Foreign Policy

It's Not Isolationist For America To Mind Its Own Business

Is it really a bad idea to oppose lobbing Tomahawk missiles at people?

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A new poll from the Pew Research Center, "America's Place in the World 2013," brings some sobering news to advocates of armed international meddling. Among a survey of some 2,000 Americans, 51 percent believe that the U.S. does too much in helping solve world problems, and 52 percent say that the U.S. "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."

That's the highest margin since pollsters began asking the question nearly five decades ago. Indeed, Pew reports, "a decade ago only about one-in-three Americans said the United States should mind its own business abroad."

Minding one's own business is a virtue, you'd think; and restraint and circumspection make one a good neighbor, not a hermit. Alas, some of the headlines reporting Pew's results were all too predictable: the Associated Press: "Americans' isolationism on the rise"; the Washington Post: "American isolationism just hit a 50-year high."

But Pew's poll results hardly suggest a public bent on pulling up the drawbridge and retreating to Fortress America. The overwhelming majority of respondents welcome increased commercial engagement abroad. Even in a weak economy, over three quarters say that growing trade and business ties are "good for the U.S."; Two-thirds say "greater U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing because it exposes the U.S. to new markets and opportunities for growth."

Does that sound like "isolationism"? Hardly: if ever there was a term that deserved "scare quotes," this is the one. As my Cato Institute colleague Justin Logan has pointed out, "isolationism" has always been a smear word designed to shut off debate. It was coined in the late 19th century by Alfred Thayer Mahan, "an ardent militarist, who used the term to slur opponents of American imperialism."

Back then, you were an "isolationist" if you opposed "civilizing" the Philippines at the point of a bayonet. Today, you just might be an "isolationist" if you oppose lobbing Tomahawks at Syria to show you care.

The dangers of isolationism are everywhere: the Post warns that "a wholesale withdrawal [from Afghanistan] would also shut down the foreign-aid pipeline that keeps the Afghan state afloat."

We've been in Afghanistan since before the iPod was introduced, when "YouTube" was a nonsense word. Sept. 11 babies are now hitting puberty. Meanwhile, according to Pew's numbers, 64 percent of the American public thinks the 12-year war in Afghanistan has either made the U.S. less safe (21 percent) or "has not made a difference in U.S. security" (43 percent).

Meanwhile, President Obama is busily expanding the war on terrorism to other theaters: planning the training of Libyan forces, gearing up for training missions in Africa. As a candidate Obama once made much of his opposition to "dumb wars" like Iraq. As president, he thinks dumb proxy wars are another thing entirely, it seems.

The Pew study authors see a "mixed message" from the public to policymakers in the poll results. "Americans are conflicted about the U.S. role in the world," they insist: On the one hand, record numbers "think the United States should mind its own business internationally"; on the other, "they see the benefits of greater involvement in the global economy."

Pardon me, but where's the conflict? What's "mixed" about that message? Far from reflecting a confused outlook, Americans' renewed appreciation for restraint looks like a return to what Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, called "the essential principles of our Government": in foreign affairs, "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Isolationism it isn't.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  1. Its also smart business for the US to mind its own business.

    The US spending over 4% GDP on “defense” much of it to defend other countries while competing countries spend less then 2% does not make good business sense.

  2. But we all know how defense spending grows the economy!

    /derp

    1. MULTIPLIER EFFECT!!!11!

  3. If America minds its own business, how will politicians–especially presidents–burnish their “legacy”? I mean, presidents can’t just be expected to be remembered for domestic “accomplishments”; they need foreign “accomplishments” too! And as we all know, the only good foreign “accomplishments” are through intervention or war.

    1. No shit. IMO, the best presidents are the ones who didn’t have any economic catastrophies (or if they did they allowed the economy to recover quickly rather than giving in to the urge to DO SOMETHING!) or get us into any wars.

      Unfortunately, those aren’t the presidents that are remembered with fawning History channel specials on President’s Day, and the goal of every president is to be remembered and fawned over for eternity, not necesarrily to be a good president.

      1. Why does no one mourn the passing of Grover Cleveland?

        WHY?

