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