Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 3  /  

Isolationist heresies: strategy and the curse of slogans

Isolationist heresies: strategy and the curse of slogans Isolationist heresies: strategy and the curse of slogans
To cite this article: Patrick Porter, “Isolationist heresies: strategy and the curse of slogans”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 3, Summer 2011, pages 17-19.

Over sixty years ago, the United States embarked on a grand strategy of primacy, euphemised often as ‘leadership.’ It fashioned itself as the guardian of world order through a global military presence in which it continues to garrison much of the world; a network of permanent alliances and client states; a pervasive spying and surveillance system; all underwritten by the Bretton-Woods financial order and the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. This strategy aimed well beyond overcoming adversaries. It sought to spread a democratic and market ideology and remake the world in America’s image. By becoming the anchor of world security, the U.S would deter or overmatch enemies, reassure friends and potential rivals, and remain the sole benevolent superpower with its domestic liberalism secure in a liberal globe. While debate continues about whether this primacy is ultimately good for America, it is becoming clear that it cannot last forever, at least in its current form.

The dominance of the United States is under strain. Its debt currently stands at around $14 trillion. Formerly the world’s largest creditor, it is now its greatest debtor. Repaying the interest on that debt alone is a weighty burden. The Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regards this debt as the greatest threat to national security. The Secretary of Defence warns that the US could become what Eisenhower feared, “militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent.” Budget deficits continue to be heavy, occupying ever-greater percentages of its GDP. America’s ability to restore the eroding economic foundations of its power while satisfying the consumer demands of its citizens and maintaining global military hegemony is in doubt. It is recovering from a financial crisis, a war in Iraq whose combined costs could reach $3 trillion, and commitments ranging through Afghanistan-Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and South Korea that deplete the time and energy of its leaders and place it constantly in the eye of geopolitical storms. To be sure, we cannot know the future. Forecasts of imperial decline have been wrong before. But its ambitious commitments exceed its resources and its contracting power. Worse, especially now that it has warily shouldered an ever-expanding diplomatic crisis in Libya, it lacks a comfortable surplus of power in reserve to react to other contingencies and emergencies. Surely now is a time to consider a scaling back of ‘ends’ as well as a strengthening of means?
To take this modest position, however, is often to be branded an ‘isolationist.’ Senator Rand Paul’s recent proposal to cut America’s $3 billion annual donation to Israel, and to end the days of being its armourer, may or may not be prudent. But a Washington Post columnist dismissed it as ‘neo-isolationist.’ When presidential candidate Ron Paul suggested in a Republican primary debate in 2008 that the US should adopt a more modest statecraft, less inclined to armed intervention and entanglement in the politics of the Islamic world, and questioned its forward-leaning military posture, Senator John McCain waved it away as isolationist, akin to the short-sighted statesmen of the 1930’s. And despite rededicating the U.S. to primacy and expanding targeted killings, escalating in Afghanistan and bombing Libya, President Barack Obama has been accused of stumbling towards isolationism.
This is an old story. Ever since the U.S. was attacked by Imperial Japan on 7 December 1941, its political establishment has argued that new technology married with predatory ideologies has compressed time and space, obliterated boundaries and outmoded natural frontiers. In such a world, the US is no longer essentially secure in a well-defended hemisphere, but must project its power beyond its region. Sensitive to the ‘lesson’ that American disengagement helped bring on global war in 1941; American leaders have forever been on the lookout for isolationist heresies. As Iraq was imploding into communal violence and civil war, President George Bush II declared in a State of the Union address that the most dangerous prophets were not the architects of the Gulf adventure, but isolationists who would have America retreat and leave ‘an assaulted world to fend for itself.’[i] President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy of 2010 claims, ‘America has never succeeded through isolationism. As the nation that helped to build our international system after World War II and to bring about the globalization that came with the end of the Cold War, we must reengage the world on a comprehensive and sustained basis.’[ii] Notice the startling dualism and moral heat of these visions: a more modest strategy would leave other nations defenceless; Americans must choose between isolation and engagement across the board. The vast middle ground between both poles is denied.
