What We Talk About When We Talk About Isolationism

Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age
Christopher McKnight Nichols
Harvard University Press, 2011, 464 pp.

The rise of China notwithstanding, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower. Its military (and, to a considerable extent, political) hegemony extends not just over North America or even the Western hemisphere, but also Europe, large swaths of Asia, and Africa. Its interests are global; nothing is outside its potential sphere of influence. There are an estimated 660 to 900 American military bases in roughly forty countries worldwide, although figures on the matter are notoriously difficult to ascertain, largely because of subterfuge on the part of the military. According to official data there are active-duty U.S. military personnel in 148 countries, or over 75 percent of the world’s states. The United States checks Russian power in Europe and Chinese power in South Korea and Japan and Iranian power in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey. In order to maintain a frigid peace between Israel and Egypt, the American government hands the former $2.7 billion in military aid every year, and the latter $1.3 billion. It also gives Pakistan more than $400 million dollars in military aid annually (not including counterinsurgency operations, which would drive the total far higher), Jordan roughly $200 million, and Colombia over $55 million.

U.S. long-term military commitments are also manifold. It is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the only institution legally permitted to sanction the use of force to combat “threats to international peace and security.” In 1949 the United States helped found NATO, the first peacetime military alliance extending beyond North and South America in U.S. history, which now has twenty-eight member states. The United States also has a trilateral defense treaty with Australia and New Zealand, and bilateral mutual defense treaties with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. It is this sort of reach that led Madeleine Albright to call the United States the sole “indispensible power” on the world stage.

The idea that global military dominance and political hegemony is in the U.S. national interest—and the world’s interest—is generally taken for granted domestically. Opposition to it is limited to the libertarian Right and anti-imperialist Left, both groups on the margins of mainstream political discourse. Today, American supremacy is assumed rather than argued for: in an age of tremendous political division, it is a bipartisan first principle of foreign policy, a presupposition. In this area at least, one wishes for a little less agreement.

In Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, Christopher McKnight Nichols provides an erudite account of a period before such a consensus existed, when ideas about America’s role on the world stage were fundamentally contested. As this year’s presidential election approaches, each side will portray the difference between the candidates’ positions on foreign policy as immense. Revisiting Promise and Peril shows us just how narrow the American worldview has become, and how our public discourse has become narrower still.

Nichols focuses on the years between 1890 and 1940, during America’s initial ascent as a global power. He gives special attention to the formative debates surrounding the Spanish-American War, U.S. entry into the First World War, and potential U.S. membership in the League of Nations—debates that were constitutive of larger battles over the nature of American society and its fragile political institutions and freedoms. During this period, foreign and domestic policy were often linked as part of a cohesive political vision for the country. Nichols illustrates this through intellectual profiles of some of the period’s most influential figures, including senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, socialist leader Eugene Debs, philosopher and psychologist William James, journalist Randolph Bourne, and the peace activist Emily Balch. Each of them interpreted isolationism and internationalism in distinct ways, sometimes deploying the concepts more for rhetorical purposes than as cornerstones of a particular worldview.

Today, isolationism is often portrayed as intellectually bankrupt, a redoubt for idealists, nationalists, xenophobes, and fools. Yet the term now used as a political epithet has deep roots in American political culture. Isolationist principles can be traced back to George Washington’s farewell address, during which he urged his countrymen to steer clear of “foreign entanglements” while actively seeking nonbinding commercial ties. (Whether economic commitments do in fact entail political commitments is another matter.) Thomas Jefferson echoed this sentiment when he urged for “commerce with all nations, [and] alliance with none.” Even the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States declared itself the regional hegemon and demanded noninterference from European states in the Western hemisphere, was often viewed as a means of isolating the United States from Europe and its messy alliance system.

In Nichols’s telling, however, modern isolationism was born from the debates surrounding the Spanish-American War and the U.S. annexation of the Philippines. Here isolationism began to take on a much more explicitly anti-imperialist bent. Progressive isolationists such as William James found U.S. policy in the Philippines—which it had “liberated” from Spanish rule just to fight a bloody counterinsurgency against Philippine nationalists—anathema to American democratic traditions and ideas about national self-determination.

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.

Others, such as “isolationist imperialist” Henry Cabot Lodge, the powerful senator from Massachusetts, argued that fighting the Spanish-American War and annexing the Philippines were isolationist actions to their core. First, banishing the Spanish from the Caribbean comported with the Monroe Doctrine; second, adding colonies such as the Philippines would lead to greater economic growth without exposing the United States to the vicissitudes of outside trade. Prior to the Spanish-American War, many feared that the American economy’s rapid growth would lead to a surplus of domestic goods and cause an economic disaster. New markets needed to be opened, and the best way to do so was to dominate a given market—that is, a country—politically. Lodge’s defense of this “large policy” was public and, by today’s standards, quite bald. Other proponents of this policy included Teddy Roosevelt (who also believed that war was good for the national character) and a significant portion of the business class. For Lodge and Roosevelt, “isolationism” meant what is commonly referred to today as “unilateralism”: the ability for the United States to do what it wants, when it wants.

