21 April 2024
American Isolationism

American Isolationism

Book Review: Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

America’s foreign policy has always been a battleground between isolationist and internationalist forces, according to Charles Kupchan. The tussle continues to this very day, and could intensify if Donald Trump wins the next US Presidential election.

American isolationism has a bad reputation. Had the US intervened earlier in World War II, it could have minimised the ravages of German and Japanese fascism, in what was the bloodiest conflict in human history. More recently, Donald Trump’s “neo-isolationism” undermined global political stability, and many fear his possible return to the White House in 2025.

However, George Washington was one of the earliest promoters of American isolationism, writes Charles Kupchan in his book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. In his Farewell Address, Washington said that the US should have economic connections with everyone and political connections with no-one. InJefferson’s terms, the country wants no entangling alliances. Kupchan argues that the US rose in “unmolested fashion” through the 19th century, in part because it did not build colonies and battleships, or engage in wars with foreign powers.

Kupchan is quick to clarify that the US was not isolationist in the economic realm, or in its region. The US has always been a trading nation, and the US government often sent its navy abroad to defend its traders. During the 19th century, the US was also expansionist in North America. It trampled on Native Americans as it spread westward to the Pacific Ocean. It picked a war with Mexico in 1846, and after winning it, seized a big chunk of Mexican territory. It purchased Alaska from Russia and acquired the territory of Louisiana from France. And the US gradually pushed European powers out of the Americas.

So what is American isolationism? Kupchan defines it as the unwillingness to undertake strategic commitments beyond the Americas. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the US had emerged as one of the world’s leading industrial powers, and there was a feeling that the time had come to throw off the yolk of isolationism. Thus in 1898, the US launched a war with Spain to kick it out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. And in 1917, the US entered World War I following Germany’s submarine attacks on US passenger and merchant ships. But despite the success of these interventions, there was an isolationist backlash. In particular, President Woodrow Wilson failed in his attempt to guide the US into the League of Nations, as the Senate opposed US participation.

Kupchan regards US isolationism of the 1930s as a deluded search for strategic immunity. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, today regarded as one of the best three American presidents, was isolationist until 1939. He then feared that if Nazi Germany took the UK, it could be powerful enough to come to the Western Hemisphere. Even then, he had to contend with the America First Committee, founded in 1940, which fought doggedly to keep the US out of World War II. Had it not been for Pearl Harbour, Kupchan contends, it is questionable whether the US would have entered the War.

There was a sea change in US attitudes during World War II, with the coming to life of the “bipartisan centre,” as isolationists were pushed to the margins of US politics from 1941. President Roosevelt was able to craft a liberal internationalist foreign policy that married US interests and ideals. Anti-communism trumped isolationism, and became the unifying force. The US had a high level of global and ideological ambition that continued right through to the end of the Obama administration.

But the post-Cold War period, in principle a period of celebration for liberal internationalism, saw the seeds being planted for a backlash. Wars in the Middle East have cost US$6 trillion, without many positive results. There is a perception of costly military alliances in Asia and Europe. A global financial crisis saw workers suffer more than bankers. International trade agreements tend to favour the corporate sector ahead of workers. There is a hollowing out of the middle class due to rising income inequality and deindustrialisation. And illegal migration is rising, reflecting an inability or unwillingness to control borders.

Kupchan argues that the presidential election victory of Donald Trump in 2016, and his possible re-election this year, reflects an unsurprising loss of domestic support for internationalist foreign policy. The solid bipartisan centre that was the basis for liberal internationalism has now gone. In sum, Trump represents the beginning of the third era in America’s isolationism/internationalism journey – a turn to neo-isolationism. But he is not the cause, he is a symptom of the underlying conditions. The US is not the only country afflicted by this phenomenon. The politics of grievance has also worked so well in the UK, Hungary, Italy, and Poland.

The US is going to have to find the middle ground between doing too much foreign policy, and doing too little, according to Kupchan. The US has overreached, and he recommends a judicious retrenchment, trimming foreign commitments abroad, but remaining internationalist. The country must also repair the political centre at home, a herculean task. Most importantly, US foreign policy must invest more in important areas like global health, cyber security, and climate change.

In subsequent interviews, Kupchan has expressed his support for President Joe Biden’s narrative of “a foreign policy for the middle class.” But as has happened in the past, US foreign policy has been hijacked by events, notably the wars in the Ukraine and Gaza. US foreign policy is arguably overreaching again, especially as it also tries to manage its great power rivalry with China. Isolationist forces are on the rise, with concerns about the enormous sums being committed, America’s complex relationship with Israel, and the large numbers of illegal migrants entering the US. Finding a middle ground between doing too much foreign policy, and doing too little, as Kupchan recommends, still seems very far from reach.

“Isolationism” is a very rich and insightful book which analyses the very DNA of US foreign policy. It also highlights the very grave risk that, with the hollowing out of America’s political centre, successive US administrations could continue to swing between isolationism and internationalism, leaving US friends and allies stranded, with many of the world’s major challenges not effectively addressed.


This article by John West was first published by the Australian Outlook of the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 19 April 2024
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