Commentary

Isolationist Myths

This article appeared via Copley News Service on December 14, 1999.
When Texas Gov. George W. Bush recently inveighed against “isolation,” he joined a chorus in which President Clinton is the lead member. When the Republican Congress voted to cut the administration’s foreign aid budget, the president predictably responded by denouncing “a new isolationism in this country.”

Yet, what is now routinely termed “isolationism” is actually responsible internationalism.

Opposition to attacking Yugoslavia, occupying Bosnia, invading Haiti, expanding NATO, increasing foreign aid, opposing the test ban and Law of the Sea treaties, paying more dues to the United Nations, continuing draft registration and any number of other international initiatives have been met with the epithet “isolationist.”

Rather than debate the issues, global interventionists prefer to smear their opponents.

Despite a persistent xenophobic strain in U.S. politics, Americans have always been active around the globe. Their “isolationism” primarily reflected George Washington’s sensible advice to avoid unnecessary military entanglements.

Indeed, most alleged isolationists were anything but. Many of the strongest opponents of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations were internationalists who wanted the United States to act unilaterally. Many critics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt simply saw no need to get involved in another European killfest.

Today, the charge of isolationism is errant nonsense. The same Republican Senate that Clinton attacked for killing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty approved the expansion of NATO. The Republican Congress that cut the president’s foreign aid budget nevertheless had approved nearly $13 billion in outlays.

Indeed, the real danger today is promiscuous intervention, not isolation. On issue after issue, foolish and unnecessary meddling is making America as well as other nations less prosperous and secure.

Consider the CTBT. People of good will can differ, but the treaty’s verifiability and impact on America’s nuclear arsenal are problematic.

The more obscure Law of the Sea Treaty, which remains in Senate limbo, would create essentially a second United Nations to govern international seabed mining. The costly, bureaucratic system would impede economic development and discriminate against American companies.

As for foreign aid, supporters simply assume that throwing good money after bad will achieve something positive. Yet, there is no correlation between foreign assistance and economic growth; waste and fraud have been epidemic everywhere from Bosnia to Indonesia to the Philippines to Russia.

Then there’s the administration’s dubious strategy of foreign policy as social work, as Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University has called it. U.S. military intervention has created an artificial, unstable Bosnian state, transformed Haiti from a military into a presidential dictatorship and promoted the ethnic cleansing of Serbs rather than of Albanians in Kosovo.

Opposition to putting Americans at risk in all these endeavors was eminently reasonable.

Similarly, expanding NATO has increased U.S. defense responsibilities in a region with little impact on American security. Continuing expansion may draw Washington into irrelevant regional squabbles, while needlessly exacerbating already potent nationalistic sentiments in Russia.

Paying off America’s dues to the United Nations before reforms were made has ensured that reforms will never be made, since Washington’s only leverage was its unpaid dues. The United Nations will remain simultaneously profligate and ineffective.

Even the House vote to defund the Selective Service System, and its continuing registration of young men for the draft, has been cited as evidence of isolationism. Yet the United States dominates the globe militarily and could defeat any conceivable enemy with its existing active and reserve forces.

This vestige of the Cold War deserves to die.

The new isolationists, warns Clinton, “are saying America does not need to lead either by effort or by example.” They believe that “we should bury our heads in the sand behind a wall.” This is false, and he knows it.

The United States will be a superpower in spite of itself: it possesses the world’s largest and most productive economy, one of the most stable political systems and attractive political philosophies, and the most pervasive culture. America’s influence is guaranteed if it participates naturally in the global economy, compassionately accepts immigrants and refugees and cooperates with other states to solve global problems.

Washington need not, however, subsidize every foreign nation, global agency and international initiative. At the very least, it should determine that the programs it is being asked to support, such as foreign aid, actually work. It should also expect other parties, especially those that have more at stake, to pay more.

Moreover, it is good sense, not isolationism, to reserve military intervention for issues of vital national concern. Washington’s responsibility to Americans in uniform demands no less.

The end of the Cold War has reduced the international dangers facing the United States. Those who want America to do everything everywhere should drop the ad hominem. Instead of trashing their opponents as isolationists, they should make their case if they can.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.