Tag: isolationism

What Is Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine?

At noon on January 20th, Barack Obama stepped aside, leaving Donald Trump as the leader of the free world. In his inaugural address, Trump pledged to implement an ‘America First’ doctrine. But while the implications for trade and immigration are relatively clear, his speech brought us little closer to understanding what this will mean for foreign policy.

Indeed, thanks to the incoherence of the president-elect’s foreign policy remarks during his campaign, the range of potential outcomes is wide. But Trump’s past comments suggest four potential paths that his ‘America First’ Doctrine could take.

The first option is true isolationism. Though it remained unclear throughout the campaign the extent to which Trump truly understood the historical baggage that came with the term ‘America First,’ many commentators assumed that he would indeed pursue a classic isolationist policy. And Trump seems to mean it literally in some cases: only a week into office, he has already sought to erect trade and immigration barriers. He may also seek to withdraw from the world in military terms, abandoning alliances, and refusing to engage in even the diplomatic resolution of international problems which don’t directly concern the United States.

Yet elements of Trump’s own statements call this assumption into question. From his insistence on increased military spending to his promise in the inaugural address to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism ‘completely from the face of the Earth,’ Trump has repeatedly implied that he is likely to pursue a relatively hawkish foreign policy.

“Isolationist” Is a Compliment Coming from Marco Rubio

After claiming a special expertise in foreign policy, GOP presidential wannabe Marco Rubio finds himself under fire because of his neoconservative tendencies. He’s responded in the usual way for someone whose policies would keep America perpetually at war: accuse his critics of being “isolationists.”

Trying to defend his record of supporting such disastrous misadventures as Iraq and Libya, he denounced unnamed foes who sought “to derail the postwar consensus about America’s role in the world.” This outrageous yet anonymous “they,” he added, “will never call themselves isolationists, but that is exactly what they are.”

Against Ted Cruz, the likely intended target, the claim obviously is nonsense. After all, Cruz recently proposed carpet-bombing the Islamic State.

What Rubio unintentionally illustrated was the fact that “isolationist” today has been stripped of almost all meaning to become an all-purpose epithet. Indeed, if “isolationist” means anything today, it simply is “you don’t want to intervene where I want to intervene.”

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.

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.

More from McCain on ‘Isolationism’

Over at World Politics Review, Justin Logan and I collaborated on an article about the supposed rise of  ”isolationism” within the GOP.

The charges come mainly from Sen. John McCain, though presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty copped that line yesterday, drawing praise from the editors of The Weekly Standard.

McCain directed his “isolationism” fire late yesterday at West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of 27 senators who signed a letter to the president calling for a substantial troop reduction in Afghanistan. On the floor of the Senate, Manchin explained his reasoning: “I believe it is time to for us to rebuild America, not Afghanistan.”

According to McCain, Manchin’s comments “characterize the isolationist withdrawal, lack of knowledge of history attitude that seems to be on the rise in America.”

But McCain needs to reconnect with recent history, and contemporary reality. Nation building is a fool’s errand: costly, counterproductive, and unnecessary. We could continue to hunt al Qaeda with far fewer troops in Afghanistan. A smaller presence would provide us with sufficient flexibility to deal with other challenges elsewhere — and help us to put our own house in order. McCain is OK with spending over $100 billion a year in a country with a GDP of around $16 billion, while our economy suffers.

Not surprisingly, most Americans, including many Republicans, reject McCain’s views. And they should. As Justin and I explain in the WPR article:

Foreign policy should not be conducted by polls and focus groups, but in this case the public is right, and the interventionist consensus in Washington is wrong. The threats facing us are not so urgent that we must maintain a vast military presence scattered across the globe and consistently make war in multiple theaters at once. The United States is the most secure great power in history, and if policymakers would act like it, the evidence suggests the public would support them.

In particular, given that our recent overseas military interventions have carried significant costs and delivered very few measurable benefits, it is hardly surprising that Americans are pushing back against the sorts of foreign adventures McCain favors. We don’t know whether the faint rumblings of common sense in the GOP presidential primaries indicate that Beltway elites are finally coming around to our view, but we hope they do. Should that happen, it would be prudence prevailing, not isolationism. (Full text here.)

Why any Republican aspiring to the presidency would follow the advice of a two-time loser like McCain (in 2000 to G.W. Bush, and in 2008 to Barack Obama) is beyond me. It makes even less sense for Democrats to listen to him.

AEI on the Spectre of ‘Isolationism’

As David Boaz notes below, a few blocks away at 17th and M, the foreign policy and defense analysts at the American Enterprise Institute have discovered a threat that’s even more disturbing than the possibility of a Chinese “Space Force” armed with particle-beam weapons [.pdf].  It seems there’s a spectre haunting America–the spectre of “isolationism.”

It’s such a threat that AEI, one of our leading conservative think tanks, is calling on President Obama to man the bully pulpit and use his magic rhetorical skills to raise awareness. I did a double-take on Tuesday when I saw a post at AEI’s blog titled, “With Growing Isolationism, We Need Obama to Lead Now More Than Ever.” And yet, when I got up the next day, I heard AEI veep Danielle Pletka on NPR, lamenting “Republican isolationism” and the fact that Obama hadn’t yet stepped up to “explain to the American people” the “tough, important decisions” he’d made in foreign policy.

