The ‘Isolationist’ Slur and the Foreign Policy Debate

John Glaser, May 02, 2013

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A recent New York Times article ascribing the label “isolationist” to those skeptical of military intervention in Syria and North Korea has generated a flurry of commentary about the overall foreign policy debate.

Matt Duss summarizes the controversy well:

Ask yourself: Do you oppose putting U.S. troops everywhere, all the time? If you answered yes, you might be an isolationist, according to the word’s new definition. A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, based on a new NYT/CBS poll, warned that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria right now.”

In the very next paragraph, however, we are told that, “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

In other words, if you only support bombing unspecified foreign countries with flying robots, you’re exhibiting an isolationist streak.

The “isolationist” epithet actually reared its ugly head a week before the NYTimes article on Tuesday, when Joseph I. Lieberman and Jon Kyl of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute wrote a piece in The Washington Post warning of “the danger of repeating the cycle of American isolationism.”

And even before that, The National Review published a piece criticizing Obama’s “neo-isolationist” approach to foreign policy, which I tore apart on this blog. As Robert Golan-Vilella wrote at The National Interest, that label “only begins to make sense if your default assumption is that the United States can and should be intervening everywhere, all the time.”

“The problem is the default assumption for many in our political elite,” Duss writes, “seems to be that the United States has the right—nay, the duty—to get into everyone’s business, everywhere, all the time. Anything less represents an abdication.”

Indeed, it’s easy enough to see that throwing around the word “isolationist” is a rhetorical attempt to narrow the foreign policy debate to exclude anyone who questions the wisdom of intervening in virtually every corner of the planet.

As Stephen Walt explains:

Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as “isolationist” because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren’t constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense than neoconservatives’ fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks’ fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.

I’m heartened to see so many respectable academics and journalists call out the “isolationist” allegations for what they are, but it’s also important not to run from the label completely. Ohio State political scientist Bear Braumoeller, for example, invalidates the “isolationist” label as used by people like Joe Lieberman, but also insists real isolationism “rarely if ever deserves a place in the analysis of American foreign policy.”

To an extent, the term “isolationist” should be rejected because of its associated connotations of xenophobia and “turning inward.” As readers of this site know, non-interventionist is a better term to describe those with a preference for open borders and engaging in commerce with the world, but who firmly oppose military adventures that go beyond counteracting a specific and imminent threat to Americans.

If we’re serious about accurately characterizing current US foreign policy, it should be readily admitted that it is imperial in nature (the polar opposite of “isolationism,” or non-intervention if you prefer). America’s Grand Strategy is one that seeks global hegemony, total military, economic, and political domination over the world. Any state that dares rival America’s influence is to be met with force, according to the worldview of US foreign policy-makers.

Since World War II, America’s military has spanned the globe and is now postured in over 148 countries, or over 75 percent of the world’s states. Washington has sought to check Russian power in Europe, China’s power in East Asia, and any regional power in the Middle East. It’s zero sum for Uncle Sam: keeping the world weaker means more power for the government and it’s associates. And what is this power worth? It’s worth trillions of dollars extracted from productive sectors of the economy, it’s worth oceans of blood from Americans in uniform and desperate foreign masses unfortunate enough to be on the receiving of our imperialism.

This imperial grand strategy is not only ruthless in its projection abroad, it degrades us here at home. The rule of law takes a back seat to “national security,” so that statutory restrictions and the system of checks and balances that curb arbitrary state power slowly erode. The excessive costs of a massive military-industrial complex with “unwarranted influence,” paying for elective wars and the security of client states, and the world’s most imposing standing army all put total bankruptcy on the proverbial horizon.

In the current climate, I personally feel much more comfortable embracing the isolationist label, despite its unattractive connotations, than embracing any association at all with the status quo. Still, the debate would be better served if everyone from Joe Lieberman to Stephen Walt employed the term “non-interventionist” to describe the dissent. At least then Antiwar.com could be proud to be a part of the debate.




24 Responses to “The ‘Isolationist’ Slur and the Foreign Policy Debate”

  1. Kind of like the term "antisemite" is leveled at anyone not kowtowing to Zionist interests.

  2. excellent article and point John. saw it on your Antiwar facebook page. Thank you.

  3. As readers of this site know, non-interventionist is a better term to describe those with a preference for open borders and engaging in commerce with the world, but who firmly oppose military adventures that go beyond counteracting a specific and imminent threat to Americans.

    What's with the open borders stuff? To specifically say you prefer open borders is to tell the world that you support the demographic transformation of the USA from a European to a non-European nation. What does this have to do with non-interventionism?

    Open borders are part and parcel of the interventionists and those who support an empire, e.g. ancient Rome. Open borders lead to more and more foreign intrigue because a multicultural population brings its problems and concerns here making them our problems and concerns. Does anyone think we'd still have an embargo on Cuba if not for the large population of Cubans in this country?

    Please, don't make support for demographic change a litmus test for those who wish to be considered non-interventionists.

  4. Perhaps the term "open borders" like "isolationism" should be changed. Instead, "free movement" or "free association" would be better. Why should a person's movement on the planet be dictated by their accident of birth as it relates to a specific geo-political designation or arbitrary borders drawn on maps? If you say you object to people living here because "we" must provide them with benefits such as education, healthcare and welfare, that is an argument against the socialist institutions that government at all levels, has created. I would also object to a politician taking my money and placing it in an open container in public for any and all passersby to take. I would not blame a person who took the dough but, the politician that demanded my cooperation in such a scheme.

