The Imaginary Specter of Isolationism

The hawk's favorite myth


At The National Journal, Peter Beinart has a good riposte to those pols and pundits who raise the specter of isolationism whenever someone wants the U.S. to reduce its burdens around the world. Not only are today's "isolationists" not actually isolationists, Beinart writes, but neither were many of the alleged isolationists of yore:

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[I]solationism—as commonly understood—not only doesn't fit American foreign policy today, it doesn't even fit American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. There are plenty of valid critiques of how the United States comported itself on the world stage between World War I and World War II. But the claim that America detached itself from other countries is simply not true. In 1921, for instance, President Harding summoned the world's powers to the Washington Naval Conference and pushed through what some have called the first disarmament treaty in history. In 1924, after Germany's failure to pay its war reparations led French and Belgian troops to occupy the Ruhr Valley, the Coolidge administration ended the crisis by appointing banker Charles Dawes to design a new reparations-payments system, which Washington muscled the European powers into accepting. American pressure helped to produce the 1925 Treaty of Locarno, which guaranteed the borders between Germany and the countries to its west (though not, fatefully, to its east). In 1930, President Hoover played a key role in the London Naval Conference, which placed further limits on naval construction.

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Again and again during the interwar years, the U.S. deployed its newfound economic power to shape politics in Europe. And this overseas engagement wasn't limited to America's government alone. Although the United States severely limited European immigration in the 1920s, Americans built the avowedly internationalist institutions that would help guide the country's foreign policy after World War II. The Council on Foreign Relations was born in 1921. The University of Chicago created America's first graduate program in international affairs in 1928. And during the interwar years, American travel to Europe expanded dramatically. To be sure, the U.S. in the interwar years was more comfortable intervening economically and diplomatically than militarily. But despite the Neutrality Acts meant to keep the U.S. out of another European war, the Roosevelt administration began sending warplanes and warships to Britain two years before Pearl Harbor. By early 1941, long before America officially entered the war, its ships were already hunting German vessels across the Atlantic.

The only sense in which the United States in the interwar years truly remained apart from other nations lay in its refusal to make binding military commitments, either via the League of Nations or through alliances with particular nations. America wielded power economically, diplomatically, and even militarily, but it jealously guarded its sovereignty. That's why one influential history of the era dubs U.S. foreign policy between the wars "independent internationalism."….The popular "characterization of America as isolationist in the interwar period," argues Ohio State University's Bear Braumoeller in a useful review of the academic literature on the period, "is simply wrong."

All true, though at a time when you can hear a prominent pundit call the '90s a "decade of not policing the world," anyone who wants to correct the record on the '20s and '30s will be fighting a rough battle.

Moving to the present, Beinart analyzes Rand Paul's foreign policy positions, noting that they were not isolationist even when Paul first joined the Senate and have moved still further from the isolationist pole since then. I don't agree with everything Beinart says—not surprisingly, since my basic orientation is more anti-interventionist than his—but his central argument strikes me as both clearly true and widely underappreciated.