The ‘Isolationist’ Slur and the Foreign Policy Debate


A recent New York Times article ascribing the label “isolationist” to those skeptical of military intervention in Syria and North Korea has generated a flurry of commentary about the overall foreign policy debate.

Matt Duss summarizes the controversy well:

Ask yourself: Do you oppose putting U.S. troops everywhere, all the time? If you answered yes, you might be an isolationist, according to the word’s new definition. A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, based on a new NYT/CBS poll, warned that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria right now.”

In the very next paragraph, however, we are told that, “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

In other words, if you only support bombing unspecified foreign countries with flying robots, you’re exhibiting an isolationist streak.

The “isolationist” epithet actually reared its ugly head a week before the NYTimes article on Tuesday, when Joseph I. Lieberman and Jon Kyl of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute wrote a piece in The Washington Post warning of “the danger of repeating the cycle of American isolationism.”

And even before that, The National Review published a piece criticizing Obama’s “neo-isolationist” approach to foreign policy, which I tore apart on this blog. As Robert Golan-Vilella wrote at The National Interest, that label “only begins to make sense if your default assumption is that the United States can and should be intervening everywhere, all the time.”

“The problem is the default assumption for many in our political elite,” Duss writes, “seems to be that the United States has the right—nay, the duty—to get into everyone’s business, everywhere, all the time. Anything less represents an abdication.”

Indeed, it’s easy enough to see that throwing around the word “isolationist” is a rhetorical attempt to narrow the foreign policy debate to exclude anyone who questions the wisdom of intervening in virtually every corner of the planet.

As Stephen Walt explains:

Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as “isolationist” because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren’t constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense than neoconservatives’ fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks’ fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.

I’m heartened to see so many respectable academics and journalists call out the “isolationist” allegations for what they are, but it’s also important not to run from the label completely. Ohio State political scientist Bear Braumoeller, for example, invalidates the “isolationist” label as used by people like Joe Lieberman, but also insists real isolationism “rarely if ever deserves a place in the analysis of American foreign policy.”

To an extent, the term “isolationist” should be rejected because of its associated connotations of xenophobia and “turning inward.” As readers of this site know, non-interventionist is a better term to describe those with a preference for open borders and engaging in commerce with the world, but who firmly oppose military adventures that go beyond counteracting a specific and imminent threat to Americans.

If we’re serious about accurately characterizing current US foreign policy, it should be readily admitted that it is imperial in nature (the polar opposite of “isolationism,” or non-intervention if you prefer). America’s Grand Strategy is one that seeks global hegemony, total military, economic, and political domination over the world. Any state that dares rival America’s influence is to be met with force, according to the worldview of US foreign policy-makers.

Since World War II, America’s military has spanned the globe and is now postured in over 148 countries, or over 75 percent of the world’s states. Washington has sought to check Russian power in Europe, China’s power in East Asia, and any regional power in the Middle East. It’s zero sum for Uncle Sam: keeping the world weaker means more power for the government and it’s associates. And what is this power worth? It’s worth trillions of dollars extracted from productive sectors of the economy, it’s worth oceans of blood from Americans in uniform and desperate foreign masses unfortunate enough to be on the receiving of our imperialism.

This imperial grand strategy is not only ruthless in its projection abroad, it degrades us here at home. The rule of law takes a back seat to “national security,” so that statutory restrictions and the system of checks and balances that curb arbitrary state power slowly erode. The excessive costs of a massive military-industrial complex with “unwarranted influence,” paying for elective wars and the security of client states, and the world’s most imposing standing army all put total bankruptcy on the proverbial horizon.

In the current climate, I personally feel much more comfortable embracing the isolationist label, despite its unattractive connotations, than embracing any association at all with the status quo. Still, the debate would be better served if everyone from Joe Lieberman to Stephen Walt employed the term “non-interventionist” to describe the dissent. At least then could be proud to be a part of the debate.

39 thoughts on “The ‘Isolationist’ Slur and the Foreign Policy Debate”

  1. As readers of this site know, non-interventionist is a better term to describe those with a preference for open borders and engaging in commerce with the world, but who firmly oppose military adventures that go beyond counteracting a specific and imminent threat to Americans.
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