John Kerry Then and Now

Yale Senior John Kerry, speaking in 1966 (courtesy of POLITICO):

“What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” Kerry told Yale graduates in his Class Day speech. There’s a “serious danger of assuming the roles of policeman, prosecutor, judge, and jury, all at one time, and then, rationalizing our way deeper and deeper into a hold of commitment which other nations neither understand nor support.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at Yale this past weekend (from The Hill):

“In 1966 I had suggested an excess of isolation had led to an excess of interventionism,” he said. “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.”

Maybe Kerry, and other foreign policy makers, shouldn’t be so quick to reach for the term isolationism? And maybe avoiding excesses on both extremes–neither reckless military interventions that undermine U.S. security, nor a foolish attempt to separate from the rest of the world–is the goal that critics of U.S. foreign policy are actually seeking? If Kerry and others ignore this sentiment, or continue to mischaracterize it, they will bear much of the blame if true isolationism takes root.

I warned about this in my book, The Power Problem (2009):

Surveying the high costs and dubious benefits of our frequent interventions over the past two decades, many Americans are now asking themselves, “what’s the point?” Why provide these so-called global public goods if we will be resented and reviled–and occasionally targeted–for having made the effort? When Americans tell pollsters that we should “mind our own business” they are rejecting the global public goods argument in its entirety…

The defenders of the status quo like to describe such sentiments as isolationist, a gross oversimplification that has the additional object of unfairly tarring the advocates of an alternative foreign policy–any alternative–with an obnoxious slur. There is, however, an ugly streak to the United States’ turn inward. It appears in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility to free trade….

For the most part, Americans want to remain actively engaged in the world without having to be in charge of it. We tire of being held responsible for everything bad that happens, and always on the hook to pick up the costs….But if Washington refuses to [change course], or simply tinkers around the margins while largely ignoring public sentiment, then we should not be surprised if many Americans choose to throw the good engagement out with the bad, opting for genuine isolationism, with all of its nasty connotations.

That would be tragic. It would also be dangerous….If Americans reject the peaceful coexistence, trade, and voluntary person-to-person contact that has been the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy since the nation’s founding, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world will grow only worse, with negative ramifications for U.S. security for many years to come.