Paul Saunders takes aim at five of the most abused words and phrases in foreign policy debate. Here he rejects “isolationism”:
What proponents of an activist (as opposed to a necessarily active) foreign policy are trying to conceal is how they have thoroughly warped the definition of another word—leadership—to make it nearly synonymous with the use of force. Thus, they argue, America is a leader when it is prepared to use force and is isolationist when it isn’t. Fixing U.S. foreign policy requires not only dispensing with theatrical critiques of isolationist straw men, but building a sophisticated understanding of international leadership in its diverse forms.
I would add that the abuse of “leadership” as a concept is in some ways even more obnoxious and misleading than the reliance on the “isolationist” slur. It’s true that hawks typically assume that real “leadership” requires the use of force or at least the threat to use force, but it can also function as a generic euphemism for U.S. hegemony. In this usage, there is really only one kind of international leadership that qualifies, and this is one in which the U.S. is dominant, preeminent, and preoccupied with policing the globe. This tends to view leadership more as an exercise in giving orders and dictating terms.
The word also serves as an all-purpose, nebulous placeholder as something that can be demanded and whose absence can be lamented without having to make a coherent argument. Calling for “more leadership” can be a way to demand an aggressive and militarized policy without owning up to what one is demanding, or it can be a way to criticize existing policy decisions without having to explain what ought to be done instead. As with its ugly cousin “resolve,” one can always get away with insisting that a particular president isn’t showing enough “leadership” in the world, because there is no way to measure these things and no way for the complaint be remedied. Because it is so ill-defined and frequently abused, it can be applied to every issue without even having to think about the specific details. “Leadership” is always the correct response, and “leadership” can’t fail, because it means everything and nothing at the same time.