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Getting Rid of the Myth of ‘Isolationism’

'Isolationism' is not real, and never has been. It is an insult thrown at realists by the architects of senseless wars.

No one claims to be an isolationist, but foreign policy analysts keep imagining and fearing a “resurgence” of isolationism around every corner. This fear was on display in a recent Atlantic article by Charles Kupchan, who tries to rehabilitate the label in order to oppose the substance of a policy of nonintervention and non-entanglement. Kupchan allows that a policy of avoiding entangling alliances and staying out of European wars was important for the growth and prosperity of the United States, but then rehearses the same old and misleading story about the terrible “isolationist” interwar years that we have heard countless times before. This misrepresents the history of that period and compromises our ability to rethink our foreign policy today.

Kupchan’s article is not just an exercise in beating a dead horse, since he fears that the same thing that happened between the world wars is happening again: “If the 19th century was isolationism’s finest hour, the interwar era was surely its darkest and most deluded. The conditions that led to this misguided run for cover are making a comeback.” Kupchan wants to borrow a little from the people he calls “isolationists” so that the U.S. will remain thoroughly ensnared in most of its global commitments.

At the same time that he warns that “U.S. statecraft has become divorced from popular will,” he seems to want to keep it this way by rejecting what he calls the “isolationist temptation.” If “a majority of the country favors either America First or global disengagement,” as he says, the goal seems to be to ignore what the majority wants in favor of making a few tweaks to the same old strategy of U.S. primacy. Those tweaks aren’t going to lessen popular support for a reduced U.S. role in the world, and they will likely make the public even more disillusioned with the remaining costs and demands of U.S. “leadership.”

The key thing to remember in all this is that the U.S. has never been isolationist in its foreign relations. The thing that Kupchan calls America’s “default setting” is not real. Isolationism is the pejorative term that expansionists and interventionists have used over the last century to ridicule and dismiss opposition to unnecessary wars. Isolationism as U.S. policy in the 1920s and 1930s is a myth, and the myth is deployed whenever there has been a serious challenge to the status quo in post-1945 U.S. foreign policy. Bear Braumoeller summed it up very well in his article, “The Myth of American Isolationism,” this way: “the characterization of America as isolationist in the interwar period is simply wrong.” We can’t learn from the past if we insist on distorting it. As William Appleman Williams put it in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, “It not only deforms the history of the decade from 1919 to 1930, but it also twists the story of American entry into World War II and warps the record of the cold war.” Williams also remarked in a note that the use of the term isolationist “has thus crippled American thought about foreign policy for 50 years.” Today we can say that it has done so for a century.

Our government eschewed permanent alliances for most of its history, and it refrained from taking sides in the European Great Power conflicts of the nineteenth century, but it never sought to cut itself from the world and could not have done that even if it had wished to do so. The U.S. was a commercial republic from the start, and it cultivated economic and diplomatic ties with as many states as possible. You can call the steady expansion of the U.S. across North America and into the Pacific and Caribbean “isolationism,” but that just shows how misleading and inaccurate the label has always been.

Post-WWI America was a rising power and increasingly involved in the affairs of the world. Its economic and diplomatic engagement with the world increased during these years. If it wasn’t involved in the way that later internationalists would have liked, that didn’t make the U.S. isolationist. Braumoeller makes this point explicitly: “America was not isolationist in affairs relating to international security in Europe for the bulk of the period: in fact, it was perhaps more internationalist than it had ever been.” The U.S. was behaving as a great power, but one that strove to maintain its neutrality. That was neither deluded nor disastrous, and we need to stop pretending that it was if we are ever going to be able to make the needed changes to our foreign policy today.

Kupchan acknowledges that there has to be an “adjustment” after the last several decades of overreach, but he casts this as a way of preventing more significant retrenchment: “The paramount question is whether that adjustment takes the form of a judicious pullback or a more dangerous retreat.” No one objects to the desire for a responsible reduction in U.S. commitments, but one person’s “judicious pullback” will often be denounced as a “dangerous retreat” by others. Just consider how many times we have been warned about a U.S. “retreat” from the Middle East over the last 11 years. Even now, the U.S. is still taking part in multiple wars across the region, and the “retreat” we have been told has happened several times never seems to take place. Warning about the perils of an “isolationist comeback” hardly makes it more likely that these withdrawals will ever happen.

He recommends that “judicious retrenchment should entail shedding U.S. entanglements in the periphery, not in the strategic heartlands of Europe and Asia.” Certainly, any reduction in unnecessary U.S. commitments is welcome, but a thorough rethinking of U.S. foreign policy has to include every region. Kupchan is right to criticize slapdash, incompetent withdrawals, but one gets the impression that he thinks there shouldn’t be any withdrawals except from the Middle East. He cites “Russian and Chinese threats” as the main reasons not to pull back at all in Europe or Asia, but this seems like an uncritical endorsement of the status quo.

It is in East Asia where the U.S. might be fighting a war against a major, nuclear-armed power in the future, and it is also there where the U.S. has some of the wealthiest and most capable allies. If the U.S. can’t reduce its exposure to the risk of a major war where that risk is the greatest and its allies are strongest, when will it ever be able to do that? Reducing the U.S. military presence in East Asia will make it easier to manage U.S.-Chinese tensions, and it will give allies an additional incentive to assume more responsibility for their own security.

The U.S. has far more security commitments than it can afford and far more than can possibly be justified by our own security interests. That includes, but is not limited to, our overcommitment to the Middle East. Our foreign entanglements have been allowed to grow and spread to such an extent over the last seventy-five years that modest pruning won’t be good enough to put U.S. foreign policy on a sound footing that will have reliable public support. There needs to be a much more comprehensive review of all U.S. commitments to determine which ones are truly necessary for our security and which ones are not. Ruling out the bulk of those commitments as untouchable in advance is a mistake.

There is broad public support for constructive international engagement, but there is remarkably little backing for preserving U.S. hegemony in its current form. In order to have a more sustainable foreign policy, the U.S. needs to scale back its ambitions in most parts of the world, and it needs to shift more of the security burdens for different regions to the countries that have the most at stake. That should be done deliberately and carefully, but it does need to happen if we are to realign our foreign policy with protecting the vital interests of the United States.