Our own Alex Della Rocchetta wrote the other day that there’s a growing “isolationist” tide in America. In fairness, she was encouraged to use the term by the Pew Research Center and other outlets (see, for instance, this discussion of GOP politics and the opening for an “isolationist” candidate ).
I’d like to dissent from all of this. None of the GOP contenders are isolationist. The growing popular dissatisfaction with the war in Afghanistan and the skepticism toward the Libyan adventure have very, very little to do with anything that can seriously be understood as isolationism. The chief opponent of military engagement around the world, Representative Ron Paul, is not even an isolationist properly understood since he’d lower trade and (I believe) immigration barriers.
While isolationists surely want to leave Afghanistan, wanting to get out of Afghanistan is not necessarily evidence of isolationism. It may be wrongheaded. It may be dangerous. It may even be evidence of some other ideological -ism. But isolationist? No. The same goes for Libya. Indeed, the idea that wanting to pull out of Libya (not my own position by the way) is a mark of isolationism is to suggest that basically any engagement the president enters into must be carried out indefinitely lest we give in to isolationism.
Pew cites as evidence of rising isolation that larger numbers of Americans think Obama should concentrate more on our problems at home and/or that America should “mind its own business” more in the world. Now, I believe America must stay engaged internationally, but I’m at a loss as to how these views amount to isolationism. Couldn’t Americans simply be making a prudential judgment about how we should set priorities? Isn’t it in fact true that we are fiscally over-extended and in need of some house-cleaning?
Again, my objection is solely to the word “isolationist.” While Alex seems to be using it in a clinical way, as if it is merely an accepted objective term, it is seen by many as a pejorative and by others as a once lost cause worthy of reviving. Either way the term is loaded with baggage, hence it tends to distort debates rather than edify them.
For instance, there were far more liberal isolationists than liberal historians and pundits would have people think. They included John Dewey, Charles Beard, Joseph Kennedy and his sons, various writers for the liberal New Republic, et al. Meanwhile many of the most famous “isolationists” were far more willing to engage the world than the term suggests. Henry Cabot Lodge and the Republicans who rejected the Treaty of Versailles were not remotely isolationist (I could go into all that, but it gets complicated). Ron Paul likes to invoke Senator Robert Taft’s opposition to NATO as proof of a longstanding tradition of isolationism in the GOP. He always leaves out the fact that Taft supported the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, promised “100 percent support for the Chinese National government on Formosa,” and favored keeping six divisions in Europe, at least until the Europeans could defend themselves. That’s not exactly Fortress America talk.
Using the term isolationist as if it didn’t conjure these old debates and battles is a mistake. It offends those who simply disagree with specific policies while it encourages those who would like to claim that Isolationism—with a capital I—is once again a thriving or at least viable political movement. Do we really want Pat Buchanan out there using these polls as proof that it’s time for him to revive his America First schtick?
The American people may be wrong in their priorities, it’s happened before. And Mitt Romney and others may be wrong in theirs. But wrong is not synonymous with isolationism.
UPDATE: Tim Carney has more thoughts. We don’t see eye to eye on foreign policy, but I think he makes some good points and illustrates the trouble with the I-word.