Foreign Policy

Americans and Their Foreign Entanglements

Nothing in U.S. history suggests that ordinary Americans are isolationists—but nothing suggests they've embraced international adventurism either.


Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts To Shield Itself From the World, by Charles A. Kupchan, Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $29.95

It is not unusual for intellectuals who study U.S. history to conflate the views of political leaders with those of all Americans. This is how Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former member of the National Security Council, convinces himself in Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts To Shield Itself From the World that from the founding until the Second World War, "Americans" were dangerously, consistently, and almost universally opposed to foreign interventions—with the "notable departures" of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the subsequent decadeslong occupation of the Philippines, and U.S. entry into the killing fields of the First World War.

Since the intervention against the Axis in the 1940s, Kupchan argues that Americans have vacillated between a reluctance to intervene outside the national borders and a desire to remake the world in their image. But throughout our history, he maintains, "isolationism" has remained Americans' abiding attitude toward foreign relations.

Until the 1930s, no polls measured U.S. attitudes on the subject, leaving us little information about the foreign-policy views of Americans who did not hold public office. But we know quite a bit about the beliefs among American presidents, members of Congress, and political intellectuals from all periods of U.S. history. Among this class, the record shows a remarkably consistent commitment to forging, expanding, and maintaining a worldwide American empire.

Like many historians, Kupchan repeats the standard claim that George Washington's famous warning against "foreign entanglements" represented the views of the Founders and was followed by American leaders until the mid–20th century. In fact, the Founding Fathers were aggressive, unapologetic imperialists who fantasized about the creation of a global America.

Long before he entered politics, John Adams developed a theory of historical change that predicted America would become the next Rome. He wrote to a friend in 1755 that "the great seat of Empire" had been transferred from Rome to Britain and would likely move "into America." The new country would "obtain the mastery of the seas, and the united force of all Europe will not be able to subdue us."

Like Adams, Benjamin Franklin dreamed of an infinitely expansive America empire. In 1751, he provided a rationale, derived from John Locke's theory that property belongs to those who mix their labor with nature, for conquering and occupying all the land held by indigenous people in North America. Industrious Anglo-Saxons, who Franklin expressly preferred as the inhabitants of the new republic, were to replace the Indians with a new empire: "Hence the Prince that acquires new Territory, if he finds it vacant, or removes the Natives to give his own People Room; the Legislator that makes effectual Laws for promoting of Trade, increasing Employment, improving Land by more or better Tillage; providing more Food by Fisheries; securing Property, &c. and the Man that invents new Trades, Arts or Manufactures, or new Improvements in Husbandry, may be properly called Fathers of their Nation."

As president, George Washington, whose heroes included Caesar and Alexander the Great, allowed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to push for a buildup of the Navy and the creation of a Marine Corps, as well as for continued expansion westward across North America. Jefferson called for sending troops and warships to attack pirate ships operating from the northern African Barbary states that had captured and plundered American commercial vessels. Jefferson's rival, Alexander Hamilton, agreed that the United States was "the embryo of a great empire," even predicting that the U.S. would one day hold overseas colonies.

Within days of Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, four U.S. warships set sail for Tripoli. Throughout his first term, American ships patrolled the Mediterranean, blockading the ports of several north African states and sinking or capturing Barbary pirate corsairs and Tripolitan ships. By the summer of 1804, virtually the entire U.S. Navy was deployed to the region—23 war vessels in all—including a squadron of gunships that remained anchored in the harbor of Tripoli, bombarding the city with impunity. The next year, Jefferson sent ashore a fighting force of Marines and mercenaries who besieged the pasha's palace and replaced him with his brother, who had sworn to cooperate with the U.S.

In 1801, Jefferson told James Monroe of his vision for a totalizing and universal Americanism, calling it "impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws." The United States established an extensive network of formal representatives in the Mediterranean, with American consuls and Navy personnel stationed in more than a dozen cities. Jefferson also negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which brought a swath of 828,000 square miles of land, with all the diverse peoples living on it, into the United States. In an instant, the country's territory had doubled.

Kupchan not only ignores the Founders' messianic globalism but claims that isolationism held sway throughout the 19th century. He overlooks the exceptionally aggressive ideas of Abraham Lincoln, who shared the Founders' interpretation of natural rights as a doctrine of imperial obligation. As the historian John Patrick Diggins has put it, Lincoln treated the claim "all men are created equal" as "a moral imperative rather than as a scientific postulate." The conquest, occupation, and reconstruction of the defeated Confederate states followed this line of thinking.

For Kupchan, the first "notable departure" from isolationist thought was the Spanish-American War. He acknowledges that the term isolationist was coined during this period by the war's proponents as a slur against anti-imperialists. It implied that those who opposed the conquest and colonization of foreign lands and the "march of American civilization" were blinkered, anti-modern curmudgeons.

Kupchan's second "departure" was Woodrow Wilson's campaign to send hundreds of thousands of young Americans to fight and die in Europe. After that, Kupchan says, the U.S. entered a period of "naive" "abdication" of the duty to protect the world from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Leaving aside questions about whether either regime possessed the desire or ability to expand beyond its geographical region, we know that most ordinary Americans during the notorious "isolationist era" of the 1920s and 1930s were interested in shielding themselves from war, not the world.

Opinion polls conducted in the 1930s did show that a majority of Americans opposed military interventions abroad. But when they were allowed, Americans voted overwhelmingly—with their wallets and their feet—for engagement with the world through trade and travel. Despite tariffs on a range of foreign goods, the total value of merchandise imports into the U.S. rose steadily through the 1920s. The number of U.S. visitors to Europe jumped from roughly 15,000 in 1912 to 251,000 in 1929. That same year, 8,500 Americans traveled to Japan, more than ever before. After the devastating Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was repealed in 1934, imports rose rapidly, despite the global Depression.

Kupchan concedes that in the period between the end of the Second World War and the rise of Donald Trump, isolationism became an epithet as the United States established itself as the most powerful global empire in human history. Trump questioned wars of choice, regime changes, nation building, and the very idea that America is obliged to oversee the world, though he didn't follow through on any of these ideas. American troops still remain in Afghanistan and Iraq, and none of the 800 military bases in foreign countries that he inherited has been closed. Nonetheless, Kupchan wrote this book to counter what he sees as a Trumpian threat to the internationalist order.

Kupchan believes he's offering a warning: He fears that an overly aggressive set of foreign policies has pushed ordinary Americans and some in the political class to follow Trump in abandoning America's role as the world's hegemon. Kupchan wants the U.S. to reduce much of its military presence in the Middle East, where he considers the policies of recent presidents to be acts of "overreach," but he wants to remain the dominant power in Europe and globally. A little bit of isolationism, judiciously applied, will save American internationalism: "An informed, cautious, and selective pullback is far preferable to a precipitous retreat."

Nothing in U.S. history suggests that ordinary Americans are isolationists—but nothing suggests they've embraced international adventurism either. The fact that the federal government needed to rely on conscription to fight each major war from the Civil War to Vietnam, and is now relying on aerial bombing and small Special Forces operations rather than drafted soldiers to do most of its killing in foreign lands, suggests that it is only the political class that stands between us and a new, unplanned and ungoverned world order.