Charles Kupchan joins the podcast to make sense of America’s tradition of isolationism. Charles is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.
Beginning in the 1990s, and then really picking up after 9/11, the United States overreached ideologically by thinking it could turn Iraq and Afghanistan into Ohio. It overreached economically by throwing open the nation’s doors and saying the more trade, the better. And suddenly, I think, Americans said to themselves and to their leaders, ‘Wait a minute. Too much world, not enough America.’
Key Highlights Include
- Isolationism’s Place in America’s National Identity
- The Relationship Between Isolationism and American Exceptionalism
- A Brief History of Isolationism in the United States
- Similarities Between the Rise of China and the Early United States
- Donald Trump and the Reemergence of Isolationism
Back in April, President Joe Biden announced a deadline of September 11th to remove all American troops from America’s longest war: Afghanistan. As American troops have withdrawn over the past few weeks, the Taliban has overtaken the country at a frightening pace. Despite the fact that many believed it was time for America to depart Afghanistan, but the consequences have left many to second guess the decision.
Nonetheless, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has been anticipated for a long time. Both Obama and Trump campaigned to remove American troops. Indeed, Biden also recognizes the need to reassess America’s role in the world as well. Some describe the shift as retrenchment, while others call it isolationist. Of course, isolationism is not a new concept for America. Charles Kupchan writes, “Isolationism lasted as long as it did because it was rooted in who Americans were and what they stood for.”
I wanted to understand America’s tradition of isolationism, so I reached out to Charles Kupchan, author of the recent book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. Charles is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Our conversation explores America’s past to better understand its present and its future. You’ll find Charles does not endorse isolationism, but does remind us we cannot ignore it. Of course, this is a conversation with a lot of perspectives and opinions, so please add your thoughts to the conversation at democracyparadox.com where you will find a full transcript and an area to leave comments. You can also follow along on Instagram or Twitter or email me at email@example.com. But for now… This is my conversation with Charles Kupchan…
Charles Kupchan, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Pleased to be with you.
Charles, your book was so comprehensive. It goes through the entire American history of foreign policy through the lens of isolationism. It’s such an impressive work. You took so much time and so much care with the book. I’m very impressed.
Well, thank you for that. I’m still recovering. It was a heavy lift. When I decided to write a book on the history of isolationism in the United States, number one, I was struck that nobody had written that book before. You know, because it’s a big theme. It’s a big part of American history and the American experience. There were so many important and rich stories that I ended up needing to tell.
You know, what I found interesting, as I read the book, at times it felt like just a comprehensive history of American foreign policy full stop. But the reason why was because isolationism was such a key component of our foreign policy for so long. And I don’t think I realized that fully until I read your book. There’s an interesting quote where you write, “Isolationism persisted across time party and region because it was embedded in the nation’s identity and infused its politics.” So, I guess a great place to start with is to ask how did isolationism embed itself into American identity?
Well, I think it comes back to the idea of American exceptionalism. That from the very beginning, even before the very beginning, going back to before the nation’s founding, American colonists were talking about themselves as the new Israel, as a country that was going to remake the world. That would blaze a new path of republican government of liberty, of prosperity, and over time, share it with others. But the founders believed that to do that the United States needed to bank on its natural security. They feared, deeply feared, that ambition abroad would come at the expense of liberty and prosperity at home. So, when George Washington in his farewell address of 1796 said we want commercial relations with everyone, political connections with no one. He basically set a guidepost that successive generations followed really until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
It’s such a different form or a different version of American exceptionalism. You write in the book, “For much of the country’s history, belief in American exceptionalism fueled isolationism rather than ambitious efforts to recreate the world in America’s image. Indeed, from the founding era, through the end of the 19th century, the notion of American exceptionalism served as isolationism’s ideological, anchor.” Do you feel that, that there’s still a strain of American exceptionalism that continues to identify with isolationism to this day?
I do. I mean, I think that that strain has been there all along particularly in the American Heartland, what my friend and colleague Walter Russell Mead calls the Jacksonian parts of the country. The more populist and libertarian parts of the country where there still is a concern about keeping the federal government out of my hair, keeping other countries out of our hair. We won’t mess around in your affairs, if you don’t mess around in our affairs.
