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Why the ‘Isolationist’ Slur Survives

Michael Hogue

Andrew Bacevich does a fine job demonstrating why the “isolationist” label is wrong and why its use in contemporary debates is deliberately misleading:

Few things would be of greater benefit to the discussion of American statecraft, past, present, and future, than to banish once and forever the term “isolationism.” Whatever descriptive value it may once have possessed has long since vanished. At a time when the United States finds itself mired in wars that are needless, costly, and counterproductive, those who chalk up our troubles to incipient isolationism are perpetrating a hoax.

I completely agree that the term warps our foreign policy debates and our understanding of the past, and I would like nothing more than to see it disappear. The reason that the term survives and continues to be recycled in our debates is that it is extremely useful to its users because it is false. It perpetuates a false image of opponents of foreign wars, and it serves as a convenient bogeyman to distract from the many weaknesses of pro-intervention arguments. It is almost always used in bad faith for the purposes of limiting and then shutting off debate, and for that reason it is a very attractive cudgel for interventionists to use against anyone that happens to disagree with them on almost any foreign policy issue. It is especially useful to them because it doesn’t require the user to apply it with any consistency or respect for the facts, and so it can be used to denounce everyone from Trump and Obama to Sanders and Paul and anyone else who challenges any of the prevailing assumptions about America’s role in the world.

Virtually no one in America today or in the past subscribed to a truly “isolationist” approach to the rest of the world, but then the purpose of the label has always been to distort the positions of the people to whom it is applied. Advocates of peace, restraint, and non-interference in the affairs of other nations have not typically used this label to describe themselves (and today we absolutely reject it), because we aren’t interested in isolation from the world but in avoiding unnecessary wars and costly permanent security commitments all over the world. To say that someone is an “isolationist” because he doesn’t want to join (or start) wars overseas is akin to calling someone a shut-in because he chooses not to break into another person’s house and set fire to the building. It’s a ridiculous description if one were interested in being accurate, but of course the people that fling this label at others have no interest in that.

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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