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:

Dr. Seuss

[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.

Marvel Comics

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.

NEXT: If You Want to Keep Your Guns in New York, Avoid Mental Health Professionals

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  1. See, you do not understand the word "isolation". You think it minds something old-fashioned like solitary confinement where the inmate locks the door shut from the inside and welds it shut too.

    Isolation really means Pax Americana Collectivista, where we tell the rest of the world what to do, where "we" means Top.Men.

  2. I think the logic is that "isolationism" is a relative thing. If you believe in all-war-all-the-time, thinking that we might wish to limit our foreign military adventures or, heaven forbid, actually not involve ourselves in even some disputes, is probably "isolationist".

    1. I guess the relativism is how people conflate libertarianism with isolationism. Makes sense, but they're wrong.

      The NAP is not about pacifism, violent self defense is allowed.

  3. "Isolationist" is just a warmonger strawman, and they've given it a fine and through beating over the years. "Pacifist" is used in the exact same way.

    1. Pacifist strawmen don't put up much of a fight.

      1. One of the reasons they're beat on so much.

      2. He just sits there as a Mooslum ebolarapes his straw-wife!

        1. No one is interested in your cuckold fantasies, NutraSweet.

          1. I think your gaybola is acting up again.

            1. Look, I have flare-ups. There's nothing I can do about it!

    2. Look, if you don't want to go overseas and subjugate and/or kill non-Americans for political gain, there's something wrong with you.

    3. Without straw men, political discourse would be at least 25% more concise. See also "nativist," wanting Granny to starve in the gutter, etc. etc.

      OK, maybe 50% more concise.

  4. "Again and again during the interwar years, the U.S. deployed its newfound economic power to shape politics in Europe."

    And after all the shaping of politics we ended up with World War II and its disastrous aftermath.

    Fat lot of good that shaping did.

    1. I read a pretty good arguement that the US' late entry into WWI and it subsequent meddling during the interregnum pretty much set up the conditions for making WWII inevitable with the rise of the Nazi party just making things *worse* rather than being a *cause*.

      1. It's likely that without American intervention that the Entente powers wouldn't have been able to enforce strict reparations, and with Wilson out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference there probably would've been a lot less stupid attempts at nation-building (the Middle East was probably still fucked thanks to the colonial powers and collapse of the Ottomans though).

      2. That's American Exceptionalism in action, baby!

      3. Did that arguement(sic) include punctuation?

      4. I agree with Agammamon. Entering the war when we did (1) stopped the slaughter before the belligerents exhausted themselves enough to agree to quit on their own, and (2) gave "The Archangel Woodrow" leverage to muck things up with his messianic ineptitude.

    AND FISH !

  6. Your lunch time derp

    Much to my surprise, my local paper published my anti-cop abuse letter. You can watch me do battle in the comments here:


    1. Full story available to subscribers only.

      Fuck that.

      1. The text of my letter is the first hyperlink in my 1:29 post.

        1. Mary Stack left a comment for you pointing out how no one cares. But she cares that no one cares. She's sick.

        2. I see it. Not bad. Though I don't think it will change any minds. Most people need to be on the receiving end of police injustice before they get it. And even then most people still excuse it.

    2. Several of the commenters seem to have convinced themselves that "police" are a separate entity from "government."

  7. My favorite derpy comment:

    sunny2 Hours Ago
    Mr. Harty, somewhere down the line you have had a very bad experience with a cop. Sorry about that since the majority of cops are good honest people trying their level best to keep the bad guys off the streets and you and me safe from harm. You mention that garbage collectors are more likely to die on the job than cops. In the past 4 yrs. 554 cops have been killed on the job. I would doubt seriously that that many garbage collectors died on the job. You also say that mail carriers and pizza delivery drivers manage to do their job without killing dogs. Probably true, but how many of these mail carriers and pizza delivery drivers are carrying guns and how many of these same people are in the act of trying to apprehend dangerous criminals while being shot at?

    1. You also say that mail carriers and pizza delivery drivers manage to do their job without killing dogs. Probably true, but how many of these mail carriers and pizza delivery drivers are carrying guns...

      Sunny2 seems to be making the point that cops shouldn't be carrying guns.

  8. Cont'd

    sunny2 Hours Ago
    If a dog is showing aggression towards an officer and the same officer has his adrenalin pumping trying to keep from getting killed himself, maybe you could show some empathy if you were put in the same situation. I believe some dogs are probably shot needlessly, but when you are in a dangerous situation and you have a split second to make a decision, sometimes the outcome is not what we would like given 20/20 hindsight. Just remember, when a garbage collector, mail delivery or pizza delivery person puts on their uniform and walks out of the house to go to work everyday, they are not anticipating that it could be their last day to live. Police officers do not have that luxury.

    1. shorter sunny: "Show me on the doll where the cop touched you."

      1. Shorter sunny: "*sluurrrrpp.*"

    2. yes yes, the old split second decision argument. get's tiresome.

      1. It's okay to make serious life or death mistakes because the cop is afraid.

        1. Yeah. Yesterday on the freeway a car drifted into my lane and almost hit my car. I had to make a split second decision. I decided to brake so the car could get into my lane and avoid hitting my car. I guess my other choice was to accelerate into the car and cause a major accident. But in the split second, the less lethal choice seemed better.

          And I'm not even a trained professional driver.

          1. That's only because you would be held personally responsible for your actions. Incentives, how do they work ?

          2. If you had been a cop, you could have shot the driver who drifted because you were afraid for your life, and the 13 car pile-up that resulted from the now fatally wounded driver veering all over the road would totally not be on you.

  9. The entire litany of America's engagement between the wars is a catalog of abject failure.

    And this is supposed to make us want to get even more involved in the affairs of people who desperately want to kill each other? What am I missing, here?

  10. Just like, to a pro-amnesty, "amnesty" is only if you gift-wrap a full citizenship for those who violate our borders, so, also, "isolationism" is only if you have a force-field, that prevents any communication, let alone actual travel, outside the borders/shores.

  11. All you "we won't send our boys to do what someone else's boys should be doing" types know what you are. Why not man-up and admit it.

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