Isolationism and Interventionism in America
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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. 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.
--President George Washington, 1796
Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none...
--President Thomas Jefferson, 1801
Isolationism in early American history
The United States held to a staunch isolationist position from its founding in 1776 until World War II. For about 170 years Americans believed avoiding foreign conflicts and remaining disengaged politically from the rest of the world was key to their prosperity. The US sought to limit its engagement with the rest of the world to the economic sphere. Trade, it was thought, was sufficient to maintain peaceful relations with other countries, and any intervention beyond that was risky and unnecessary
Even with the involvement in the First World War, most Americans maintained an isolationist stance. The US government saw World War I as an unavoidable exception to the isolationist rule, and reverted back to its independent stance at the close of the war in 1918.
I tell the American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship.
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941
From isolationism to interventionism
This attitude changed in a major way with World War II. Aggression from Japan and the rapid domination of Europe by Nazi Germany forced the US back into the world. Not only did America need to defend itself from aggressive nations, but its democratic industrialized partners in Europe were at risk of total domination by fascism. Once conquering Europe, it was feared that the Nazis would set their sights on North America. At best, the US would be forced to coexist with a fascist Europe.
Having defeated European fascism, the US took a much more active role in world affairs. It led the creation of the United Nations, the reconstruction of Japan and Germany as well as cultural, diplomatic and military efforts against the new threat of global communism. With Britain and France demolished by the war, their manufacturing capacity ruined and countless citizens dead, the US quickly became the leader of the democratic industrialized world. It was now the preeminent manufacturing and military power. The US had transitioned from a staunch isolationist nation to an actively interventionist one.
It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both the public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development. What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.
--President Ronald Reagan, 1982
Cold War, interventionism and nation-building
The second half of the 20th century saw a massive increase in American military campaigns of all sizes, ranging from declared wars to covert operations. American isolationism was a thing of the past, an ideological relic of a bygone era. It was irrelevant and, indeed, dangerous in an age of communist infiltration and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Only a small minority were still interested in non-interventionism.
The United States faced serious threats to its security that demanded an active global presence. Moreover, American military, diplomatic, economic and cultural efforts had proven themselves in the war and in the reconstruction of Japan and Germany to have the potential to change the world for the better. Over time, idealistic arguments emphasizing America's moral responsibility to spread freedom and fight oppression featured prominently in foreign policy discussions.
In reality, American intervention was imperfect. It produced greater oppression at least as often as greater liberty. The balance between securing US political and economic interests (anti-communism, or cheap and reliable oil) and fostering freedom and democracy became a perennial problem. Interventionism was a double edged sword, often inadvertently producing anti-American sentiments and sometimes actually further endangering American lives.
As the decades wore on, Americans realized again and again that the world was not as simple as they would have thought. Interventionism gradually became less attractive.
Americans increasingly want to stay out of foreign countries
A new isolationism?
Currently, after multiple expensive failed military adventures (most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s) and an uptick in anti-Americanism in many foreign countries, the potential for a second historical shift from a broadly interventionist to a broadly isolationist attitude presents itself.
With global communism no longer a threat, America does not face a coherent contrary ideological force. The importance of elections and markets is now broadly recognized among almost all countries, if still only given lip service in many places. Ideologically, there is not much left to fight, with the possible exception of Islamic extremism, which itself is limited in potential influence, being concentrated in conservative Muslim societies.
There are several reasons why an isolationist shift may occur in the coming years:
- Economic/ fiscal: The extremely large debt and deficit make foreign wars unattractive from a purely financial point of view. Debt and deficit considerations are a major factor for the first time in American political history.
- Cultural: After more than 10 years of continual high level military engagement, many Americans are simply tired of setbacks, conflicts and body bags. Bellicose nationalism has increasingly given way to moderate pragmatism among both conservatives and liberals.
- Results: Americans see few or no tangible results from these foreign entanglements.
- Other priorities: Americans are more and more concerned with domestic issues, especially economic issues.
- Confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance: Americans realize more than ever that the world is a lot more complicated than they thought. The political, cultural and economic conditions of foreign populations make smart engagement difficult or impossible. The public and their leadership often simply don't know what the right course of action is (examples being Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and (still) Afghanistan). The black/ white, good/ evil calculus that was relevant with fascism and communism no longer applies. It has given way to confusing shades of grey, while the circumstances surrounding foreign intervention remain very dangerous.