One of the most frequent characterizations of US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries is that it was isolationist. In 1796, when he decided not to run for a third presidential term, George Washington wrote (possibly with the help of Alexander Hamilton) a farewell address to public life. In one of the most quoted parts of this speech, Washington said that “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Quite similarly, in 1821 John Quincy Adams warned that the United States should not “[go] abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We can also cite Thomas Jefferson, who in 1799 declared that “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” Finally, in 1823 James Monroe declared (with great help from the aforementioned John Quincy Adams) that “The political system of the allied powers [of Europe] is essentially different (…) from that of America.”
In short, it is by all the above (and other) quotations that historians often classify American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as isolationist. This trend, it follows, was altered in World War I by Woodrow Wilson, who broke away from traditional isolationism to lead the United States to fight in Europe. More than that: at the end of the war, in his 14 Points, Wilson proposed the creation of the League of Nations, a permanent multilateral international organization, with the objective of promoting the collective security of the member countries. The Wilsonian tendency was reversed by Republicans in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly because they refused to join the League of Nations, opting for isolationism. However, Woodrow Wilson’s proposal was retaken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II. The United States defeated the enemy forces in Europe and the Pacific and in the end war was one of the main founders of the United Nations, an international organization created to replace the League of Nations. Since then the United States has predominantly adopted Woodrow Wilson’s perspective and avoided the isolationism of the Founding Fathers and of the Republican presidents of the interwar period. Only ultra-conservatives believe and advocate that the US should retake the foreign policy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe. However, all this evaluation already starts flawed when it characterizes American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as an isolationist. To explain why, we can differentiate two terms: isolationism and unilaterialism.
Predominantly, US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries followed George Washington’s advice “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” However, it should be noted at the same time that this foreign policy followed Thomas Jefferson’s advice to establish “commerce with all nations.” In other words, despite the lack of permanent alliances with other countries (particularly European ones), what the United States did not lack in that period was a growing trade with other parts of the world, in addition to regular diplomatic contact (although not characterized by permanent alliances). To call this isolation is to force language too much. There are many historical examples of countries that have actually isolated themselves from the rest of the world: Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, China between the 15th and 19th centuries, Paraguay from 1811 to 1844, and more recently North Korea are just a few. US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries would be better characterized as unilateralist or non-interventionist. This means simply that the US didn’t subject its international relations to foreign authority.
There was no US isolation before the 20th century. What happened was a policy of avoiding permanent alliances. Meanwhile, the country had no problem with expanding its diplomatic contacts and its international trade (although some economic protectionism was practiced, but I leave this subject to another time). The same can be said about the attitude taken by the presidents in the interwar period: not participating in the League of Nations did not mean isolation from the rest of the world, quite the opposite: the US actively participated in the economy and international politics at that time. It just did not do this through the international organization proposed by Woodrow Wilson. It is perfectly possible to participate actively in international relations unilaterally, i.e. without the formation of permanent or binding alliances with multilateral international organizations.
Confusing the terms isolation and unilateralism may just be an oversight or an evaluation error. But it can also be a purposeful strategy. Confusing the terms may hide an undeclared requirement (or assumption): the only accepted international participation is that made through multilateral international organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. No other is good enough. In this way, those who characterize US foreign policy before Woodrow Wilson as isolationist are severely limiting the possibilities for US international participation.
