“Isolationism” Revisited

Socialist Zach Dorfman has a great review up over at Dissent on a recent book by a historian about American foreign policy from roughly 1890 to about 1940, Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. I am really tempted to just copy and paste the whole review, but here are some juicy excerpts from Dorfman’s review (the book itself will have to wait until Christmas):

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 […]

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 […]

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.

There is a plethora of other examples in Dorfman’s review of the book explaining how isolationism and internationalism have often been thought of and used in different ways by different factions. I cannot recommend reading the review enough, and as I already stated, the book will be devoured over Christmas break. Dorfman adds his own twist to the historian’s findings near the end of the review:

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.

Dorfman of course brings up claptrap about spending other peoples’ money on this and that, but overall the review comes highly recommended. (h/t Daniel Larison)

As you ponder the term ‘isolationism’ and read Dorfman’s review, how does modern libertarianism fit into the paradigm of internationalist/isolationist sentiment? Your own views?

Again, here is the link to the new book, and here is the link to the excellent review.

5 thoughts on ““Isolationism” Revisited

    • Oh! I thought you meant it wasn’t coming out till Christmas. Looks like a good read. Another good read would be an older book, A Diplomatic History of the American People. Haven’t read the whole thing (really long), just 100 or so pages from the middle dealing with roughly 1910 to 1930. Also, I just read the review. I don’t see where he alludes to spending other peoples’ money.

    • It depletes U.S. coffers, obviously, diverting resources that could be spent on health care, education, or environmental protection, among many other things.

      It’s in the second-to-last paragraph near the beginning.

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