Is it really “isolationist” not to risk a new Mid-East war today?
During this lull in the Syria tsouris, we’re hearing way too many beltway blowhards bloviate about something they’re calling “our new isolationism” or “the post-American world” or some other extreme label designed to push a personal agenda. Everyone needs to chill out and get a little perspective. What we’re now doing about Syria is better than what we were about to do, and a whole lot better than what we’ve done to too many other countries over the years
It should be immediately obvious that the United States, with 700 foreign military bases (compared to Russia’s 11), is not exactly isolationist, and won’t be any time soon. What follows is an attempt at a longer reassurance that no apocalypse is at hand just because we’re not bombing Syria or otherwise being exceptionally American.
In the beginning there was Common Sense, and the Declaration
Originally, during the late 18th century, American exceptionalism included a determined sense of isolationism (and non-interventionism). At the same time, many of these isolationists also articulated the fight for American freedom as a fight for the freedom of everyone in the world. That exceptional American contradiction remains vividly alive in public discourse more than 200 years later.
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1775), best known for making the case for American freedom from British rule, argued that one benefit of independence would be that America would no longer be forced (as a colony) to support European wars irrelevant to American interests – a benefit to be protected by a policy of isolationism. Even before the United States existed, American revolutionaries were wary of an alliance even with a supportive France. The Second Continental Congress eventually allied the nascent nation with France largely because that seemed to be necessary to win the Revolutionary War.
George Washington, in his carefully re-written Farewell Address (1796), famously articulated his country’s isolationist policy (without actually using the phrase “entangling alliances”):
“The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”
In his inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson crystallized this American policy in more familiar words, promising: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
Protecting a revolution in a counter-revolutionary world, and promoting it
Besides being emotionally appealing, the ideas of independence and isolation defined an extremely practical, protective policy for a country that was relatively small, poor, and weak. Avoiding entanglements with others was really more about hoping to keep other more powerful states from getting entangled with us, and the tactic was mostly successful. The less powerful were another matter entirely.
But even as American revolutionaries chose a protective isolationism for their state, they promoted their revolution as a universal benefit. The Declaration of Independence (1776) is rooted in the universal right of all people to establish “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” From the beginning, the exceptional American “right of one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” was established as a global entitlement – but not one without internal contradictions.
This evangelism of freedom remains one of the strongest themes in the idea of American exceptionalism, serving as both inspiration and/or excuse for the international entanglements we at first set out to avoid. Early on we saw ourselves as leading by example, as Jefferson articulated in his farewell address (1809), calling the United States an “empire of liberty,” a governmental model for others to imitate:
“Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”
This almost religious sentiment was already at odds with the American reality of westward expansion, not least in the extra-constitutional purchase of Louisiana from France (1803). Acquiring Louisiana roughly doubled the size of the United States, headed off war with France, and put a territorial wedge between the Spanish holdings in America. The purchase turned the U.S. into one of the largest countries in the world, but it wasn’t exactly a boon to the freedom and self-determination the people who lived there, despite their theoretical entitlement by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Instead, Louisiana became susceptible to the benign influence of freedom and self-government by being subjected to and by the United States.
Expansionism became more powerful than isolationism
The inherent contradictions in America’s expansionist isolationism eventually gave way to a dominant policy of expansionism with such highlights as the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (this is “our” hemisphere, everyone else keep out), the Mexican War of 1846-48 (well, it’s our manifest destiny to take what we want, especially California), and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (guaranteeing a free Cuba and establishing our first off-shore empire in Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines – what some call the beginning of the “American Century”).
Insofar as the United States embraced isolationism before and after World War I, it was the odd isolationism of a global empire picking its fights. And when we went into that European war in 1917, Woodrow Wilson drew on the American evangelical freedom tradition, telling the nation, without apparent irony:
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
After the Great War, the indispensible nation proclaimed itself dispensible from the world community, resisting further entanglement in European wars until an Asian war came to Hawaii. Since World War II the idea of “American isolationism” has remained an oxymoron – except perhaps to those who wanted the U.S. to attack the Soviet Union then, or Iran or China now. For most of the time since 1945, governments of both parties have limited American interventionism to relatively limited, stupid, pointless wars like Viet-Nam or to covert attacks on “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” the people of Iran, Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, and so on.
And how does – or how should – Syria fit into the “New American Century”?
All that Cold War militarism, with its special justification, came before the “New American Century” crowd took power with the 2000 election in the Supreme Court. Once they got their fervently desired “new Pearl Harbor” on 9/11 the following year, the United States entered a period of chronic, useless, bankrupting war unlike anything in our prior history. The indispensable nation’s present willingness to put its useless attack on Syria on hold is hardly enough to signal that the world’s only superpower has come to its senses.
And it remains unlikely that the people of the world, and especially the people of Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya see us as indispensible to anything but their continued suffering.
The real isolationism with regard to Syria is the American willingness to go it alone, whatever “it” might turn out to be. Virtually isolated in its willingness to commit acts of war, the U.S. has apparently stumbled into a reprieve offered opportunistically by Russia. In his New York Times op ed column September 12, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said, without apparent irony, “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” That’s a charade Russians and Americans might enjoy equally, even as it serves the public good.
Some are opposed, of course. Invoking their own version of American exceptionalism, the nattering nabobs of national narcissism continue to babble incoherently about toughness and credibility and sending messages – all of which require the nation to kill more people or be seen as isolationist, or even dispensable!
What would be truly exceptional would be for the United States to contemplate a complex crisis thoughtfully and patiently, without reflexively assuming that the best and only response should be military.