Until the years after World War II, America has always seemed to be a reluctant player in foreign policy. Granted, there are exceptions – whether it be our rush to incite a war with Spain at the end of the 19th century, or Theodore Roosevelt’s uncommon penchant for emphasizing our military might and declaring America to be the ‘policeman’ of the Western Hemisphere – but for the most part, our country has always had an isolationist streak about itself. A lot of that may stem from the formation of this country, when we threw the British and the German mercenaries known as Hessians out of the country (albeit with France’s help). It may be best to recall that the country’s first president under the current Constitution set the tone for a policy of non-intervention.
“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. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”
Throughout America’s early history, there were several events that led to an increasing sentiment towards isolationism. The XYZ affair led to a loss of goodwill American and its former allies in the Revolutionary War. In addition, we refused to support the backers of the French Revolution, choosing to stay out of their affairs. Hostilities escalated between the U.S. and Great Britain to the point of a second war with our former colonial masters. Although we occasionally interacted with other countries, such as the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, it was usually to resolve border disputes within our own country. With President James Monroe’s address on December 2, 1823 that later became better known as the Monroe Doctrine, we reaffirmed our isolationist roots:
In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers….
But, in regard to these continents, circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different. It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent, without endangering our peace and happiness: nor can any one believe that our Southern Brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition, in any form, with indifference. If we look to the comparative strength and resources of Spain and those new governments, and their distance from each other, it must be obvious that she can never subdue them. It is still the true policy of the United States to leave the parties to themselves, in the hope that other powers will pursue the same course.
While there were various foreign policy affairs America got involved in, in particular the Mexican-American war, the Spanish-American war, and Roosevelt’s Big Stick diplomacy, America never strayed far from its isolationist roots. The various tariffs that have been passed throughout American history are an economic form of isolationism. With World War II, Woodrow Wilson won a narrow re-election in 1916 largely on the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” Eventually, though, America felt compelled to enter the first global conflict. Once Wilson converted, he recognized that international involvement would be a crucial part of America’s future. His Fourteen Points to peacefully end World War I was an idealistic document that ended up failing to garner any support. Wilson was prescient beyond his time, seeing that America had to take a leading role in international affairs.
We have spoken now, surely, in terms too concrete to admit of any further doubt or question. An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak.
Unless this principle be made its foundation, no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle, and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess. The moral climax of this, the culminating and final war for human liberty has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their own highest purpose, their own integrity and devotion to the test.
The Treaty of Versailles, a much more punishing treaty, was negotiated, and Wilson failed to even have the watered-down document pass in the Senate, failing by 7 votes. The United States never joined the League of Nations, arguably one of the reasons that World War II came to pass two decades later. Warren Harding took office, and a policy of isolationism became the norm until the deadly attacks on Pearl Harbor gave America no choice but to enter the Second World War. Since then, it has been American policy to be highly involved in international affairs – whether it be the United Nations, the Bretton Woods monetary stabilization system (no longer in existence), and other international agreements. The Vietnam War may have moved the nation back towards isolationism, but even after that tragic catastrophe, America has never shied away from being involved intimately in foreign affairs. During the Clinton administration, we nearly brokered a deal for a Palestinian state (the merits of whether it was fair or not is debatable), signed an environmental accord to combat the growing problem of global warming (but it has never been ratified by the Senate), and stopped a murderous dictator’s bloody purge in the Balkans.
One might argue that the Bush administration’s foreign policy has been more interventionist than usual – and it has been, despite his campaign claim that he would not do so. However, despite whatever neoconservative pipe dreams may be in store for Iran and other countries in the ‘axis of evil’, it seems clear that the American people want no part of it:
By a wide margin, the poll found, Americans did not believe the United States should take the lead in solving international conflicts in general, with 59 percent saying it should not, and 31 percent saying it should. That is a significant shift from a CBS News poll in September 2002 — one year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — when the public was far more evenly split on the issue.
What has become of Ronald Reagan’s belief that America is a beacon for the rest of the world? What of the goodwill that our country brings when it helps solve the problems around the world? The Bush administration is solely to blame for this turn in attitude. We have lost our moral standing in the world due to the scandals at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the secret torture prisons in Eastern Europe. We have bullied our way to starting a preemptive war against a country that was of no threat, and our leaders fail to seriously address the other problems in the world – of which there are many. From the same New York Times article:
A majority said the war between Israel and Hezbollah will lead to a wider war. And while almost half of those polled approved of President Bush’s handling of the crisis, a majority said they preferred the United States leave it to others to resolve.
The Middle East, long an area of simmering tensions, has exploded over the violence between Israel and Hezbollah. And our official position? Let it go on without making any sort of meaningful push towards ending the conflict that has claimed the lives of innocent civilians on both sides. It seems that after abandoning the historically conservative position of isolationism, the Republican Party is beginning to retreat from its hyper-interventionist stance on matters where we are actually needed the most. Some may argue that it’s best that America doesn’t get involved in foreign matters until we ‘complete the mission’ in Iraq, whatever that entails. However, caving to isolationism, a policy that has never ended well for the country, would be a regressive American foreign policy that may well set back decades of progress.
Indeed, the lasting legacy of the Bush administration’s fuck-up in Iraq may not be destabilizing the Middle East. It may be that America voluntarily abstains from foreign policy in the future, leading to a world that will indeed be less safe.