And I think that in part, because of what I would call overreach. Beginning in the 1990s, and then really picking up after 9/11, the United States overreached ideologically by thinking it could turn Iraq and Afghanistan into Ohio. It overreached economically by throwing open the nation’s doors and saying the more trade, the better. It overreached institutionally by trying to take Western institutions and bring in the Chinese, the Russians, their brothers, their sisters, their wives, their cousins. And suddenly, I think, Americans said to themselves and to their leaders, ‘Wait a minute. Too much world, not enough America. I want to get off this globalization train, let’s hit the brakes.’ And in many respects, I think Donald Trump was the figurehead who was responding to that ‘Too much world, not enough America’ refrain.
And so, in that respect to directly answer your question, I think that a more isolationist, introverted version of exceptionalism is making a comeback. But we’re now in the midst of a great national debate about this very question. Biden represents a very different approach to this than Trump did. And I think we won’t know where this debate goes until we know a little bit more about what’s going to unfold in the coming years.
So, before we get too deep into contemporary politics, I want to ask you about a few examples from American history, because you do such an amazing job of using American history throughout the book to not just tell a story, but to help explain this concept of isolationism. You draw a very clear divide between what comes before World War II and what comes after, in terms of the way, how Americans think about foreign policy, in terms of how isolationism interacts with the American identity, if we will.
But there was a moment after World War I where Wilson comes back with the Treaty of Versailles, where he is laying out a blueprint for the United States to have a larger role within the world, to join the league of nations, to become more of a powerful player within global diplomacy. Can we look at that example, because I think it helps us understand the power of the isolationist trend and understand why it is that we didn’t take that path? What was different after World War I than World War II and how isolationist ideas played a role in derailing the Treaty of Versailles at that time?
If you’ll permit me, I’m going to wind the clock back a little bit to the late 19th century, because I think to understand Wilson and what happened in 1919, 1920, we need to talk about what happened in 1898. And I think it’s an oversimplification, but not a gross one to say that from the founding era through the 1890s, , the United States basically was a North American power and was decidedly against extending its strategic reach beyond North America except to defend a trader here, a citizen there. We were sending our Navy around the world in the 19th century, but only for very short, temporary operations to defend our economic interests.
And it wasn’t what we call blue water Navy either. Was it?
Absolutely not. It was a Navy that was focused on two real missions. One, was coastal protection and the other was the protection of commerce. It was not about battleships. It was not about having a logistical capability to support operations in distant theaters. It was a very different kind of naval, establishment. I’m glad you asked that question though, because that debate kicks in in the 1890s and because the United States had arrived as a great power economically, which really happened after the civil war. You have a number of key players, including Alfred Thayer Mahan, including Teddy Roosevelt, including President McKinley who came into the office toward the end of the 1890s, who said, ‘Hey, we now need a level of geopolitical ambition commensurate with our economic power.’
And in the 1890s, the United States starts to build a blue water Navy. It starts to buy battleships. Huge, fierce, ugly debate in Congress and, in fact, just to give you a quick anecdote, those people that supported the acquisition of battleships had to call them coastal protection battleships, because they basically wanted to pretend that they were for protecting the American coast to sneak them through Congress. That’s how tough the sell was. But then in 1898, we take our exceptionalism on the road. We take manifest destiny on the road. We pick a fight with the Spanish to kick them out of Cuba. And this is an important second clause, proceed to occupy militarily Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii Samoa, and the Wake islands.
And an insurgency breaks out in the Philippines and it looks a lot like the insurgency in Iraq 10, 15 years ago. And Americans say, ‘What is going on here? You told us we were buying battleships to take manifest destiny on the road. And now we’re an Imperial power killing Filipinos, who are killing American troops. And there is a backlash. They say, ‘We don’t like this. You sold us a false bill of goods.’ So, then Wilson comes along. He learns the lessons of the McKinley-Roosevelt mistake. And he says, when he takes the country to war in 1917, ;I have no realist intentions. This is about saving the world for democracy. This is about American ideals.’
