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William James, “Isolationism,” and Promise and Peril

Zach Dorfman reviews Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age:

As Promise and Peril shows, however, “cosmopolitan isolationists” like James never called for “cultural, economic, or complete political separation from the rest of the world.” Rather, they wanted the United States to engage with other nations peacefully and without pretensions of domination. They saw the United States as a potential force for good in the world, but they also placed great value on neutrality and non-entanglement, and wanted America to focus on creating a more just domestic order. James’s anti-imperialism was directly related to his fear of the effects of “bigness.” He argued forcefully against all concentrations of power, especially those between business, political, and military interests. He knew that such vested interests would grow larger and more difficult to control if America became an overseas empire.

This description of James’ views, which applies equally well to the views of many other so-called “isolationists,” shows why isolationism is such a misleading and inaccurate term. Engaging “with other nations peacefully and without pretensions of domination” is remarkably different from the image of so-called isolationism that most people seem to have in their minds. Neutrality and non-intervention do not require that the U.S. cut itself off from the world economically or diplomatically. Hegemonists consistently define engagement with the world in terms of domination and hegemony. They regard any exercise of restraint in the use of force as “failure to engage” or even withdrawal from the world, but this view reflects the arrogant presumption that the U.S. has both the right and the responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other nations. Limiting or preventing U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts is not disengagement from the world, but rather recognizing the difference between our own national interests and the interests of other nations. It is the refusal to treat other nations’ conflicts as our own.

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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