July 1, 2011 12:46PM

Cleveland vs. Greenberg on Isolationism (so‐​called)

Props to Grover Cleveland at Pileus for his short but perceptive take on David Greenberg's op-ed in yesterday's New York Times. Cleveland places the piece in the “Not Worth a Read” category and asks:

Hasn’t this kind of simplistic “history” and inaccurate categorization of today’s critics of liberal internationalism/neoconservatism been written about a million times already?  And aren’t these types of pieces really just rhetorical bullying to prevent a serious discussion of American foreign policy?

Answer: Yes, and yes. And Cleveland is hardly the first to make this observation. (e.g. here, here, and here)
As with other writers who have crawled out of the woodwork recently to write about isolationism (so-called), Greenberg is sure that it's bad, both for the country and for the Republican Party.
I agree with that statement. But I disagree with Greenberg's characterization of the discussion taking place within the Republican Party (and the country) about the purpose of U.S. military power to be in any way comparable with the debate over ratification of the League of Nations Charter in 1919 or overwhelming public opposition to joining the war in Europe 1940 and 1941. Greenberg says that today's isolationism "rejects America’s leadership role in the world." I sense, instead, a skepticism toward the costs and benefits of American global hegemony, and a welcome (and to be expected) desire to shed some of these burdens.

To be clear, a sharp turn inward would be bad for the country. Global engagement has made the United States into the envy of the world. And yet, there is an ugly form of hostility toward outsiders that runs throughout U.S. history. Today, it manifests itself in the xenophobia, nativism, and outright bigotry that maintains that the United States can remain strong only by deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants and building a 20-foot high wall along the Mexican border. Isolationism is also manifested in protectionism, a false belief that American manufacturers and American workers can disconnect from the global marketplace, and that producers and consumers alike would both be better off if we were all confined to the domestic U.S. market.

But it is neither accurate to say that most Americans are isolationists nor that a different foreign policy, one more focused on self-defense and exhibiting restraint abroad, reflects isolationism. Rather, Americans crave a different foreign policy than that practiced by both Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades. They hunger for alternatives that would allow the United States to remain engaged in the world, but at less cost, and with other countries doing their fair share. In this context, it is hardly surprising that some Republicans (and some Democrats, too) are cautiously testing the waters of acceptable discourse. If they find that middle ground, between reflexive war-making and head-in-the-sand pacifism, they might strike political paydirt.
As to Greenberg's claim that the GOP is mere moments away from being captured by the ghost of Robert Taft, I share Justin Logan's skepticism. Still, I am bemused by the terror that the specter of so-called isolationism is currently striking in the hearts of interventionists of both the liberal and neoconservative variety. Given that so many of them were (and are) cheerleaders for the reckless war in Iraq, the unnecessary and doomed-to-fail armed social work being tried in Afghanistan, and the foolish and unconstitutional war/non-war in Libya, I might take grim solace in the fact that they are finally getting their just desserts.
I might, except that the backlash against these and other misadventures might eventually push the country toward genuine isolationism, with all of its ugly connotations.
Here's hoping that we can find that sensible center, of a United States that remains deeply engaged with the world, but that has dropped all pretensions to managing it.