Why “Isolationist” Obscures More than It Reveals

by John Sides on May 2, 2013 · 20 comments

in Foreign Policy,International Relations,Public opinion


We welcome this guest post by Ohio State political scientist Bear Braumoeller:

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Yesterday’s New York Times included a brief summary of recent Times/CBS poll results on American foreign policy. The article, by Megan Thee-Brenan, lit up the Twittersphere not because of its substantive conclusions but rather because of its lede, which began, “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria.” Critics, like my colleague (and former advisor), Stephen Walt, have responded quite correctly that it takes more than skepticism of a particular intervention to qualify as an isolationist. I think the critics are right; moreover, the impact of this criticism is more substantial than most of them realize.


First of all, isolationism does not refer to abstention from only one form of internationalist behavior. Multilateralists, for example, prefer joint efforts to unilateral ones, but that hardly makes them isolationist. Moreover, the fact that the public doesn’t favor the costliest sort of intervention doesn’t mean that they don’t favor intervention of some sort: a year ago, a plurality of respondents favored the use of American air power in Syria to create safe havens, and nearly 40% favored the provision of weapons. Sending troops, by contrast, netted a slim 15% support. That hardly seems isolationist. Isolationism, I would argue, is better understood as “the voluntary and general abstention by a state from security-related activity in an area of the international system in which it is capable of action.”

Second, by that standard, isolationism is exceedingly rare. The Chinese in the later Ming Dynasty and, more famously, Japan in the Tokugawa era, fit the description quite well; America never has—not even in the interwar period—and true isolationists are scarce. The fight over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles was overwhelmingly a fight between unilateralists and multilateralists. Each commanded widespread support, but neither could muster the two-thirds majority needed for Senate ratification. American unwillingness to stand up to Hitler in the late 1930s was the result of a widespread perception that Germany posed little threat: When, to nearly everyone’s surprise, France fell in 1940, American isolationist sentiment all but disappeared, and defense appropriations, initially set at $1.7 billion, skyrocketed to $10.5 billion.

With those facts in mind, I would make a radical, and intentionally provocative, argument: Isolationism rarely if ever deserves a place in the analysis of American foreign policy. “Isolationist” is a term that, by virtue of its persistent imprecision, obscures more than it reveals. By blurring the line between a lack of desire for a certain kind of action and a lack of desire for any kind of action, it distorts our descriptions and skews our inferences. We are far better off utilizing a range of questions to determine, not whether the public is internationalist or isolationist in general, but rather, what costs they would be willing to bear to achieve a particular foreign policy objective and how easy or difficult they think it would be to achieve it.

{ 20 comments }

Jeremy Pressman May 2, 2013 at 9:44 am

What if we could show a group – roughly the same group in each case – of Americans, say 10, 20, 30%, always opposed intervention abroad? Would that group be isolationist? I think yes and then the question would be why that group has such a hard time translating its perspective into policy.

Or does such a group not exist?

Wonks Anonymous May 2, 2013 at 10:44 am

I’m willing to accept the label “isolationist”. The U.S is lucky enough to have two large oceans on either side, with non-threatening Canada & Mexico on our borders. We’d all be much better off if we kept out of the affairs of other nations, rather than going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Bear Braumoeller May 2, 2013 at 11:01 am

I’m not sure about “always” opposed, but if I remember correctly Holsti and Rosenau found pretty consistently that somewhere between 5 and 10% of their elite respondents fit that description, at least in a fourfold classification scheme (which eliminates shades of grey). I also recall that their conclusion that isolationism isn’t a very meaningful or coherent category, in that it didn’t correlate with much of anything.

My main beef isn’t with the existence of a residual category of people who don’t advocate any kind of internationalism; I’m sure they exist. I’m focused more on the use of the word “isolationist,” which in many cases seems to mean “opposed to a foreign policy that I advocate” rather than “opposed to anything more than homeland defense, under any circumstances.” The imprecision of the term in practice is so consistent that I’d suggest that analysts may actually be better off throwing it in the trashbin and using more precise and consistent concepts.

Jeremy Pressman May 2, 2013 at 11:05 am

So if I hear you correctly, other than that 5-10%, most people who use or are labelled “isolationist” are actually some variant of selective engagers: sometimes intervene abroad, sometimes don’t. And when those types are talking about the “sometimes don’t” cases, we mislabel them if we call them isolationist.

Bear Braumoeller May 2, 2013 at 11:09 am

Bingo. And I’m not even certain that the 5-10% are being asked enough questions to expose the circumstances under which they would advocate an active foreign policy.

Sebastian May 2, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Obviously agree that equating “not wanting to rush into a war on the other end of the world” with isolationism is a bit insane. But I don’t think we should eliminate popular yet loaded concepts from our repertoire as social scientists (it’s not like “polyarchy” ever made much headway).
It’s probably possible to create a scale of isolationism that allows us to order people. It would probably need to be two dimensional, since my guess would be that there is a difference between military and political isolationism. At the most isolationist end of the spectrum you’d have a good part of conservative libertarians like Ron Paul: Anti-war, anti-foreign-aid, anti-UN, anti-international-treaties — I think that fits the isolationist bill quite well. At the other extreme you’d have liberal hawks, who are pro all of the above. In the middle you’d have both liberal doves and conservative hawks – since they’re quite different we need to make this two-dimensional.