        1. I did, on two non-consecutive occasions.

          1. Cleveland let you down again?

    2. For the first half of this country’s existence, people still understood that government is evil. An unavoidable evil, but still evil. Anything related to government was to be viewed with caution, skepticism, and suspicion.

      So a president was judged by how little they accomplished. The less the better.

      Then came king FDR, and that all changed.

      1. Wilson got a pretty good start, as did Teddy. Roosevelt II just went Full Jackboot. The office’s current resident appears to want to go down thise road – too bad he’s restrained by a do-nothing, racist House.

      2. While Eisenhower was responsible for the interstate system, it was based on providing for the common defense, not public works. He had seen the autobahn system in Germany and understood it could be used to transport troops and equipment quickly and efficiently. That it had other benefits, all the better. Other than that, he campaigned on, and executed on getting us out of Korea inside 1 year. While the 38th parallel isn’t great, we don’t spend that much money on troops in Korea.

        1. He also knew he could get any domestic spending bill passed by tacking “National Defense” onto the title, as he did with the post-Sputnik education bill.

      3. Then came king FDR Lincoln, and that all changed.

  4. Gene Healy: It’s Not Isolationist For America To Mind Its Own Business

    But it would be quite authoritarian to mind your own business – Noam Chomsky dixit.

  5. It is however isolationist to think that America’s ‘business’ arbitrarily ends at borders in a global world.

    1. Please define ‘business’ in this context.

    2. In a global world, the border of your nose is an arbitrary line attempting to define where I have to stop my swinging fist.

  6. Power vacuum. A term Libertarians are completely unfamiliar with.

    1. Limited government. A term you are completely unfamiliar with.

    2. If there’s power to be had, America may as well suck it up. Not like power has ever been abused by an American politician, right?

    3. We CANNOT allow the Vacuum Gap to grow!

      /General Turgidson

    4. Power vacuums are usually filled by wars. See 40s,19.

      1. Good thing America stepped in and prevented wars from happening for the last 70 years.

      2. Yeah, hegemony never leads to resistance, right?

    5. Power vacuum. A term Libertarians are completely unfamiliar with.

      Power Magnet, a term with which progressives are entirely unfamiliar.

  7. “Power vacuums are usually filled by wars. See 40s,19.”
    Yeah, it was a “power vacuum” that Hitler wanted to fill, right?

    1. Anything short of absolute power is a power vacuum.

    2. Actually, yes, when he first campaigned and became Chancellor in 1932. Germany had been like an abandoned ship after WW1, listing aimlessly as there was no clear direction by the government in the 20s to deal with the huge inflation and resolute poverty Germany was experiencing.

      1. Curtisls87|12.10.13 @ 4:49PM|#
        …”Germany had been like an abandoned ship after WW1, listing aimlessly as there was no clear direction by the government in the 20s to deal with the huge inflation and resolute poverty Germany was experiencing.”

        Bullshit.
        Right up there with ‘rethuglican have no plan’.
        Germany was doing what it could with an elected government. Naturally, the government was playing games with the money and rather than elect someone who would take the proper (painful) steps, the populace wanted ‘SOMETHING DONE!’. And got it.
        No ‘power vacuum’ involved.

  8. Give up and back out? Admit wrong-doings with humility and regret? Hmmm kinda sounds like something a PUSSY would do! Murca.

  9. I would agree wholeheartedly with the headline, but I suspect that the author and I disagree strongly on the meaning of “mind its own business”. I would fit making messy object lessons of cess-pits like Syria, declining to pick up the resulting mess, and telling the International Community (or such parts of it as are offended) to go climb a tree comfortably in “Minding our own business”. Trying to rebuild nations we’ve wrecked, worrying about the opinion of the International Criminal Court, THOSE things are NOT minding our own business.