Isolationism has become an inflated concept wielded to close down debate. This is due to the narrowness of strategic debate in Washington. A diarchy of liberal internationalists and muscular nationalist hawks places all other ideas under the shadow of a Wilsonian tradition, in which the U.S. has no choice to secure itself but to dominate and convert the world. Members of this consensus regard themselves as different – contrast the unilateralist swagger of the Bush II era and the Obama Administration’s more consensual approach of stealth, charismatic uplift and multilateralist modesty – but these are arguments about the techniques of American hegemony, not the wisdom of hegemony itself. Both major parties have marginalised contrary visions. Those who argue for a withdrawal from global primacy are only to be found on the political fringes of American conservatism and progressivism. In such a narrow political-intellectual market, the richness of the competing traditions of American statecraft is reduced to caricature. The word ‘neocon’ during the Iraq war degenerated into a lazy word for any undesirably hawkish or muscular diplomacy. The word ‘isolationist’ has also been emptied of meaning and become a rhetorical device to stifle and delegitimise dissent.
What is isolationism, exactly? Isolationism is at root both a theory of American security, holding that the U.S. should insulate itself from commitments and conflicts to protect itself, and a species of American exceptionalism, born of a dislike of the Old World’s corrupt diplomacy and a desire to remain aloof from it. Actual isolationism as a conscious policy is historically extremely rare. The lockdown of Tokugawa Japan from outside influence is one example among few. Historically, it was never the grand strategy of the U.S. to isolate itself from the world. It was always extensively engaged in international trade and diplomacy. Many of those unfortunate interwar American forbears who became infamous for their isolationism were not the provincial reactionaries that memory credits them for. Even Republicans like Robert Taft did not call for the strict isolation of the United States from world affairs. A broad church, they were more often not isolationists but ‘hemispherists.’ They believed that the U.S. could defend itself amply across a vast domain from far into the Pacific through to the territories of the Monroe Doctrine in South America and off its eastern coast. To believe that the state should content itself with defending a domain from Alaska to Luzon, Canada to Argentina, Greenland to Brazil, (or beyond that if we include the Philippines), is not the equivalent of hiding under the bed.
Moreover, contrary to the dominant myths of U.S. statecraft, the U.S. was not passively isolationist and dormant before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Washington had placed a stranglehold on Imperial Japan in the form of an economic embargo on shipments of raw materials and oil shipments, and an asset freeze, in pursuit of an East Asian ‘open door’ of trading interests, presenting Tokyo with the choice between abdicating its imperial ambitions and challenging American power. Contrary to the myths that hardened among the makers of U.S. statecraft after World War Two, security crises can be created by American presence, not just its absence. This is a persistent blind spot. Now, political explanations for the rise of Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network often focus on the irresponsibility of ‘leaving’ Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Cold War, rather than what became a driving ideological force in its jihad against the U.S., America’s armed presence in support of Gulf regimes loathed by the Bin Ladenists. This does not necessarily mean that engagement can never be prudent. But it is to recognise that it can generate costs and blowback, liabilities worth including in any strategic assessment. 
The isolationist accusation loses sight of these complexities and does violence to diplomatic prehistory. It draws on a binary vision of history, where American absence is almost always unwise and dangerous, and American presence is always far-sighted and prudent. Thus ‘isolationist’ is now a term hurled not only at those very few Americans who believe the U.S. should ‘come home’ and shelter on its own continent, but at those who oppose a grand strategy of global dominance; who believe the costs of the Faustian bargains the US has made with authoritarian states in the Middle East outstrip the gains; and who question the wisdom of permanent alliances rather than temporary ones. High-stakes debate fell prey to sloganeering.
For the theologian and prophet Reinhold Niebuhr, the sloganisation of debate was particularly a problem for debate about foreign relations. Though policymaking is always fraught by dilemmas, tragic choices and ambiguity, ‘distance and ignorance’ increased the danger that simplism, ideology and fundamentalism would mask these difficulties and damage statecraft. The War on Terror, like the Cold War he lived through, could be rhetorically recast to the point where a sober consideration of costs and benefits would be replaced by seductively simple rhetoric. Doctrine became dogma. George Kennan’s containment – pragmatic, selective, measured- could be universalised and militarised. Now, the death of Osama Bin Laden overshadows a reckoning of what it cost, and whether it could have been achieved more cheaply. Yet now is a time where we need a sophisticated debate about realigning America’s role with its power. As Jack Hunter argues, ‘On both domestic and foreign policy, America desperately needs a cost/benefit analysis, not simply a blind defense of cost during a time of national jubilation. The death of America’s top enemy—and the way in which we achieved it—should encourage national reflection and hopefully a major reassessment of what this country can realistically achieve militarily. We should also begin to consider what we can afford and what we cannot.’[iii]
