Bear Braumoeller revisits his argument that the U.S. has never been properly isolationist:

With those facts in mind, I would make a radical, and intentionally provocative, argument: Isolationism rarely if ever deserves a place in the analysis of American foreign policy. “Isolationist” is a term that, by virtue of its persistent imprecision, obscures more than it reveals. By blurring the line between a lack of desire for a certain kind of action and a lack of desire for any kind of action, it distorts our descriptions and skews our inferences. We are far better off utilizing a range of questions to determine, not whether the public is internationalist or isolationist in general, but rather, what costs they would be willing to bear to achieve a particular foreign policy objective and how easy or difficult they think it would be to achieve it.

Braumoeller is right about all this. Chase Madar cited some of Braumoeller’s work in his 2010 TAC article on the myth of American isolationism, and I have previously referred to his findings before. Since the label is so misleading and inaccurate, why does it survive and even thrive in modern usage? I would still say that the purpose of using the “isolationist” label is to distort and obscure. It is because the term is always pejorative and inaccurate that it is so useful to the people that fling it at others. “Isolationist” and its cousin “neo-isolationist” are all-purpose insults that can be applied to anyone regardless of his political leanings and, more important, regardless of what the person actually believes about foreign policy. A politician can be as boringly conventional in his internationalism as possible, but if he expresses skepticism about a new war or questions the wisdom of ever-increasing military spending he has just “revealed” his “isolationist” leanings.

Deploying the term is a way to attack the credibility of the target and to reaffirm one’s superior hawkishness and/or internationalist bona fides. It also pushes the debates in which it is used in a more hawkish direction, which is usually the reason that it is being used. Perversely, the more misleading the description is, the more powerful the insult will be. More often than not, the target will have to spend some amount of time “disproving” the allegation by reaffirming that he is just as hawkish and/or internationalist in his views as anyone else. That has the effect of wasting time and energy better spent on other things, and it often distracts attention from the fact that the hawks’ position in a given debate is foolish and reckless.