Other “isolationists” espoused principles that we would today call internationalist. Randolph Bourne, a precocious journalist working for the New Republic, passionately opposed American entry into the First World War, much to the detriment of his writing career. He argued that hypernationalism would cause lasting damage to the American social fabric. He was especially repulsed by wartime campaigns to Americanize immigrants. Bourne instead envisioned a “transnational America”: a place that, because of its distinct cultural and political traditions and ethnic diversity, could become an example to the rest of the world. Its respect for plurality at home could influence other countries by example, but also by allowing it to mediate international disputes without becoming a party to them. Bourne wanted an America fully engaged with the world, but not embroiled in military conflicts or alliances.

This was also the case for William Borah, the progressive Republican senator from Idaho. Borah was an agrarian populist and something of a Jeffersonian: he believed axiomatically in local democracy and rejected many forms of federal encroachment. He was opposed to extensive immigration, but not “anti-immigrant.” Borah thought that America was strengthened by its complex ethnic makeup and that an imbalance tilted toward one group or another would have deleterious effects. But it is his famously isolationist foreign policy views for which Borah is best known. As Nichols writes:

He was consistent in an anti-imperialist stance against U.S. domination abroad; yet he was ambivalent in cases involving what he saw as involving obvious national interest….He also without fail argued that any open-ended military alliances were to be avoided at all costs, while arguing that to minimize war abroad as well as conflict at home should always be a top priority for American politicians.

Borah thus cautiously supported entry into the First World War on national interest grounds, but also led a group of senators known as “the irreconcilables” in their successful effort to prevent U.S. entry into the League of Nations. His paramount concern was the collective security agreement in the organization’s charter: he would not assent to a treaty that stipulated that the United States would be obligated to intervene in wars between distant powers where the country had no serious interest at stake.

Borah possessed an alternative vision for a more just and pacific international order. Less than a decade after he helped scuttle American accession to the League, he helped pass the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) in a nearly unanimous Senate vote. More than sixty states eventually became party to the pact, which outlawed war between its signatories and required them to settle their disputes through peaceful means. Today, realists sneer at the idealism of Kellogg-Briand, but the Senate was aware of the pact’s limitations and carved out clear exceptions for cases of national defense. Some supporters believed that, if nothing else, the law would help strengthen an emerging international norm against war. (Given what followed, this seems like a sad exercise in wish-fulfillment.) Unlike the League of Nations charter, the treaty faced almost no opposition from the isolationist bloc in the Senate, since it did not require the United States to enter into a collective security agreement or abrogate its sovereignty. This was a kind of internationalism Borah and his irreconcilables could proudly support.

The United States today looks very different from the country in which Borah, let alone William James, lived, both domestically (where political and civil freedoms have been extended to women, African Americans, and gays and lesbians) and internationally (with its leading role in many global institutions). But different strains of isolationism persist. Newt Gingrich has argued for a policy of total “energy independence” (in other words, domestic drilling) while fulminating against President Obama for “bowing” to the Saudi king. While recently driving through an agricultural region of rural Colorado, I saw a giant roadside billboard calling for American withdrawal from the UN.

Yet in the last decade, the Republican Party, with the partial exception of its Ron Paul/libertarian faction, has veered into such a belligerent unilateralism that its graybeards—one of whom, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, just lost a primary to a far-right challenger partly because of his reasonableness on foreign affairs—were barely able to ensure Senate ratification of a key nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. Many of these same people desire a unilateral war with Iran.

And it isn’t just Republicans. Drone attacks have intensified in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere under the Obama administration. Massive troop deployments continue unabated. We spend over $600 billion dollars a year on our military budget; the next largest is China’s, at “only” around $100 billion. Administrations come and go, but the national security state appears here to stay.

The rise of the American national security state likely affects our domestic society in more ways than most realize. It depletes U.S. coffers, obviously, diverting resources that could be spent on health care, education, or environmental protection, among many other things. It leaves widows and childless parents in its wake. But the obsession with security has had a more pervasive effect than that, I think, that ripples out and affects many different aspects of American life. Two million Americans are currently incarcerated, the highest rate per capita worldwide, and roughly 25 percent of the world’s entire prison population. The United States is far from a police state, but it is a very heavily policed state. We live in a time when it is unremarkable for nonviolent protesters camping in a city park to be continuously surrounded by thousands of police in riot gear, with helicopters circling overhead and makeshift police towers constructed to continuously survey the scene below. Something is terribly wrong here.

The sophisticated (and plural) progressive isolationist tradition described in Promise and Peril shows us that visions for international and domestic society can never be severed from each other. Choices made in one always entail commitments in the other, and so a desire for a more just domestic order requires paying detailed attention to the U.S. role on the international stage, and how that feeds back into politics and culture at home. Much could be gained from reinvigorating the idea of a non-entangled and transnational America in contemporary progressive politics.

Zach Dorfman is assistant editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of the Carnegie Council, and co-editor of the Montreal Review, an online magazine of books, art, and culture.

Photo: Socialist anti-war meeting in NYC’s Union Square, 1914 (Libary of Congress, Bain Collection)