Nations are now defined not as races or peoples but by their possession of a state, and states are legitimate only if they express political will of a nation. The strange new idea of nation-building was born, the other side of the coin of state-building in the decolonizing world. It is a game played by given rules, above all that no other forms of political will and action were legitimate, especially wars of conquest.In outcome, the poor, the small, and the marginal gain the freedom of self-determination, the telos of independence, but their democratic rights extinguish utterly at the border. They have right of influence anywhere else.(137-138)
I have just two thoughts about this nugget of insight from American anthropologist John D Kelly, writing on the Wilsonian ideal in his book The American Game: Capitalism, Decolonization, World Domination, and Baseball. 1) The “given rules” Kelly writes of are still a factor in today’s world. You can most clearly see them via international governing organizations (IGOs) like the UN, World Bank, IMF, WLO, etc. Given rules are handed down to former colonies by IGOs not as a way to control these colonies but to guide them gently into the modern era. This may seem quaint, but this is how Wilson and his ilk viewed their rules and their fellow man in the colonies of Africa and Asia. If you think about institutions, even weak ones like IGOs, you know that the rules and ideals that such institutions were created to embody are hard to break; often a critical juncture is needed to do so. So the given rules of the international system are, I would argue, still based on condescending early 20th century notions about non-European peoples. This is partly why Scots and Catalonians are allowed to vote on their secessionist arguments while Kurds and Balochs and Biafrans are labelled terrorists or rebels, and states like Montenegro and Kosovo are allowed to enter the international system with virtually no hiccups while Kurdistan, Balochistan, and South Ossetia are ignored by IGOs and only informally recognized when an official state like the US requires an ally to fight an enemy.
2) This is hard for me to admit as a libertarian, but the Wilsonian ideal has helped to almost entirely eliminate old-school imperialism (violent conquest followed by oppressive government and extractive economic policies) from the earth.
It is an interesting read indeed but there are two or even more sides to every story. What we are also noting is that many of these groups that hate Western interventionist policies also hate their own people for being different in one way or the other. However, I agree that the misplaced perception of democracy as the superior form of governance overlooks the essential internal historical and socio-political factors behind the politics of the different countries that have become victims of Western ‘sanctification’ processes fronted by bombs after daring to opt not to embrace democracy. Libya and Iraq were stable before Western intervention.
Tam’s point strikes at the heart of the difference between military interventionists and non-interventionists, I think. Libya and Iraq were indeed stable, but not everybody was free. In Iraq, Shias, Kurds, liberals, and religious Sunnis were all brutally suppressed, and this oppression stood in stark contrast to the freedoms that secularists, women, union members, some socialists, and the politically apathetic enjoyed. The sociopolitical dynamics in Libya were the same, though with different local actors.
This reality is something that both sides of the interventionist debate recognize, though the interventionist side seems to place much more faith in government when it comes to “doing something.” Jacques and Edwin, for example, have both argued that bombing ambiguous factions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya would contribute to the freedoms of the oppressed factions in those countries. Looking back on the debate makes it clear that they weren’t wrong, but look at what those freedoms have produced. Those freedoms have come at the expense of the freedoms of the factions that the dictators were protecting.
What this situation shows me is that the states of the post-colonial world are unviable. Stability comes at too steep a price (dictatorship), and democracy’s unpredictability only leads to predictably violent results in the post-colonial world.
This impasse, which I cannot be the only one in the world who recognizes, has led me to take a hard glance at two specific peace processes in the Western world: The diplomatic efforts of Europeans after the Napoleonic Wars (“Concert of Europe”) and the founding of the American republic, which is, in my mind, the most successful endeavor in the history of international relations. Neither of these efforts led to the complete abolition of war, but both have helped to maintain a relatively peaceful co-existence between large numbers of factions for long periods of time.
The Concert of Europe bought time for factions in the region to solidify their legitimacy at home, culminating in both the creation of Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth century and the infamous overseas imperial domains of France, the UK, and the Netherlands (among a few others). While this peace process brought about prosperity for Western Europe, it was not inclusive and it still adhered to the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty. What state sovereignty means is that each state, in the context of international affairs, has a right to do whatever it pleases within the confines of its own borders (such as massacre hundreds of thousands of people in the name of stability). The Concert of Europe was also the precursor to the post-1945 peace process that created the state system that we all live with today, though I would argue that there are some elements that could be republican, such as the IMF and World Bank, provided some changes in mindset.
Aside from the problems produced by the notion of state sovereignty, the states of the post-colonial world today suffer from an issue of legitimacy, both from domestic populations and from foreign ones. Domestically, all of the factions that stability-inducing dictatorships oppress do not buy in to the argument that the states purporting to govern them are legitimate. In foreign affairs, many factions do not believe that these post-colonial states are legitimate either. Hence the calls for bombing campaigns, proxy wars, or outright invasions and occupations of states like Iraq and Libya by states like the US or France (even if these invasions come at the expense of domestic and international rule of law).
