There may be no more vicious epithet from neoconservatives these days than “isolationist.” One would think the term would mean something like xenophobic no-nothings who want to have nothing to do with the rest of the world. No trade or immigration. Little or no cultural exchange and political cooperation. Autarchy all around.
But no. ”Isolationist” apparently means something quite different. Never mind your views of the merits of international engagement. If you don’t want to kill lots of foreigners in lots of foreign wars you are automatically considered to be an isolationist.
President Bill Clinton called Republican legislators “isolationists” for not wanting to insert the U.S. military into the middle of a complex but strategically irrelevant guerrilla conflict in Kosovo. (He made the same criticism against them for not supporting even more money for foreign aid, which presumably meant the Heritage Foundation was filled with isolationists at the time).
But the definition is even broader today. It means not willing to go to war for any country that clamors for a security guarantee irrespective of its relevance to American security. At least, that appears to be the definition applied by Sally McNamara of Heritage.
On Monday in National Interest online I criticized the argument advanced by Ms. McNamara and others that alliances and military commitments automatically prevent war. More specifically, the claim is that if only the U.S. would bring the country of Georgia into NATO – or simply issue a Membership Action Plan, which neither offers a security promise nor guarantees NATO membership – Moscow would never dare take the risk of attacking Georgia.
History suggests this is a dangerous assumption. Both World Wars I and II featured alliances that were supposed to prevent conflict but which instead acted as transmission belts of war. One can argue whether or not the alliances were prudent. One cannot argue that they prevented conflict as so many people thought (and certainly hoped) they would.
Thus, alliances should be viewed as serious organizations. A promise to defend another nation should be treated as a momentous undertaking. And the public should be aware of all of the risks of policies advanced by the nation’s leaders. This should go double when a nuclear-armed power is involved and treble when the geopolitical stakes are trivial for the U.S. while significant for the opposing state.
For suggesting this Ms. McNamara argues that I am both an isolationist and a neo-isolationist. (I’m not sure of the difference between the two. Maybe the latter indicates that she realizes I believe in free trade, increased immigration, and international cooperation, which makes for a curious kind of “isolationism.” Still, advocating a reduction in military commitments and the consequent risk of war, rather than a policy of galloping about the globe tossing security guarantees hither and yon, apparently means I am at least a “neo-isolationist.”)
Even worse, I am accused of “appeasement” for suggesting that being prepared to trade Washington for Tbilisi is a bad bargain. Ah, the “A” word. To count the cost and not support every commitment, no matter how distant or irrelevant, is the same as encouraging the next Adolf Hitler.
It is time for a serious discussion as to why we have alliances today. If it isn’t to promote American security, let’s be clear about that. If NATO is an international social club, or a second European Union, or a global Good Housekeeping seal of sorts, then policymakers should level with the American people who are paying the bills.
Even more so, if the alliance is geared to defending everyone else, then let’s admit that too. Georgia would not be defending America. Nor will Albania, Croatia, Estonia, and the other geopolitical titans recently inducted into the NATO fraternity. The security commitment effectively runs one way.
So for what stakes are NATO expansion advocates willing to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia? To hope that America’s commitment is never called is no substitute for honestly assessing the risks, interests, and trade-offs at stake.
If none of these considerations is relevant – if failing to constantly add new defense welfare clients is the same as “withdrawing from the world” and giving Hitler a green light – is there any stopping point? Presumably no. If Georgia is to come in, then presumably Ukraine too. If Ukraine, how about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia? Why not Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan? Maybe go a bit further. Perhaps Sri Lanka?
But why stop there? Should not any nation which desires protection from any other nation be entitled to American protection? After all, to say no would, in Ms. McNamara’s words, offer “a geo-political victory to Moscow” or someone else, whether Beijing, New Delhi, Ankara, or whoever. Failing to protect weak states – East Timor, Congo, Belize, and more – would demonstrate that we have failed to learn the lesson that “appeasement simply does not work.”
It is easy to conjure up new missions for the U.S. military. But the most important question is whether these tasks advance the security of America – this nation, its people, and its system of constitutional liberty. Scattering security guarantees about the globe as if they were party favors – treating them as a costless panacea to the problem of war – makes America less, not more secure.
And making that argument does not mean one is an “isolationist” advocating “appeasement.” Unless the Founders were isolationist appeasers as well.
As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address:
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.
His sentiments apply even more today, when America’s adversaries are pitiful and few, and America’s friends are many and dominant. The U.S. need not – and should not – withdraw from the world. But Washington should stop making unnecessary and dangerous military commitments.