Wonks Anonymous May 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

And even Ron Paul explicitly rejects the label “isolationist”, saying it should be “non-interventionist”.

Bear Braumoeller May 3, 2013 at 6:53 am

There have been a few conceptualizations of American foreign policy beliefs along these lines—Wittkopf’s “Faces of Internationalism,” Holsti’s “Three-Headed Eagle” and the Holsti-Rosenau reconceptualization along two dimensions (as you suggest) of militant and cooperative internationalism, etc.

Fr. May 2, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Churchill’s correspondence to FDR in May 1940 (shorter: “send troops when you feel like it, we’ll send our own men to die on our coastline in the meantime”) makes it pretty clear that isolationism did exist in the USA as a foreign policy stance, if not as a tangible categorization of public opinion at the time.

hk May 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm

At that very same time, we were happily sending marines to intervene around the Caribbean and were in control of the Philippines–and many of the people who didn’t want to be involved in Europe were happily supporting these ventures. Some “isolationism.”

Scott Monje May 2, 2013 at 9:01 pm

FDR pulled the marines out of the Caribbean, and the independence of the Philippines was already scheduled in accordance with the Philippine Independence Act of 1934.

hk May 3, 2013 at 1:23 pm

But not with any guarantee that US will stop intervening, in either case. In fact, it was implicitly assumed that we’d go back in whenever we wanted to even if we pulled out, and substantial presence was to be left to facilitate that. We still have a base at Guantanamo. Subic Bay and Clark Field were still US military installations until a combination of Cold War ending, budget cuts, and volcanic eruption got us out.

The bottom line I wanted to illustrate, at any rate, is that those who were “isolationist” vis-a-vis Europe were happy interventionists in other parts of the world, which is the point of the post, as far as I can tell. As you point out, one might say that FDR, an interventionist vis-a-vis Europe, was a happy “isolationist” vis-a-vis Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Bear Braumoeller May 3, 2013 at 7:02 am

Longer: “All I ask now is that you should proclaim nonbelligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces.”

Regardless of the exact quote, this is sort of my point. Lend-Lease was passed 9 months before Pearl Harbor. “Less internationalist than Winston Churchill” doesn’t automatically equate to isolationist.

Fr. May 3, 2013 at 10:22 am

Thanks for your reply.

Lend-Lease was enacted in March 1941. Churchill and FDR started their correspondence in May 1940. I learnt about that correspondence by reading Kershaw. Here’s what I remember from it.

The first letter Churchill sent said something like: “We’ll fight and die fighting the Germans even if you stay out of this mess.” The second letter was even more defiant. A few days later, he let the Cabinet know that U.S. assistance had amounted to “practically nothing” so far and that FDR was keeping all resources at home to ensure his own country’s protection.

Churchill was not hoping for troops, he was hoping for open U.S. support to scare off Hitler. Others around him (e.g. Chamberlain) were hoping for FDR to call for an armistice. FDR provided neither and stayed silent. I am unsure whether that boils down to “isolationist”; it certainly comes pretty close to it. My point is: there is a short period of time from 1940 to 1941 where the U.S. were effectively isolationist.

Bear Braumoeller May 3, 2013 at 11:12 am

Thanks for your interest. :-)

I agree that that’s the conventional wisdom (actually, the CW, even among prominent historians, sometimes has the US as isolationist leading right up to Pearl Harbor)… I just don’t agree. Churchill’s first letter is here: http://www.rialto.k12.ca.us/rhs/planetwhited/AP%20PDF%20Docs/Unit%2012/WorlWarII/CHURCH5.PDF … his most urgent request is for 40 or 50 old destroyers, which he gets in September 1940 in exchange for basing rights. Given that few expected Germany to be able to defeat France until it actually did so in July, that narrows the US-isolationist window to a couple of months… at which point, we end up arguing not over whether the US responded in a manner commensurate with the threat but rather over the appropriate lag time to expect for such a response. Honestly, I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does. But the larger point is, the closer you look for American activity, the more of it you see, and the less it seems reasonable to characterize US policy as isolationist.

Fr. May 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm

That finished to convince me that you have a point. Thanks again for the elaboration.

Jeff May 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm

I think the term “isolationism” may properly be considered a slur against those opposing the push toward specific potential wars — especially in this ever-more-unified world. Sure it can have a reasonably defined “technical” meaning, but usually it’s deployed in this sloppy, ideological fashion.

Bear Braumoeller May 3, 2013 at 7:12 am

Originally, that’s exactly right: it was used to discredit opponents of American involvement prior to WWII. Subsequently, though, it’s taken on a more neutral tone in academic circles, without, I think, losing its pejorative tone in policy discussions. That dualism contributes even further to its conceptual haziness.

Jeff May 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm

One potential example of its incoherence: one might expect that a consistent “isolationism” would be against American military intervention abroad — and against U.S. participation in international/multilateral treaties, organizations, and regulatory regimes. But that’s not a pattern we tend to see, is it?

Bear Braumoeller May 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Precisely. The fact that people oppose a specific form of activity doesn’t automatically mean that they’re isolationist—i.e., that they oppose activity in general.

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