Doug Bandow

Among supporters of the American empire, there is no more vicious insult to toss than "isolationist." Advocate making U.S. security and prosperity Washington’s priority, and you will be attacked for "isolationism." Never mind that restraining U.S. intervention around the world would be the best way to promote peace at home and abroad.

The United States began its life as a minor player in a warlike imperial system. Conflict was constant, causing Thomas Paine to argue for independence as a means of staying out of Britain’s wars. He wrote in Common Sense: "any submissions to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions."

The Founders took the same stance. They wanted a strong nation able to defend itself, to preserve Americans’ hard-won independence. But they did not expect the United States to meddle in other nations’ affairs. As George Washington famously argued, America’s policy should be to "Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all." Obviously, war might still be forced upon the new country, but George Washington would have the U.S. government reduce the likelihood of conflict by avoiding "permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

Temporary cooperation, as with France against Britain, might be necessary, but it should be directed at advancing America’s interests. Said Washington in his Farewell Address: "nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded." After all, he asked, why "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?"

If George Washington were alive today, he would be attacked for being an isolationist.

Yet the foreign and economic policies which he and his colleagues supported were matters of common sense. Defend America if it is attacked, but do not join other nations’ wars. Encourage private commerce with all peoples. Establish friendly political relations with countries, whether they be constitutional monarchies, autocratic empires, or revolutionary republics. Allow American citizens to travel and trade freely.

This was not isolationism, but the best sort of internationalism. Peace and prosperity were America’s international guideposts. The preservation of America’s constitutional system of ordered liberty was the government’s most important duty. Americans circled the globe, but to explore and trade, not to meddle and invade.

In time U.S. foreign policy changed, but until the Spanish-American War few Americans believed in overseas intervention. World War I represented the ultimate repudiation of George Washington’s vision, but the vast majority of Americans came to regret their nation’s entry into the European slaughter so irrelevant to their own interests. They came to realize that any idealism embodied in the so-called "war for democracy" had been twisted to advance the political interests of the old European imperial powers.

For understandable reasons, then, as World War II loomed the vast majority of Americans wanted to stay out. For that they were smeared as, of course, isolationists. One could debate the merits of U.S. involvement — Nazi Germany posed a very different threat than did Wilhelmine Germany, whose ambitions never reached across the Atlantic — but the arguments of opponents were as legitimate as those of interventionists. Nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt and his acolytes preferred to resort to ad hominem attacks rather than acknowledge their intention to bring America into the conflict.

The advent of the Cold War reduced the scope of debate over foreign policy in the U.S., since few people saw an alternative to the "containment" of communism. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the most obvious justification for promiscuous intervention abroad disappeared. There was no longer much threat to America’s allies, let alone America.

In response, some conservatives forthrightly urged the U.S. to avoid foreign wars, reduce foreign bases, and scale back force structure and military outlays. They were immediately attacked as isolationists. Indeed, the Clinton administration trashed anyone who criticized one or another of its wasteful and foolish initiatives as an isolationist.

You didn’t think the U.S. military should arrest warlords in Somalia? You were an isolationist. You didn’t believe the U.S. should invade Haiti to restore the violent demagogue Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power? You were an isolationist. You didn’t think the U.S. should attempt to sort out which ethnic group got to secede from which territory dominated by which ethnic group in the Balkans? You were an isolationist. You didn’t think Washington should dismember Serbia and make Kosovo independent? You were an isolationist.

The Clinton administration even attacked critics of foreign aid for being isolationists. Never mind that tens of billions of dollars in government-to-government payments have been wasted and stolen year in and year out. Did you point out that poor countries didn’t need "foreign aid" to develop when they adopted good economic policies, reduced corruption, created a positive business environment, welcomed foreign investment, and allowed free trade? You were an isolationist.

Since Republicans were the primary targets of the isolationist smear, the election of George W. Bush — who ran for president advocating a more "humble" foreign policy — should have ended resort to this tactic, at least by the executive branch. Instead, President Bush, just like his predecessor, used the insult against his critics.

While running for president candidate Bush publicly worried about "isolationist sentiment in our country," arguing that the U.S.” must not retreat within our borders" and "must lead the world to peace." As public support slipped away for his mistaken and unnecessary war in Iraq, he announced in his 2006 State of the Union speech: "Our enemies and our friends can be certain the United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil. America rejects the false comfort of isolationism." Last year he told an audience that "I’m troubled by isolationism."

President Bush said he was troubled by isolationism even as the U.S. government was fighting two wars, defending rich allies around the globe, maintaining some 800 military installations abroad, and subsidizing most any country that put out its hand for federal alms. At the same time, U.S. citizens were traveling around the world, trading with foreign peoples, and producing the movies, music, and television programs which dominated global culture.

One wonders: how many wars, alliances, and bases do you have to support not to be considered to be an isolationist? Because Barack Obama opposed the disastrous Iraq adventure, some conservatives tried to pin the isolationist label on him. But it will be only a matter of time before he returns fire in the same way. He already has complained that "Today it’s become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations."

The logical next step will be to blame anyone opposed to wasting American taxpayers’ money abroad as being "isolationist." And as people campaign to speed the withdrawal from Iraq, block military escalation in Afghanistan, and oppose whatever new interventions President Obama is likely to propose — Darfur? Somalia? Haiti again? Who knows where else? — he and his officials are likely to denounce them as isolationists.

The battle today is not between internationalists and isolationists. Today’s self-identified internationalists are not internationalists at all, but believe in imposing Washington’s agenda on the rest of the world. They believe internationalism means intervention and war, political meddling, government bribes in the name of aid, and state capitalism and mercantilism In contrast, those commonly accused of being isolationists are the true internationalists.

They believe in respecting the interests of others around the world. They do not believe that initiating death and destruction is the best way to help other nations or peoples. For these supposed "isolationists," internationalism represents peaceful cooperation, free trade, cultural exchange, travel and tourism, private investment, and charitable assistance. In fact, the highest form of internationalism is private action — voluntary cooperation and exchange — rather than government intervention.

Americans should be involved in the world. But they should reclaim America’s tradition of nonintervention. Peace and prosperity should be Washington’s goal. Promoting them represents genuine internationalism.



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