The ‘isolationist’ smear and the mentality behind it makes it harder to argue for a middle ground. It is anti-strategic in essence, because in its dualistic assumption of global engagement versus isolation, it denies the possibility of compromise and adjustment, demands pure absolutes in an impure and constraining world, and makes it more difficult to obey the never-ending dialectic of recapturing coherence between ends and means. As Walter Lippmann observed during the Cold War as he despaired at the limitlessness of the Truman Doctrine:
We are disposed to think that the issue is either this or that, either all or nothing, either isolationism or globalism, either total peace or total war, either one world or no world, either disarmament or absolute weapons, either pious resolutions or atomic bombs, either disarmament or military supremacy, either non-intervention or a crusade, either democracy or tyranny, either the abolition of war or a preventative war, either appeasement or unconditional surrender, either non-resistance or a strategy of annihilation. There is no place in this ideological pattern of the world for adoption of limited ends or limited means, for the use of checks and balances among contending forces, for the demarcation of spheres of influence and of power and of interest, for accommodation and compromise and adjustment, for the stabilization of the status quo, for the restoration of an equilibrium. Yet this is the field of an efficient diplomacy.[iv]
In the shadow of this reductive dualism, there is little room for one alternative grand strategy, that of offshore balancing. This strategy would position America not as a wandering vigilante, nor as a passive gatekeeper, but as a heavyweight husbanding its resources and prepared to intervene in extremis to prevent an unfavourable balance of power. It would not seek to dominate strategic regions, but would be prepared to deny such dominance to others. Recognising that the Pax Americana cannot go on forever, and that the eventual resumption of multi-polar competition is a fact of life, it would consciously sacrifice some of the prestige of being the unipolar behemoth, in return for a more ‘free hand’ strategically, shouldering less of the burden of international security and addressing the strategic deficit not with a larger military, but a smaller policy. It would play harder to get, being less prone to the moral hazards that come with underwriting others’ security, and more wary of allowing others to free ride on its overburdened shoulders. It would make its alliances less ambitious and expansionist, or even replace permanent alliances with temporary expedient ones.
For those who grew up with US grand strategy as it has evolved since World War Two, such an alternative is hard to imagine. But it has a logic that can be traced back to the Founding Fathers. For most of American history, it was not axiomatic that the US should have permanent alliances, a long-range military protectorate, or that it should assume the burden of brokering peace on other continents. The Founding Fathers were neither the prototypical ‘neocon nation’ crusaders of Robert Kagan’s vision, nor were they original isolationists. They did not oppose commerce abroad, or the dismembering of contacts with foreign nations. Theirs was a more pragmatic grand strategy somewhere in the middle. Consider George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796. With the newborn republic vulnerable and nervous, Washington advised that the U.S. should accumulate the commodities of space and time in order to grow, and do so by deliberately limiting its relationship with Europe and preserve its geopolitical distance. Temporary alliances in emergency could be prudent – after all, the help of France had been critical to the Revolutionary War. But permanent alliances and military entanglements in Europe could jeopardise security, deplete wealth, encourage the creation of a swollen military establishment, and harm its very political fabric. Within a long-term vision of restrained activism, there was still the willingness to project power when directly threatened, for example in the later Tripolitan wars against the Barbary Pirates. American statecraft was born in a cradle not of binary visions of empire and isolation, but of carefully calibrated power-political thought. The republic’s early history demonstrates that there is a point of equilibrium between unbounded globalism and short-sighted insularity, and that Americans do not have to choose between hiding from the world or dominating it.
Those of us from outside the U.S. have a serious interest in this question. Our interests are tied to the survival of America as a powerful democracy capable of sustaining its capacity to intervene against would-be hegemonic predators, and to the potential disasters of a hegemonic grand strategy again becoming aggressive. It should be easier to debate how the U.S. should cope with the potential return of multipolarity, how to go about strategies of retrenchment, and the painful ‘guns or butter’ decisions that must be made over the next decade. Even if the U.S. continues to pursue global hegemony, clearly it cannot keep fighting campaigns of armed nationbuilding and counterinsurgency, or amassing liabilities well beyond its ability to meet them. America’s ability to rise above binary slogans and confront these questions, and match the utopian visions of Wilson with the prudence of George Washington, will be critical in the years ahead.

[i] “Transcript: President Bush’s State of the Union Address”, 31 January 2006, Washington Post at, accessed 14 May 2011.
[ii] President of the United States, National Security Strategy (May 2010), p.11.
[iii] Jack Hunter, “Obama kept us safe”, The American Conservative, 5 May 2011, at, accessed 11 May 2011.
[iv] Walter Lippmann, “The Rivalry of Nations”, The Atlantic, (February 1948), pages 17-20, page.19.

Copy link