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There Are No Isolationists

John Allen Gay comments on a new article covering Republican divisions on foreign policy:

That’s why realists shouldn’t see the rise of the isolationists as a threat. They are creating intellectual breathing room within the Republican Party, breathing room that realists can exploit. Even better, the isolationists are adopting realist rhetoric and symbols. Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy address was essentially a paean to George Kennan and the Cold War containment doctrine. He expressly disavowed the isolationist label and called himself a realist.

This is an old hang-up of mine, but there are no isolationists in America today. Even advocates of non-intervention in foreign conflicts and disentangling the U.S. from most or all of its overseas commitments don’t favor cutting America off from the rest of the world. We are some of the loudest advocates for diplomatic engagement, and consistently try to distinguish international engagement from hyperactive interventionism. Isolationist an inevitably misleading label, and it doesn’t accurately describe anyone currently involved in American foreign policy debate. If no one identifies as an isolationist, and if no one argues that the U.S. should isolate itself from the rest of the world, how is it a useful or accurate description?

As I said two years ago:

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.

Gay says later that realists and “isolationists” can cooperate. One of the reasons he gives is this: “Both would favor relatively more diplomacy and trade and relatively fewer wars.” If someone favors more diplomacy and trade, he isn’t an isolationist in any meaningful sense. Needless to say, describing Paul or anyone else on the contemporary right as isolationist is a good way to shrink the “breathing room” Gay mentions and to lend unnecessary aid to ideological enforcers in the party that would like nothing better than to argue against the straw man of “isolationism” or “neo-isolationism.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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