And he then tries to sell the League of Nations as an investment in an idealist world in which the United States would not be pursuing its interests, but only its values. So, McKinley tries the kind of realist empire. Wilson goes all the way to the other side and he tries the idealist approach to American internationalism and it’s rejected. And it’s rejected partly because of isolationism. There was a group of senators that were called irreconcilables. And they basically said American engagement and the league of nations over my dead body. Not happening. We are nationalists, not internationalists. But it really sank due to unilateralism. The Republicans were, I would say, what you might call burgeoning internationalists, especially those who had supported the Spanish American war. But what they weren’t prepared to do was attach the United States to an international body that could compromise American sovereignty.
So, Wilson tried three times, two votes in 1919, 1 vote in 1920. All three times the League of Nations went down in flames. Then Wilson says, ‘Well, you know what? I couldn’t convince the Senate. I’m going to take my case to the American people.’ And he says that the presidential election of 1920 is a referendum on American internationalism and Wilsonianism. Senator Warren Harding said, ‘Make my day, I stand for the policies of George Washington. I am against Wilsonianism. I am against entangling alliances.’ Harding wins in one of the most lopsided elections in American history. And we begin the isolationism of the 1920s and 30s.
Was Wilsonian Internationalism, would that have even been possible without Republican Imperialism being kind of a preface to it. Did our engagement within the world during the Spanish American War make possible an opening for Wilson to be able to look to a new way to be able to engage in the world ?
Well, they share common ground in as much as Roosevelt and Wilson were pushing back against the idea of American detachment from the outside world. We were never detached economically. We were never detached religiously, never detached culturally, but we were detached strategically. We really did have this sense of the Western hemisphere as being the American neighborhood. Everyone else should stay out. We’re going to stay here. We have a system. You have a system. We leave you alone. You leave us alone. That really begins to change with the war of 1898, the Spanish American War. And Americans are now envisaging the country as a polity that is not detached from the outside world strategically. I’m not sure that you could have had Wilson’s idealism without McKinley’s realism, because it was that swing of the pendulum away from empire that brought Wilson’s idealism.
And he emerged in a religious family. This was kind of a mix of secular idealism and religious Messianism, if you will. And it’s interesting that the big debates of 1898 and 1899 really sent the Republican and the Democratic parties into different trajectories that we still see today. Under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans became the party of power and unilateralism. The Democrats under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan became the anti-imperialists. They became the party of internationalism with multilateralism, internationalism through institutions. And that split really has continued to today where we see Republicans and Democrats still divided over how internationalist we should be and whether we should be unilateralist or multilateralist in our foreign policy.
So, when we talk about American isolationism, we began – we even began talking about American isolationism as a form of American exceptionalism. And most people think of isolationism as very much something that’s American. Europe was not isolationist. In many ways it couldn’t be isolationist because it was surrounded by rivals. Every one of the countries was surrounded by a rival. So, is isolationism really something that’s uniquely American? Is it something that we see in other parts of the world? And how is it different if we do see it in other countries?
I think American isolationism is unique or exceptional, to use that word, in part because the United States enjoys an exceptional geographic bounty. And the founders were quite aware of this. If you go back and read the Farewell Address, the Federalist papers, the work of Thomas Paine, early addresses by American presidents, they’re all talking about flanking oceans to the east and west; a large territorial expansion; no immediate threats from our neighbors other than via Europe’s Imperial powers. And so, the United States had the luxury of saying we enjoy a natural security and we do. And one of the reasons that isolationism had such strong appeal is that it’s kind of straightforward, it’s self-evident. Europe is 3,000 plus miles away. Asia is some 5,000 miles away. ‘Hey, we have it pretty good. Why rock the boat?’
Now, there are other examples of what I would call isolation, but they were somewhat different. One would be the United Kingdom during what they call the era of splendid isolation and what they meant was we are not going to engage in rivalry in Europe, on the continent. We will isolate ourselves from great power rivalry in Europe, so that we can tend to our Imperial possessions. So, that’s a little bit different. And then the other example that comes to mind would be Tokugawa Japan or, in some ways, Mao’s China where there was, a kind of, in both cases, an effort to cordon the country off.
I think that one of the key differences, in let’s say the Japanese case, is that the Japanese wanted to isolate themselves in all respects: culturally, religiously, economically, no immigrants. They really wanted to be a kind of just walls around the country. The United States was never like that. We were a trading nation from the very beginning. And so our isolationism was very much more of a strategic nature. And did as I said emerge because of our geographic good fortune.
Now, the isolationism within China obviously extended past Mao into Deng Xiaoping and in some ways extended in parts all the way up until Xi Jinping. And in some ways Xi is even constrained by some isolationist forces in China. Or do you think that those have kind of withered away as China’s become more of a great power?
Well, I would say that under Xi Jinping, we have seen a turn, and in some ways, you might call the current era in China the 1890s to the United States. That is to say our light bulb went on. We said, ‘We’ve arrived economically. Let’s now punch at our weight.’ And I would say that China is in some ways, going through the same phase, ‘We’ve arrived economically. Let’s punch at our weight and be respected in a way that we deserve.’
I do think though that it’s worth pointing out, especially since you raised the comparison, Justin, that in many respects, the Chinese are following our playbook. They are rising economically and using commercial power as the leading edge of their role in the world. They are avoiding alliances. They don’t have any alliances to speak of. We’ve got allies all over the world. They have none. They don’t want them in part because they don’t want to hitch their wagon to other powers.
And the other area where I think you can see some very interesting parallels is we began to enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the 1890s. The Monroe Doctrine itself dates to the 1820s, but we didn’t do anything about it. Right? We said, ‘Hey, no more empires in the Western hemisphere we’re the chief here,’ and that was it. We start to enforce it in the 1890s. I think that the Chinese are kind of fishing around for their own Monroe doctrine. And they’re saying to the United States, ‘Hey, this is our backyard: the Western Pacific, the Western, areas of the Pacific Ocean near our coasts. Buzz off. Give us some, breathing room.’ So, I think there are some important parallels here between where China is and where we were in the late 19th century.
So, you began mentioning that isolationism was kind of self-evident because we didn’t have neighbors on our border, but we kind of did. I mean, we had native American tribes up and down our frontier throughout most of our history through the 18th and 19th century. How did the conflicts with American Indian tribes fit into larger ideas of isolationism itself?
Yeah. I mean, it’s an excellent question. And I don’t want to suggest that the United States was not expansionist. It was fiercely expansionist. I don’t want to suggest that the United States was not coercive and ruthless. It was both toward Native Americans, toward Blacks, toward Mexicans. In the 1840s, we took about half of Mexican territory. Just grabbed it. And so, we were quite expansionist and ruthless when it came to colonizing, if you will, North America and making it to the Pacific. And that needs to be stated. That’s part of American history. And by isolationism, I’m really referring to, do we go beyond North America? Do we engage in the game of great power politics? Do we have a battleship fleet which we send around the world and beat our chest?
That’s the sort of test for me of whether the United States is isolationist or not. So, in some ways, this is terminology. We were fiercely expansionist in North America. We were isolationists further afield. The other point I would make here is that there’s no question that our behavior toward Blacks, Native Americans, Latin Americans was completely at odds with our exceptionalist narrative. Here we are talking about the United States as blazing a new path. All men created equal. We’re the new Israel.
And in the meantime, we’re either eradicating or subjugating Native Americans. We tried on numerous occasions to attack and annex Canada. We attack and annex a big chunk of Mexico, but in the American narrative, in the narrative of exceptionalism, Blacks, Native Americans, Latin Americans, they were not part of the American experience. They were not part of the American experiment they needed to be civilized, Christianized. Maybe they could end up in it. But it was through that turn of phrase through that slide of hand, if you will, that Americans were able to subjugate Native Americans and at the same time sustain their exceptionalist narrative.
So, let’s walk backwards to the origins of American – of American history, really. Because that’s kind of where you start the narrative. You start with a very striking moment for American foreign policy, especially in the way that we think of treaties and international obligations today. You bring up the fact that when France exercised its treaty obligations with us and said, ‘United States, we expect you to come and be our ally and fight alongside us.’ During the Napoleonic wars, I think it was earlier than the Napoleonic technically, but Washington essentially tore up the treaty and just walked away. I’d like to know how striking is that? Would the American nation just break a treaty and Alliance that same way today? Is there a dramatic difference between America today and Washington’s America in that lens?
Well, it’s a very interesting episode. I’m glad you raised it. I’m guessing that most of your listeners aren’t aware of it. So, I’ll tell the story because it’s fascinating. In 1776, the continental Congress produces what’s called the Model Treaty. And the Model Treaty was in some ways a dry run for Washington’s Farewell Address. It’s guidance to our diplomats that says basically let’s conclude reciprocal trade with everyone and avoid any geopolitical connections, because they’re just trouble. Then we’re fighting the war with the Brits and to put it euphemistically, we’re getting our butts kicked. And so, the founders look each other in the face and say, ‘Listen, we got a serious choice here. We can lose or we can go find an ally.’ And they decide, ‘Let’s go find an ally.’
So, despite the fact that they didn’t want to tether the United States to anybody, they form an Alliance with France. France sends money, gunpowder troops, ships, and were it not for the French, we probably would’ve lost the revolutionary war. You and I, Justin, would be conducting this conversation with British accents. But fortunately, the French came. We won and we began life as an independent nation. A few years later, in 1793 war breaks out again between Britain and France, the French contact the United States. And they say the Alliance that we formed in 1778 is a forever Alliance. ‘We pulled your chestnuts out of the fire. How many troops, how many ships, how much armed ammunition are you going to bring?’
And what does George Washington do? He issues the Proclamation of Neutrality in which he basically says to the French good night and good luck. As you put it he more or less tore up the treaty unilaterally. It was hugely controversial. The Jeffersonians go nuts. They’re more pro-French and effectively accuse him of violating the constitution, because the constitution says ratification is two-thirds for treaties. Here’s the president just saying no. And it led to a constitutional crisis, which to this day has not been resolved. And it is in many respects, a very telling example of just how reluctant the United States was going all the way back to the 1790s to honor an alliance and to get entangled in great power war.
Now, if an American president did that today. If we had an Alliance that was fully ratified by the Senate and the president just ripped up the treaty and said, I don’t feel like honoring this alliance. How would Americans react today to that?
It has happened several times recently. One was the withdrawal of a mutual defense pact with Taiwan. Another was withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and there are other instances in which presidents have decided to withdraw from treaties. There have been efforts to challenge the constitutionality of these moves and to say, ‘Listen, if the Senate requires two-thirds to ratify a treaty, shouldn’t it require two thirds to undo the treaty?’ And the courts have generally shied away from inserting themselves deeply into this question. I think it’s safe to say that because the constitution is silent on getting out of treaties, nobody has really been able to challenge the prerogative of the president to make such decisions. As I said, Jefferson and his fellow travelers tried and failed.
Although it’s worth pointing out, Justin, that in part, because of the issue that you raised, Washington did not annul the treaty. Washington said, ‘I’m not going to honor the treaty in this circumstance. I’m not going to act on it. But I am not annulling it or canceling it.’ And that alliance with the French actually continued to exist until the early 1800s, 1801, I believe, to be exact, in which a follow-on treaty, the Treaty of Mortefontaine replaced the Alliance. And so, in that respect, Washington did not directly contravene what was presumed to be the constitutional prerogative at that time. We live in a world in which Congress has abdicated much of its responsibility on foreign policy. And so, in that respect presidents today get away with stuff that they never could have gotten away with In the 19th century.
So a big part of your book talks about the process, the buildup of liberal internationalism, but also talks about how America’s begun to shift back towards isolationism once again. When did American foreign policy begin its shift back towards isolationism? Would you pick an exact historical moment or even just a general time period when it seemed like people were starting to change their opinions?
Well, I think that, you know, the shift away from isolationism was sharp. It occurred on a dime. And that moment was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The America First Committee had formed in the forties to keep Roosevelt from getting more involved in World War II. Eighty percent of the American public was opposed to involvement in World War II. That changes almost overnight after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And the war resolutions in Congress were almost unanimous and that really begins this long run of American internationalism and the redefinition of American exceptionalism to the one that you and I have grown up with which is that American exceptionalism is a justification, a rationale, for going out and changing the world.
I would say that the first signs of, this narrative changing appear in the 1990s. And that’s after the Soviet Union falls apart. There is a rapid decline in the coverage of foreign affairs in the media. Bill Clinton, the president at the time engages very gingerly in the Balkans. Really tries to deemphasize the use of force. So, you began to see this turning inward in the nineties. Then we have 9/11 and we focus again heavily on the outside world. First into Afghanistan, then into Iraq. Then we’re in Libya. Then we’re in Syria. And I think in some ways it was a reaction to the wars of 9/11 that brought the isolationist narrative, or at least the retrenchment narrative back front and center.
And it’s worth keeping in mind that Barack Obama, who was internationalist, ran for reelection on a bumper sticker that said it’s time for nation building here at home. He pulled out of Iraq. He said, ‘I will be out of Afghanistan by the time my presidency ends.’ Well, it didn’t work in part because the Taliban got too strong and the Islamic state came along. And then Trump comes into office, and in many respects, he picked up the task that Obama started.
Now Biden, he’s rejecting much of what Trump did, but he is continuing to pull back. Right? He’s left effectively Afghanistan despite the fact that the country is falling apart. He has said no more combat troops in Iraq. And that’s because he has heard loud and clear in the American electorate, Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s enough already. We’ve been fighting these wars for 20 years and we don’t have much to show for it. Now I think that Biden correctly believes that Trump over-corrected. That instead of responding to this cry ‘too much world, not enough America’ in a measured way, Trump slammed on the brakes. He pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, out of the Iran nuclear deal, out of the World Health Organization, he insulted allies. He said, ‘What are our troops doing in South Korea?’ And he made a hash of things.
And I think what Biden is trying to do is to sort of say, ‘I need to correct for these overcorrections. I need to find that new sweet spot. We can’t go back to the old days of America sending out the fire trucks every time there’s a problem, because the American people won’t have it. On the other hand, we can’t go back to isolationism because we live in a world that’s irretrievably, interdependent, and globalized.’ I believe that what we need to do is find that sweet middle ground and my own read of Biden is that that’s what he’s trying to do.
So, was Donald Trump an isolationist in the traditional definition that you use in the book?
I think that Trump’s instincts were isolationist. I would call him a kind of closet neo-isolationist in that if left to his own devices, I think he would have pulled the United States out of the wars in the Middle East and possibly decamped from major U.S. positions in Europe and in Asia. He didn’t do that in part because that’s heresy. And I think the people around him and the people in the Pentagon were, ‘No. No, you cannot do that.’
But if you actually look at what he said he wanted to do, if you look at the way he treated traditional allies, the Germans, the South Koreans, others, I think he really did have a conception of a world that looks more like the 19th century than the 21st in which we go back to hardcore sovereign nation states, each looking out for its own back. And I think that Trump correctly read an American electorate that had tired of the exertions of global leadership. But that, as I said before, he went too far in attempting to solve the problem.
Now Biden’s known as being a voice that was opposed to the surge, opposed to some of the involvement, even when he was vice president within Obama’s White House. Now, obviously, he’s got a long track record of international involvement before that. But you’d still say that both Biden and Obama are not isolationists, you still described them as internationalists, right?
Yes. Yes and I mean, isolationism to me is a fairly identifiable, hardcore position. I personally advocate what I call judicious retrenchment, which really means getting out of these wars of choice in places like the Middle East and focusing on the big geopolitical meat and potatoes issues: stability in Eurasia; dealing with the rise of China; dealing with climate change; dealing with cyber. You know, we are in this boat together, folks, and we need to realize that. But I do think that in the end of the day, even though Obama and Biden are internationalists, they are politicians. They need to and want to take the pulse of the country, because that’s how they prosper. That’s how they stay in office. That’s how they govern.
And in my mind, the domestic foundations of American foreign policy have cracked. That bipartisan center that formed during the Cold War and World War II, that’s gone. And I think that’s why today Biden is struggling to find that new sweet spot. That new equilibrium where Americans can again congregate to support engagement abroad and it’s no accident that Biden’s moniker, his bumper sticker is foreign policy for the middle class. What does that mean? That means reconnecting America’s role in the world to the security and prosperity of average working Americans. And I think Biden correctly gets it. That if we can’t repair the country from the inside out, if we can’t rebuild confidence in America’s governing institutions and its economy, we’re never going to get our foreign policy right. Because we’ll be too dysfunctional at home.
So, during the Trump presidency Charles, there was a persistent narrative that Donald Trump’s approach, not just in terms of his personality, not just in terms of certain issues, but even just in terms of his real policies, his foreign policy in particular, was oftentimes immature. We described the generals and different people that were in his cabinet sometimes as the grownups in the room. And oftentimes they were described that way because they represented the liberal internationalist foreign policy that had dominated going back to World War II. They represented that American tradition of liberal internationalism. And so, we oftentimes describe them as the grown-ups not just because they were mature, but also because they represented certain policy perspectives as well.
I’d like to know from your perspective, after researching isolationism, do you feel that isolationism itself is an immature form of political thought? Or do you think that there is some maturity in retrenchment and some of the other ideas that isolationism fosters?
Well isolationism is still a dirty word. It’s thrown around the halls of Washington to tar and feather people who argue that we should trim our commitments, pull in our sales, do less. And that’s in many respects a legacy of the 1940s and the Cold War when isolationism was banished to the margins of American politics and anybody who was basically supportive of isolationism was a whack job. One of the things I wanted to do in the book is say, hey, wait a minute. Let’s have a full-throated conversation about the full range of options.
Let’s keep in mind that isolationism served the country extremely well. The United States rose in unmolested fashion in the 19th century in part, because we tended our own garden. We weren’t building battleships and paying for colonies. We were building the American economy. And pushing the frontier and, you know, making America great to use Trump’s words. Then isolationism also had a very dark era: the 1930s. Americans stood by as fascism and Nazism and genocide started to sweep Europe. Had it not been for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s possible we would have never entered the war. That we would have remained bystanders. That was a strategic error of historic proportions. And that partly earned isolationism its bad name.
But today let’s have a big debate in which we look at full on liberal internationalism. Let’s talk about the strengths and weaknesses of isolationism. Let’s talk about what’s in the middle. And I think that Donald Trump may have been immature. My personal opinion is that he did the country a lot of damage more because he threatened the underpinnings of liberal democracy. Because he challenged the outcome of an election that 50 states confirmed because he doesn’t believe that there are facts out there.
But he had a very astute political sense when he became president. And I saw him to begin to pursue a foreign policy that was characterized by unilateralism, isolationism, protectionism, racism. I was like, wow, this is right out of American history. I don’t think he was doing that because he read a lot of American history. I think he was following that course because he was tapping into a strain in the American electorate and the American political culture that is alive and well and that needs to be contended with.
And so, in that respect, I think Trump has done us a service by showing us the complexity of American politics and American identity. And by driving home to us that we have a problem and that there are a lot of Americans out there who are not happy, who feel that they have been on the losing end of globalization, who feel that the system, if you will, hasn’t worked for them. For me, the big challenge of our time is not to turn our backs on Trump, to bury Trump, to say good riddance. It’s to learn the lessons, to say, how did that happen? Why was he elected? Why did he almost get reelected? And what can we do policy wise to make sure that the illiberalism and the intolerance that was part of that experience over those four years are addressed at their roots.
Well, thank you so much for joining me. This has been an excellent conversation and I definitely recommend the book, Isolationism. It’s such an in-depth exploration of American history from an angle that I hadn’t really thought about. And like you said, you to get into a lot of of examples and a lot of history that I wasn’t aware even existed, some of the details and some of the stories that you tell. So, thank you so much for telling that story.
Thank you, Justin, for hosting, me. Thanks for the nice comments about the book. I hope your listeners will read it. As I said, for me, it was an eye opener. I learned more about my country in writing that book than I did in 60 years of living in this country. So, I hope I can contribute at least a little bit to how we Americans understand who we are.
Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World by Charles Kupchan
Learn more about Charles Kupchan
“The Home Front: Why an Internationalist Foreign Policy Needs a Stronger Domestic Foundation” an article by Charles Kupchan in Foreign Affairs
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