In other words, “Isolationism,” at least in its present context, is a political word having very little to do with any real policy, and once the dust settles on the Republican primary process the Washington foreign policy consensus will reemerge – leaving little time or tolerance for debate on matters abroad.
I agree entirely that the isolationist charge is used for scoring political points, but it is also essential to policing the debate once election season has passed. The charge acquires its political utility at election time partly because of its use in vilifying dissenting views the rest of the time. That was part of my argument earlier this month:
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.
On a related issue, this is why Prof. Bacevich and others refuse to accept the isolationist label and correctly regard it as a dismissive insult.
Where I disagree with Cohen is this reference to a “non-return,” which implies that there was a genuine isolationist policy to which Americans might conceivably return. Cohen insists that realist arguments shouldn’t be labeled isolationist, and he’s right. Contemporary non-interventionists are interested in an even more restrained foreign policy than most realists, but even they don’t subscribe to something that could correctly be described as isolationism. Finally, it’s important to recognize that many of the people attacked as isolationists immediately before and after WWII were also misidentified. Neutrality in foreign wars isn’t isolation from the world.
I’ll cite Chase Madar’s article from TAC‘s January issue once again:
The interwar years were in fact marked by intense American extraversion: cultural, economic, and political. A quarter-million American tourists spent over $300 million traveling Europe in 1929, while Ernest Hemingway, Joseph ine Baker, and T.S. Eliot took their acts abroad. Overseas missionary activity exploded. By 1930, the United States had more foreign direct investment than France, Holland, and Germany combined. Even with the Smoot-Hawley tariff, trade between the U.S. and Latin America tripled in the decade before 1941. The United States, emerging from the Great War as the world’s largest creditor nation, negotiated British, French, and German war debts with the Dawes Plan in 1924 and the Locarno Convention of 1925. This is isolationism?
One of the ironies of this legend is that those interwar senators retrospectively tagged as isolationists—known in their time as “Peace Progressives”—were among the most outward-looking politicians of their era. The Peace Progressives were mostly Western and Midwestern Republicans, most prominent among them Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, William Borah (“The Lion of Idaho”), and Hiram Johnson of California. They successfully rolled back longstanding U.S. military occupations in the Caribbean and Central America, and their efforts arguably averted war with Mexico in the 1920s. Borah took the lead in forging multilateral arms-reduction treaties with Great Britain and Japan.
American isolationism doesn’t exist now, and for the most part it didn’t meaningfully exist then. As Madar notes:
In a splendid article published earlier this year in Foreign Policy Analysis, political scientist Bear F. Braumoeller refutes “The Myth of American Isolation” all over again for a new century, with special attention to the 1930s. Braumoeller helpfully adduces a few example of what real geopolitical isolation looks like: Tokugawa Japan, Cold War Albania, and contemporary North Korea.
Braumoeller also doesn’t accept that the U.S. was aloof from international security politics:
Rather than arguing that America was not economically isolationist in the interwar period—a point with which few scholars now have substantial quarrels—it will demonstrate that America was not isolationist in affairs relating directly to international security in Europe for the bulk of the period. The United States did far more than espouse the pious hope that the pursuit of prosperity would bring an end to war: it used legal, economic, and military instruments in the direct pursuit of specific and ambitious security goals throughout the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor.