Christopher McKnight Nichols
Mr. Nichols is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is an American historian currently completing a study of isolationism and internationalism in the United States during the Progressive Era.
It's Time for a New Look at Isolationism
Mr. Nichols is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is an American historian currently completing a study of isolationism and internationalism in the United States during the Progressive Era. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned Americans at the nation’s birth to “steer clear of foreign entanglements.” It’s a warning we scoff at today – at our peril. We need a new approach, a new isolationism.
Time and again, Americans rightly return to see the merits of isolation during moments of perilous engagement abroad. One example of this from the recent past came during America’s involvement in Vietnam. As early as January 1965, Sen. Richard Russell Jr., a Georgian with aggressive views on American international policy, reluctantly admitted to the public, "We made a terrible mistake getting involved in Viet Nam." As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, he remarked, "I don't know just how we can get out now, but the time is about at hand when we must re-evaluate our position." Talking to Russell in a private conversation, President Johnson expressed deep doubts but saw no way out. “I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing and I don’t see any way of winning,” said LBJ. Journalist and pundit Walter Lippmann agreed. “If it is said that this is isolationism," he wrote, "I would say yes. It is isolationism if the study of our own vital interests and a realization of the limitations of our power is isolationism."
The less-than-hoped-for success of the "surge" in Iraq has led to similarly heartbreaking conclusions about the limits of U.S. military power. Modest security gains do not seem to be able to propel significant political change or overcome four years of unsuccessful efforts in Iraq to draw democracy out of chaos. Recent polls indicate that more than half of Americans are convinced that their leaders failed to calculate the consequences of the nation's intervention and underestimated its long-term implications. Despite enormous sacrifices, the U.S. is still far from accomplishing a nation-building mission in Iraq.
In making new choices, the nation can learn from Washington and Jefferson. And we should look to the more recent lessons provided by the words of Johnson, Russell, and Lippmann. It is time to chart a middle path – avoid the extremes of heartless realism and brainless idealism – and blend cautious isolationism with active internationalism.
So how would this new isolationism look? Its core aim would be to avoid military conflicts. Isolationist principles would discourage an interventionist or preemptive foreign policy, but would not preclude self-defense. It would promote diplomatic strategies, rather than military approaches. History has shown that interventions often have unintended, unforeseen consequences, and getting out is hard to do.
The best course now in Iraq is not total disengagement, but redeployment. Overall, the U.S. should renew the "soft power" essential to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. That is, America should do what it does best -- making the world a better place through education, science, development, culture, and free global trade. Lead by positive example.
Other foreign policy aims should be to boost U.S. prosperity with global economic growth while reducing anti-Americanism abroad. Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, called this an "international consciousness." A new isolationism would cultivate a comparable "consciousness" by strengthening transnational cultural ties in education and the arts, and increasing aid to the developing world. Hallmarks of this process should include an imaginative commitment to opportunities for national service, such as Peace Corps, VISTA, and Teach for America. And let’s revive efforts to provide the world with accurate information about America, such as through the U.S. Information Agency, and by expanding efforts to assist refugees and developing countries, such as through a revitalized U.S. Agency for International Development.
A policy of new isolationism also would mean a thoughtful effort to seize important challenges at home. Once a model for the world, much in America cries out for fixing. Let us take three symbolic examples that demand an inward focus: the dilapidated state of the nation's bridges and transportation infrastructure, the threadbare capacity for public health and preparedness for pandemics, and the nine million uninsured poor children under age 18. Given sufficient means and commitment, these (and other) vital domestic national interests can be solved.
Unless we muster the wisdom of prudent isolationism and elect a leader bold enough to advocate it, the conflict in Iraq will match that of Vietnam. So, fellow citizens, let us heed the powerful injunction to steer clear of foreign entanglements and prolonged interventions abroad. Take a new look at the benefits of isolationism.