Robert Kagan can’t seem to distinguish between “isolationism” and not wanting to fight everyone else’s wars for them:
Britons in the 1930s did not want to “die for Danzig,” and Americans today don’t want to die for Taipei or Riga, never mind Kiev or Tbilisi.
Kagan means this as a criticism, but why exactly should Americans be prepared to fight and die for most of these places? Latvia is at least a NATO member and the U.S. has made a commitment to come to their defense, but the U.S. is under no such obligation with any of the others. Kagan’s decision to lump them all together as if the U.S. ought to be willing to defend all of them is telling. He doesn’t seem to grasp that Americans can be committed to existing U.S. alliances without wanting to overextend and plunge into wars when no alliance is at stake. Of course, Kagan’s frequent abuse of the “isolationist” label reminds us that the purpose of the op-ed is not really to analyze anything or to improve the audience’s understanding of the subject, but rather to denounce and slur. There are no actual “isolationists” to be found anywhere in this country, and there certainly aren’t any in elected office, but that doesn’t stop him from casually asserting that Bernie Sanders is a “progressive isolationist.”
Kagan is not interested in accurately describing the views of the people that he is attacking, and so he calls every foreign policy view he doesn’t like “isolationist” without ever defining what it is supposed to mean. “Supporting fewer wars than Bob Kagan” does not make someone an “isolationist,” but that is what he wants us to think, and he wants us to feel very bad about it. We are supposed to come away from the piece feeling very worried that we are repeating grievous mistakes of the past, but the attempt at guilting us into supporting more unnecessary wars doesn’t work.
If there were genuine “isolationists” in the U.S., they would be opposed to all forms of engagement with the rest of the world, but that doesn’t describe the views of anyone involved in our foreign policy debates today. It doesn’t even really describe the people that wanted the U.S. to remain neutral in the past. The key weakness in Kagan’s piece (and his entire worldview) is that he equates international engagement with military interventionism. Because he wrongly measures internationalism in terms of willingness “to die” for far-flung places, he concludes that anyone not willing to do that must be an “isolationist.” That inevitably skews Kagan’s perception of everything. The vast majority of Americans isn’t interested in having the U.S. fight as many wars as Kagan is, but that doesn’t equal a desire to withdraw from the world.
He opens the op-ed with a quote that says Trump “doesn’t value the rules-based international order,” but this accusation is particularly rich coming from a leading proponent of preventive war and “benevolent hegemony.” Kagan is a huge fan of U.S. primacy and frequent American interference in other countries’ affairs, but it is hard to take seriously that he values a “rules-based international order.” For Kagan and other interventionists like him, preserving “international order” is often a pretext for trampling on other states’ sovereignty and violating international law whenever they want. If they were interested in upholding a “rules-based international order,” they would not have been the ones routinely demanding invasions and bombing campaigns in response to one conflict after another. There is something truly odd about latter-day militarists lecturing the rest of us about our lack of support for international order when they have been the ones busily setting it on fire.
U.S. foreign policy suffers from many flaws and bad habits acquired over decades, but excessive reluctance to fight in other countries’ wars has never been one of them. One of the biggest problems that we currently have is that our government doesn’t know how not to get itself involved in wars that have nothing to do with us. In practice, the relevant question for the last 15+ years has not been “would you die for Riga?”, but “should we kill people in Iraq/Syria/Yemen/Afghanistan/Somalia/Libya because we can?” Kagan’s answer to the latter question is always and will always be yes, and he’ll probably have a few more countries to add to the list.
It doesn’t make you an “isolationist” to realize that endless war is not in the best interests of the United States and that it has nothing to do with preserving the international order that interventionists have done so much to harm.