The Atlantic

Isolationism Is Not a Dirty Word

Americans have lost touch with a crucial strain of their foreign-policy tradition.
Source: Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Isolationism once cleared the way for America’s ascent, making the country prosperous, powerful, and secure. Today, however, the Founders’ admonition against entangling alliances has fallen into disrepute, and the word isolationist itself has become an insult. In the absence of constraints on the nation’s ambition abroad, American grand strategy has fallen prey to overstretch and grown politically insolvent. The nation now confronts a seemingly unlimited array of foreign entanglements, two decades of errant war in the Middle East, and a pandemic that is causing an economic debacle of a sort not experienced since the Great Depression. The United States needs to rediscover the history of isolationism and apply its lessons, shrinking its footprint abroad and bringing its foreign commitments back into line with its means and purposes.

Americans have long deemed their democratic experiment to be exceptional, obliging them to spread liberty to all quarters of the globe. Even before the country’s birth, the passionate advocate of independence from Great Britain, Thomas Paine, counseled American colonists that “we have it in our power, to begin the world all over again.” But for much of the nation’s history, most Americans envisaged changing the world only by the power of their example; they wanted nothing to do with extending their strategic reach beyond North America. From the nation’s founding until the Spanish-American War of 1898, Americans restricted the scope of their overseas ambition to international commerce. They steadfastly expanded across North America—trampling on Native Americans, launching several failed attempts to grab hold of Canada, seizing a sizable chunk of Mexico in a war that ran from 1846 to 1848, and purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867—but pushed no farther than the Pacific coast.

Instead of running the world, Americans ran away from it. They stuck to the brand of statecraft laid out by President George Washington in his 1796 farewell address: “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.”

[Charles A. Kupchan: The decline of the West]

Especially after the Civil War, this focus on domestic development helped the American economy take off, boosted by investment in canals, ports, roads, and railways—rather than battleships and colonies. Between 1865 and 1898, coal production rose by 800 percent and railway track mileage by 567 percent. By the middle of the 1880s, the United States had surpassed Britain as the world’s leading producer of manufactured goods and steel. The U.S. Navy on occasion defended the interests of U.S. traders, but all the while, the country, regardless of which party was in power, kept geopolitical ambition at bay. This is the story of America’s rise to greatness.

Isolationism, of course, has also had a dark side. During the 1930s, the United States ran for cover while fascism and militarism swept across Europe and Asia—with disastrous results. It would be a grave error for the country to repeat that mistake and rashly and instinctively flee from today’s world. But Americans have overcorrected for their interwar-era passivity and swung to the opposite extreme, producing chronic overreach and raising the risk of an abrupt and disruptive retreat from strategic excess.

Americans need to reclaim the enduring wisdom laid down by the Founders that standing apart from trouble abroad often constitutes the best statecraft. Rediscovering isolationism’s strategic advantages—while at the same time keeping in mind its downsides—offers Americans the best hope of finding the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little.

I became a dirty word on December 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. And with good reason. By failing to stand up to the Axis powers, the United States during the 1930s pursued a deluded and self-defeating quest for strategic immunity, deservedly giving isolationism the bad name it has today. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg, formerly a staunch isolationist, wrote in his diary after the Japanese raid, “That

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