This situation, where post-colonial states claim to have sovereignty within an international state system but where domestic and international factions ignore such claims, is where we’re at today. It’s the status quo, and while it worked relatively well in a small part of the world for about hundred years or so, it’s obviously failing today.
Enter the founding of the American republic. Unlike the Concert of Europe, self-determination à la breaking away from the UK was a guiding principle of the federal system, rather than state sovereignty. Like the Concert of Europe, the statesmen who crafted the American republic were concerned about invasion, hegemony, and all of the other bad stuff that happens in the international arena. So they set up an inclusive, republican system of states rather than attempt to balance power off on each other, like they did in Europe. The republican, or federal, system tied each state up into the affairs of the other states, whereas the balance of power system contributed to the formation of rival blocs within the system. This is why Europe switched from trying to maintain yet another balancing act to building an actual confederation (though one that is far too complex than it has to be) after World War II.
From a strictly war and peace view, the republican state system has led to one war so far (dating from 1789). From the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, to today, the balance of power state system has led to numerous wars.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was based on self-determination, and his foreign policy was a disaster. This is true, though I would argue that Wilson was simply confused about what self-determination actually implied. For Wilson, recognizing the self-determination of various groups within empires would lead to state sovereignty for these groups, and that this state sovereignty would then be protected by the institutions trying to maintain a balance of power. Wilson never entertained the notion of republicanism when it came to recognizing the self-determination of peoples living in empires, he simply thought empires were undemocratic. Thus, he was actually a proponent of state sovereignty rather than self-determination.
What I am not arguing for here is a Concert of Europe-type effort for Middle Eastern actors. I think it would be a disaster, largely because regional efforts at peace-building (rather than, say, trade agreements) are useless in today’s globalized world. The Middle East needs the West, and vice-versa. Peace will only be achieved if self-determination is embraced (by not only large swathes of Mideast factions, but Western ones as well) and the new polities can be incorporated into existing republican-esque institutions. This way, more factions have a voice, and bad actors can be more easily isolated. I am not necessarily arguing that the US or EU should welcome burgeoning Mideast states into their federations, but policymakers and statesmen from these countries should at least start thinking about how to encourage and embrace the notion of a Middle East that looks a lot like our own republican world and less like the one we gave them following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.
Stability is overrated, especially if the notion of creative destruction is taken into account.
On one sunny August 16, at a time of high price inflation, government operatives announced the seizure of millions of eggs and 200,000 pounds of sugar. Raids on the larders of other suspected profiteers continued for weeks thereafter … The government was prepared to return these items to their owners once the chastened profiteers agreed to sell them at a “reasonable” price and under the watchful eye of a government officer.
The official in charge of the raids explained thusly: “I am one of those who believe that a large part of the high cost of living is due to the fact that a number of unconscionable men in the ranks of the dealers have taken advantage … If we can make a few conspicuous examples of gougers and give the widest sort of publicity to the fact that such gougers have been and will be punished, in the future there will be little inclination to profiteer in this country.”
Earlier, the President of the Republic had laid the blame for a lesser bout of price inflation squarely at the feet of gouging businessmen: “The high cost of living is arranged by private understanding” is how he put it.
By now you may have guessed that I am talking about present-day Venezuela, its Presidente, and his henchmen. You would have guessed wrong. The year was 1919, Woodrow Wilson was president, and his henchman, quoted above, was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The high cost of living was a result of Mr. Wilson’s war, which was financed partly by money printing, as well as the absorption of vast quantities of real goods and services by the government for use in fighting the war. The obvious effect of more money chasing a reduced supply of goods and services was price inflation, and that same phenomenon happened in all the warring countries, most notably France.
This episode provides one of many reasons, too numerous to elaborate here, why Woodrow Wilson is properly called a proto-fascist and why he is a serious contender for the dubious honor of worst-ever U.S. president. For more, see Jim Powell’s, “Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II.”
The first three paragraphs above are paraphrased from p. 24 of James Grant’s new book, “The Forgotten Depression.” Though I have not finished the book, I couldn’t resist sharing this tidbit. The gist of Grant’s thesis can be seen in its subtitle, “1921: the Crash that Cured Itself.” Highly recommended, so far.