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Isolationism can be defined as a state’s deliberate policy of extensive withdrawal and seclusion from some forms of interaction in the international system. Notable examples include the economic isolationism of Japan and China before the nineteenth century and the cultural isolationism of China and the Soviet Union in parts of the twentieth century. In the U.S. context, isolationism has constituted one of the principle foreign policy grand strategies from the founding of the country up to the present day.
Early U.S. Isolationism
From the United States’ inception, isolationists such as George Washington have argued for the benefits of avoiding wars and “entangling alliances” with other great powers at all costs. Military commitments and involvement in the affairs of such states bleed the country of its prosperity. Precious money is wasted on armaments that often antagonize foreign nations. Democratic principles are sometimes suspended and sacrificed in the effort to fight wars. And the United States is unnecessarily distracted from more pressing objectives. “Keep the ships at home,” said Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), “and we will have fewer reasons to fight.” It was such philosophies that helped keep the United States out of war with European states for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Apart from the United States’ relatively minor involvement in the Napoleonic Wars against France from 1798 to 1801, the only war that was fought with a European power was the War of 1812 against the British. Isolationist policies freed America to focus on territorial expansionism in North America, interventionism in Asia and Latin America, and economic activism throughout the globe.
While it is true that U.S. isolationism was assisted by its geographic separation from Europe by the Atlantic Ocean, as Walter Lippman describes in U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943), U.S. security during most of the nineteenth century was safeguarded more through a shrewd, unwritten 1823 alliance with Great Britain and the British-led balance of power in Europe than through its geography. Because of Britain’s naval dominance of the approaches from Europe to the Western Hemisphere, Britain was the only force that in theory posed a significant threat to the United States. From the perspective of the British, such an alliance had the advantages of freeing much of its navy to police more critical regions than the Western Hemisphere and to preserve its dominion of Canada from U.S. messianic visions of continental annexation.
When the British-led European balance of power unraveled at the end of the nineteenth century, isolationists nevertheless persisted with the false assumption that the United States was still secure. To avoid a creeping U.S. allegiance to any side in Europe, Congress enacted the Neutrality Acts of 1934 and 1936, which forbade the sale of war matériel to belligerent states. German efforts to dominate Europe during World Wars I and II and Soviet expansionism after World War II nevertheless shattered the illusion of geographic invulnerability. U.S. leaders realized that a single power, such as Germany or the Soviet Union, or a hostile alliance of powers, in control of most of Eurasian military and industrial power, could pose a potentially superior threat. Therefore, the possibility of an unfriendly balance of power against the United States justified a policy of military “preponderance” rather than isolationism (Layne 1997, pp. 88–97).
When the cold war became the dominant focus of U.S. policymakers, isolationism returned as one among a number of realist strategies, including containment and rollback, which were designed to secure U.S. interests when faced with a menacing Soviet Union. Proponents of cold war isolationism, such as Robert A. Tucker (1972), departed from some of the traditional isolationist arguments. Tucker conceded that isolationism had previously failed to take into account the necessity of having allies. Allies tipped the world balance of power in the United States’ favor by helping to preclude the emergence of a threatening Eurasian hegemon.
Tucker (1972), however, argued that with nuclear weapons powerful allies in Western Europe or elsewhere were no longer necessary. The threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction made concerns about a balance of power irrelevant. Even if the Soviet Union were to somehow conquer Western Europe, Soviet control of the European military-industrial complexes would do little to add to the existing threat posed by a Soviet nuclear firststrike from submarine-based nuclear missiles. In the new nuclear-armed world, the United States was safe from direct Soviet threat because of the deterrent effect of an assured U.S. nuclear counterstrike, not by whether U.S. allies were safe.
Furthermore, it was argued that an isolationist foreign policy is completely compatible with fulfilling an activist U.S. economic agenda abroad since market forces provide the incentives for trade rather than alliances or physical control. For example, even hostile states will be eager over the long run to sell their oil and other goods to the United States—let alone friendly and developed states—whose economies frequently have more to lose through a loss of U.S. trade than the U.S. economic colossus has with respect to them. And with the complete withdrawal of U.S. military commitments from Asia and Europe, those regions will be physically secure from an economically devastating attack, because states such as Germany and Japan would acquire their own nuclear capabilities.
While the term isolationism may not be so popular today, the assumptions, goals, and remedies that the isolationist concept provides continue to be attractive to many. Modern-day versions of isolationist foreign policy are variously referred to as “disengagement,” “benign detachment,” “policy of restraint,” “offshore balancing,” and “Jeffersonian policy.” Post–cold war isolationists build on the aforementioned cold war arguments. They continue to stress the great costs and dangers of a forwardly engaged military with bases and troops across the globe. Such militarism, they argue, incites terrorism, creates incentives for nuclear proliferation, needlessly wastes money when the United States would be secure anyway, and tends to “turn allies into neutrals and neutrals into enemies” (Gholz, Press, and Sapolsky 1997, p. 37). Like their predecessors, modern isolationists nevertheless agree with limited military engagement. They are in favor of a strong (although significantly reduced) military to fight piracy, defend the homeland, and to ensure the safety of commerce. They believe in maintaining a considerable nuclear deterrent. And they support firm U.S. retaliation in the event of attack. Isolationists, however, continue to be criticized. Critics are uncomfortable with trusting other states to a multipolar balance of power based on nuclear weapons. As the Cuban missile crisis showed, brinksmanship and near misses are still possible even with nuclear weapons. Still, others criticize the isolationists for being immoral and irresponsible in their strong reluctance to forcefully prevent wars, humanitarian emergencies, and genocide. They are also criticized for being careless in protecting U.S. economic interests abroad in the event of future regional conflicts.
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- Tucker, Robert W. 1972. A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? New York: Universe.
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