  10. Well yeah,
    I’ve always said we should just have a “screw with us, and we’ll blow you up” policy. Just drive the Navy up to their coast, and fire those huge guns. Demolish one or a few coastal cities. Then they’ll think twice about helping out terrorists. And we’ll save thousands of American lives , there’d be litle to no casualties.
    It’s that simple, when a terrorist attack happens, find the country the guy is from or was indoctrinated in or whatever, and blow them up at a 100x ratio for every american killed. That’ll make Islam an actual religion of peace real quick. And stop buying this “but it wasn’t the country, it was just the guy!” thing, we all know that pretty much the entire Middle East wants to kill us. I’ve grown up with non-muslim, Americanized immigrants my whole life, and they’re STILL jew-conspiracy-theorist, barbarian whackjobs.
    Supposed innocent bystanders are not our problem. They can blame their extremist neighbors that they don’t do anything about.

    1. I’m new here as of yesterday, so I can’t make up my mind as to whether or not you’re a troll because of how well you’ve blurred the line.

    2. mind you this was what we initially did in Iraq/Afghanistan, we just shoulda pulled out when we were done, and not stuck around for the nation building

      1. No we didn’t,
        We went in with troops and tried to “fix” their political system.
        What I’m suggesting would be considered “absurdly simplistic” or “bellicose” or what have you, but it’s the way the world has to go back to: common sense.

        It’s not our responsibility to divine who or which factions or which ethnic groups or whatever are responsible for this attack or that policy or that indoctrination camp or whatever and waste 5000+ American lives in the process.
        Literally, it’s our prerogative to just blow up those stupid muslim countries until they take care of their extremism/terrorism problem

        1. the “third party casualties” would not be our problem or our fault or our concern.

          Did you ever hear the story of the vegan in Spain? She was protesting the running of the bull, and got gored and died by one of the bulls. Can the bull be blamed for her death? The bull was being goaded by the Spaniards, given plenty of reason to fear for it’s life. Now, a bull can’t tell people apart, doesn’t have the facial recognition people do. So the bull just charges and kills everything that looks like the things that are hurting it. If the bull COULD know that the vegan meant it no harm, it would surely not spend its energy goring her, and focus on the Spaniards who were actually enticing him, but it is not capable of such discernment
          Really, can the bull be blamed? The bull may have gored the vegan, but it was the Spaniards’ fault

  11. Non intervention sounds great,let’s face it past policies delivered very mixed results.

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  13. We used to rely on oil imports. Now we won’t need to.

    Humanitarian Aid and military deals for our allies, otherwise, let the rest of the world stew in its own juices.

  14. trade can be protected without involving us in so many foreign conflicts, the US has always been one of the leading merchant nations yet only since progressism have we really begun mucking about in foreign entanglements.

    Mind you that was back when trade was allowed to protect itself, when America’s navy was mostly privateers. We ought to go back to allowing merchant ships to be armed since it would easily be the cheapest way to protect against piracy (small arms for the merchantman crew < maintaining a single marine on said ship).

  15. Neocons are over-represented at FNC. I don’t know why. I don’t think Ailes is a neocon. I am glad to see that FNC has launched The Independents: there may be some room there for “realist” foreign policy.

  16. Does what is happening in Asia look a little like what happened there in the 1930s?

    Everyone is carving out their own overlapping spheres of influence. The Middle East is arming up (nukes for the Saudis – for now Israel’s ally – nukes for Iran)

    I admit American power hasn’t done a very good job. I expect American abdication will make things worse. Time will tell.

    My prediction? A world wide nuclear war in 5 years.

    1. A great deal of the way the world is now can be laid squarely on the shoulders of the United States, who simply followed in the footsteps of the European colonists and imperialists. There are differences of course, but the end result is the division of the world divided into armed camps. These armed camps are supplied by the United States and Europe based on whoever is in power in the U.S. or Europe at any given time. Nuclear war is certainly a possibility. However, I predict more devastating terrorist attacks using nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons supped to underdeveloped and developing countries by the powers that be. And don’t forget that there is also the possibility of civil wars in the United States, and not to mention the dangers already in progress posed by the drug cartels south of the border and their allies north of the border. Plus all those nut bag American militias out there.

  17. Non-intervention would be a good way to phrase what many of us would like. Trade and diplomancy would be great but lets stay out of the constant intervention in other countries armed conflicts.

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