What’s the evidence for this supposedly burgeoning “isolationism” in the Republican party and the country at large? AEI’s Alex Della Rocchetta cites a recent poll showing that only 26 percent of likely voters support Obama’s Libyan adventure and the Pew Center survey David links to below, that has a rising number of Americans agreeing with the statement that the US should “mind its own business internationally.”

But is it “isolationism” to doubt the wisdom of bombing Libya, a country that the president’s own secretary of defense admits isn’t “a vital interest of the United States” or to think minding your own business abroad is better than minding other peoples’ business?  As my colleague Justin Logan has pointed out, “isolationism” has always been a smear word designed to shut off debate. Tim Carney’s sardonic definition has it right: “Isolationist: n. Someone who, on occasion, opposes bombing foreigners.”

But, rhetorical games aside, AEI’s hawks have reason to worry that interventionism is increasingly unpopular. It had to hurt when even sometime AEI scholar Newt Gingrich–a guy so threat-addled that he once called for zapping a North Korean missile test with lasers–struck a note of restraint at the last GOP debate. As the New York Times noted, that debate showed that “the hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view.”

Maybe GOP pols are beginning to catch on that, for quite some time now, ordinary Americans have overwhelmingly rejected the globocop role forced on them by liberal and conservative elites. Indeed, there’s a huge disconnect between the foreign policies Americans favor and those the Beltway Consensus delivers. Nearly three-quarters of the American public wants to get out of Afghanistan yesterday; meanwhile, 57 percent of National Journal’s “National Security Insiders” think we need to waste more blood and treasure on armed “community organizing.”

It’s almost like there’s a “culture war” going on, but not one of the usual God, Guns, and Gays variety. On one side, you’ve got the sound, mind-your-business instincts of the American people; on the other, there’s a gaggle of intellectual elites, determined to extend the reach and power of the American state. A “Battle,” if you will. You could write a book about it.

Thanassis Cambanis on “Cosmopolitan Isolationism”

Via Erik Voeten, Thanassis Cambanis has a long piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe about academic critics of America’s bipartisan grand strategy.  Cambanis rightly points out that Republicans and Democrats basically agree about American strategy, and spend all their time haggling over price and implementation.  By contrast, there is a burgeoning group of critics in the academy who disagree:

[The critics’] call for a humbler foreign policy hasn’t gained much of a hearing with the foreign policy elite, and is hardly talked about in mainstream circles. They question many of America’s basic habits and reflexes, at a time when it’s increasingly clear that the “long war” has not eliminated the threat of terrorism or neutralized rogue states and their nuclear black market.

Not every danger rises to the level of an existential threat, these thinkers say; often, the best way to project power is to stay out of other people’s fights. Or as [Barry] Posen, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist who is one of the most acerbic proponents of restraint, puts it: “We need to get out of the world’s face.”


Barry Posen

Posen’s thinking has evolved markedly. In the late 1990s he derided “neo-isolationists” who wanted to minimize American involvements abroad (“Isolationist is what we called the people whose ideas we didn’t like,” he said). Now he counts himself among their number, and has embarked on a book and lecture tour expounding his case for restraint.

There are plenty of reasons why retrenchment should get more of a hearing in contemporary America, Posen says, but he doesn’t think power brokers will take the idea seriously until a definitive crisis limits the Pentagon or the Treasury. “It’s almost as if in foreign and security policy, democratic debate peters out,” Posen says. “If you argue for restraint, people hold up garlic like they would against a vampire and shout ‘Isolationist! Isolationist!’ ”


For now, the old consensus is running strong. But for the new isolationists, America is at the tail end of an unsustainable experiment that has cost progress at home. America’s interventionist reflex has embroiled it in wars big and small and political disputes whose value to American interests is hard to fathom.

“Maybe I’m hallucinating, but there’s an awareness that this project we’re running isn’t sustainable,” Posen says. “The way we run our strategy generates new little dragons faster than we can slay the old ones.”

The piece mentions, in addition to Posen, my old professor John Mearsheimer, who had a solid cover story in the current issue of the National Interest (video clip of recent talk on the article here), as well as Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich.

Cambanis’s piece is interesting and hits on themes I have tried to drive home in the past.  At last year’s APSA Annual Meeting, I highlighted the gulf between academic grand strategists and the Beltway foreign policy elite and tried to explain it.  I’ve also written a bit about the “isolationism” canard, and how it was designed–and coined by A.T. Mahan–with the intention of demonizing the opponents of an activist American strategy.

I’m still shopping an article dealing with these themes, but I would suggest that while “hallucinating” might be too strong a word, Posen is too optimistic about the prospects of a major strategic shift along the lines that he–and I–would like.  There is simply no interest group support for it in Washington and no external pressure that looks likely to force us to pull in our horns.  Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, and maybe it’s a function of having been working on this project for a long time in DC with very little success, but I think the prospects for significant change are a long ways off, and sound arguments emanating from the academy are unlikely to get us there.

To my mind, there are two things that could bring substantial change to American strategy: the rise of some external security threat that would force us to make smarter, more prudent choices, or a shift in the domestic-political balance of power that involved the rise of a faction within Washington that had vested interests in strategic restraint.  To my mind, we’re miles away from either of those scenarios, and thus the status quo is likely to persist for decades.