass anti-Americans in Iraq, while Obama will either (a) go after the real enemy, al Qaeda, in Afghanistan and Pakistan; (b) go after the people reviled in the rest of the world, such as the bad guys in Darfur; or (c) put flowers at the end of American guns and instead liberally distribute money, food, and vaccines to all of the other nations in a global version of a "redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor" policy.

But there is a third policy that Americans may choose to follow - the "take the ball and go home policy" from the 1920s and 1930s. The motivating idea behind this would be that if the world is chanting Weg Met Amerika, and if people at Davos are wondering if America is history, then there's going to be less of a willingness for America to engage in entangling alliances - or, more importantly, to fund entangling alliances.

Resurgent isolationists may play the role of a jilted suitor, as in "if you don't like me, then why should I like you?"

  • If we concentrate on obtaining energy independence, then there is less of a need for us to get involved in the affairs of the Middle East. Let them solve their own problems.

  • Similarly, if we want to answer the world critics who criticize the U.S. health care system, then maybe we should dedicate money to a revised health care system, instead of sending it to Africa or Eastern Europe or wherever. Darfur schmarfur. AIDS schmaids.

  • And if the United Nations General Assembly wants to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba...well, why don't they issue their condemnations from Geneva instead of from New York City?
Of course, isolationism is still such a dirty word that another word is needed. That word is unilateralism:

All this points to a renewal of the unilateralist behavior that had so often marked the United States during much of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. This impulse carried with it an implicit, though absolute, goal: to prevent America's security from being undermined by constraints imposed by other powers, including-and perhaps most especially-those of America's traditional allies....

One can understand any U.S. administration's disgust with a United Nations whose Human Rights Commission is headed by Libya and in which [Saddam Hussein's] Iraq was until recently supposed to chair its Conference on Disarmament.

While our future attitude partially depends upon the outcome of the election, partially upon the reaction of the world to that outcome, and partially upon subsequent events, there is the possibility that the American internationalism of the late 20th century may fade away.

Sphere: Related Content
blog comments powered by Disqus