The Case for a New Isolationism?

by Erik Voeten on February 7, 2011 · 1 comment

in Uncategorized

Thanassis Cambanis has an interesting article in Sunday’s Boston Globe about the “new isolationism” among foreign policy thinkers:

Isolationists were often linked to populist or nativist politics, and were often portrayed as at odds with modernity. Beginning in the Gilded Age, isolationists resisted American involvement in the global economy and in both world wars. Pearl Harbor made “isolationism” a dirty word in American politics, proving that America had no immunity to turmoil beyond its borders. By the dawn of the Cold War, few people indeed gave isolationist views serious consideration. Today’s new isolationists are different. World events affect America, they say, and a great power needs a potent military. But America has conflated smaller threats like terrorism with major threats, like competition from a rising China. America should not withdraw from the world, or ignore it, they say; but it should minimize direct interference beyond its borders.

The article is interesting but the trend he writes about is not really new and should not really be labeled isolationism. The article highlights three main proponents for this alleged new isolationism: political scientists John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Stephen Walt. All three of them have long been making the argument that the U.S. should pursue a humbler foreign policy and should especially be more cautious about using force abroad. See for example this Mearsheimer’s piece on the Iraq war, this Posen article , or this Walt book. Indeed, the main tenet behind this argument can be found in classic realist thinking about foreign policy.

It is also not isolationist in the sense that there is no call for for an American withdrawal from the international scene but a renewed focus on what structural realists believe is the main threat to long-run U.S. security interests: the rise of another great power. Structural realists have long argued that the U.S. has exaggerated the threat of terrorism or even nuclear proliferation to middle powers like Iran. These realists argue that major international military commitments that are not aimed at curtailing the rise of a new great power may detract from America’s long-run national security interests by draining resources or unnecessarily alienating potential allies.

The debate is thus not just about the need for greater restraint in US foreign policy. Many liberal internationalists, including John Ikenberry who was highlighted in the article, also believe in the necessity for greater restraint in the use of military force. Yet, these thinkers have greater faith in international institutions as a means for achieving this and ultimately (and more fundamentally) have different beliefs about what is most likely to guarantee peace and stability. According to these theorists, a world of democracies will be a more peaceful place. Realists don’t necessarily believe this or if they do, don’t believe that the U.S. and the rest of the world can successfully create democracies around the world. Thus, they believe that expensive efforts to achieve these aims are misguided and a waste of scarce resources. Even though the resulting policy recommendation is for less international involvement, this does not stem from isolationist thinking but from different assessments about what’s important and what’s likely to work. Ultimately, we can also have more productive policy debates about these questions than about isolationism, which, like it or not, will get caught up again in populist fervor.

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