What is Isolationism?
In an increasingly interconnected world it is difficult for any community or nation to truly isolate itself from others. Of course, a few indigenous tribes remain in remote corners of the world. Perhaps they are the last truly isolated peoples left in the world. But even these communities have occasional contact with the outside world. Nonetheless, compared to these isolated communities, it is difficult to describe the United States in the nineteenth century as isolationist. It had diplomatic and commercial ties throughout the world. Moreover, European society inspired its arts, fashion, and culture. Indeed, isolationism is not a complete detachment from the world, but rather an ideology with many different forms or flavors.
Isolationism traditionally refers to a diplomatic isolation where a country remains ambivalent to world affairs. But it can also involve economic, immigration, and even cultural policies. Protectionism and xenophobia often arise alongside isolationist attitudes. However, isolationism involves more than a desire to protect a community from foreign influence. It also includes an ambivalence to the outside world. Protectionist trade policies often exist as a strategy to develop industries oftentimes for eventual export. A purer form of economic isolationism does not value global trade. Moreover, xenophobia can become more about economic security than about increasing cultural heterogeneity. Nonetheless, most people do not distinguish between economic and cultural concerns. They view economics and culture as interwoven into their politics.
Moreover, isolationism does not merely arise from circumstance, but a conscious choice. An isolated community may want closer ties to the world, but struggle to form them due to geographic location or socio-cultural limitations. Isolationism, on the other hand, refers to a conscious choice to remain aloof from world affairs. It is a political decision that depends on a clear sense of national identity.
Despite America’s influence on the world today, it pursued an isolationist foreign policy from its founding until the Spanish-American War. Far removed from the great power rivalries of Europe, the United States avoided “entangling alliances” through most of its early history. George Washington set the isolationist course of American foreign policy when he refused to honor an alliance with the French in 1793. The Proclamation of Neutrality became a guidepost for future Presidents alongside the Farewell Address where he warned “against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue.” A few years later, Thomas Jefferson as President called for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
American isolationism focused primarily on a detachment from the great power rivalries in Europe that led to wars. It did not prevent the United States from territorial expansion. Beyond the purchase of territories through diplomacy, the United States also forcibly seized land from Native American tribes and Mexico particularly throughout the nineteenth century. The Monroe Doctrine implied an American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, but did little about it until the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Moreover, America remained engaged economically and culturally with Europe. Even the protectionist tariffs of the nineteenth century shielded nascent manufacturers to foster future export industries.
Nonetheless, the United States largely avoided the power politics of international relations in Europe until 1898 when it declared war on Spain. The founding fathers resisted the temptation to get involved in European affairs partly out of self-preservation, but the inclination to avoid great power politics went beyond self-interest. Charles Kupchan writes, “Isolationism lasted as long as it did because it was rooted in who Americans were and what they stood for.” Americans transformed isolationism into a form of national identity.
The Turn Away from Isolationism
The Second World War altered America’s place in the world. The United States had turned back to isolationism after World War I. It turned away from two different international visions in Republican Imperialism and Wilsonian Idealism. Neither foreign policy doctrine fit the American character the same way isolationism had. So, the election of 1920 brought isolationism back through what President Warren Harding described as “A Return to Normalcy.” But the discovery of the holocaust made Americans recognize the moral cost of inaction in a way it had never contemplated before.
American foreign policy has always had a moral dimension. Isolationism kept Americans out of the corruption of European politics. It offered a form of moral purity through isolation. The imagery of a shining city upon a hill is used frequently in American politics. The city becomes a beacon of hope to others, but it is also detached and aloof from the world below. The unimaginable tragedy of the holocaust and pure brutality of Nazi Germany made inaction appear callous and narcissistic rather than morally pure.
Nonetheless, Americans have rediscovered the risks of global involvement from the experiences of Vietnam and, more recently, the second Iraq War. Military involvement carries obvious risks whenever the United States puts troops in hostile environments. But other forms of global engagement carry risks as well. Trade liberalization has disrupted communities for the better and the worse. Many communities have lost the industries that once anchored their communities while the affluent held onto the gains from international trade.
Donald Trump brought isolationism to the forefront of American foreign policy debates once again. While Barak Obama and Joe Biden have both shown a reluctance to commit American troops abroad, they both believe in multilateralism as a tool to resolve global issues. Neither wanted to abandon American allies or detach from global politics. Trump, on the other hand, went beyond a preference for unilateralism. Rather he was ambivalent toward the rest of the world. Indeed, ambivalence is the hallmark of isolationism more than any specific policy. It’s important to recognize many Americans share this ambivalence toward world affairs. As Charles Kupchan writes, “Today, however, many Americans are questioning whether their exceptionalist calling has led them astray. When they have done so before, isolationist impulses awakened.” Kupchan offers here both a warning and a prediction.
Listen to the Democracy Paradox’s episode featuring Charles Kupchan, author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World, for a more in-depth exploration into the history of isolationism in the United States.
A Few Sources
Michael Beschloss (2018) Presidents of War The Epic Story From 1807 to Modern Times
Ron Chernow (2017) Grant
Ron Chernow (2010) Washington: A Life
Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon (2020) Exit from Hegemony The Unraveling of the American Global Order
Doris Kearns Goodwin (2018) Leadership in Turbulent Times
John Ikenberry (2020) A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order
Charles Kupchan (2020) Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World
Charles Kupchan (2021), “The Home Front: Why an Internationalist Foreign Policy Needs a Stronger Domestic Foundation,” Foreign Affairs
Jon Meacham (2012), Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Kori Schake (2019), “Back to Basics: How to Make Right What Trump Gets Wrong,” Foreign Affairs