  5. Without agreeing with your full comment, I agree that it is a significant leap into libertarianism to say that non-interventionists favor open borders. Lefty peaceniks and traditionalists like Pat Buchanan won't make that leap.

  6. Open borders will soon render the erstwhile nation incapable of maintaining the Empire.
    Just looking for a silver lining.

  7. “The problem is the welfare state, not whether people come here to live!”

    Asinine.

    This view assumes that somehow we can end the welfare state through voting (HA!), which would allow anyone to come here without burdening the tax payer. This is not the case, because congress will continue to give payouts for votes and THE TREASURY WILL CONTINUE TO BE A PUBLIC TROUGH, PERIOD. You will never vote welfare statists out of office, and thus supporting open boarders will necessarily be tantamount to supporting the welfare state.

  8. The issue of open borders is intimately related to the difference between an isolationist and a non-interventionist. An isolationist would like to protect the nation from foreign influences and, hence, would favor restricting the movement of people into the nation. A non-interventionist merely would oppose the imperial enterprise. A non-interventionist would not necessarily favor border restrictions.

  9. A non-interventionist would not necessarily favor border restrictions.

    Then he is a fool. If you think you can flood the country with third worlders who are net tax consumers and still maintain a first world nation, then you are in for a rude surprise.

    Also, the greatest non-interventionists in American history, of which Justin Raimondo often sings their praises, were very much against open borders. In fact they were strong supporters of the 1924 Immigration Act. The group I write of is the America First Committee. Many of its most prominent members, like Charles Lindbergh, are probably rolling over in their graves at the thought of the USA becoming a non-European nation.

  10. In criticizing our past decade of so-called preventive wars, Pat Buchanan often quotes Otto von Bismarck who said that preventive war was like committing suicide out of fear of death.

    I think Bismarck's quote could apply to you as well. Wishing to destroy your nation, state, city, neighborhood, community, etc. so that the Empire will no longer be maintained is like committing suicide out of fear of death. That is crazy talk.

    Have you even seen an area in the United States that has been ravaged by demographic change? I have seen a small town in Missouri, that thanks to a meat packing plant, now has a school district with half its students being non-English speakers. I doubt most of the English speaking kids have parents who can afford to move. So their education will probably take a hit as the school struggles to teach English to so many kids at once. But who cares about those English speaking kids in rural Missouri? They are white trash, right?

    Thus, before you wish to ruin this nation to kill the Empire, keep in mind the folks whose lives are disrupted by such change are not the ones who built the Empire.

    No the people behind the Empire live in communities that are 90% white and send their children to private schools. They are not only not hurt by demographic change, they actually profit off it since it provides them with cheap domestic laborers and higher corporate profits. Wishing that your nation collapses under the weight of a third world invasion only hurts the common folk.

    I understand your frustration with the Empire, and I despise it as well. But at least hope for retribution that affects those responsible, and not just the innocent working stiffs that are just trying to live their lives in a socially cohesive environment and hope their kids can get a better life.

  11. so that the Empire will no longer be maintained is like committing suicide out of fear of death. That is crazy talk.

  12. Agreed, Rusty–the deliberate open borders and Third World, mostly Mexican invasion of our country combined with their prodigious breeding rates (paid for by American taxpayers who can't afford to have children of their own) will by 2030 at the earliest, transform the US into a majority non-White country, assuming the economy and country haven't collapsed by then.

    It began with the 1965 Immigration Act. It is a calculated plan of the elites to replace the European-descended population, which has the pesky habit of rebelling every now and then, with a docile, low-IQ, easily-controlled slave population they can exploit for profit.

    The idiot trolls can now appear with their usual ad hominem attacks and call me a dreaded "racist". Oooh, I'm so scared!

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  14. Lindbergh should have been President, not that degenerate Bolshevik cripple Roosevelt.

  15. [...] Read more via The ‘Isolationist’ Slur and the Foreign Policy Debate « Antiwar.com Blog. [...]

  16. "As readers of this site know, non-interventionist is a better term to describe those with a preference for open borders and engaging in commerce with the world, but who firmly oppose military adventures that go beyond counteracting a specific and imminent threat to Americans."

    The two go hand in hand. Invade the world, invite the world. Close the borders as most other sane nations do and keep our military out of everyone else's business. Simple.

  17. "A non-interventionist would not necessarily favor border restrictions."

    …except that many who invade WANT intervention elsewhere in order to help their fellow comrades. If we had closed our border in the 1880s, we would not be supporting Israel today.

  18. "are probably rolling over in their graves at the thought of the USA becoming"

    It's worse than that. America is coming undone as a nation period due to multiculturalism. The elite imported masses of third world block voters and now their power has increased to such an extent that they are no longer accountable to the public. The public wants one thing but the government gives them another. Why? Because no matter what they do, the invaders will block vote for them. Close those borders.

  19. "I have seen a small town in Missouri, that thanks to a meat packing plant, now has a school district with half its students being non-English speakers."

    I went back to my home town a few years ago. A shooting occurred and everyone locked themselves in their homes as if they were in London during the blitz. It was astonishing. Reason: an illegal alien shot a woman at point blank range in a grocery store and everyone correctly believed cops wouldn't do anything about it. The whole county has a catch and release strategy that accomplishes nothing. People shouldn't have to cower in fear like that just to please those who ascribe to the sanctimonious egalitarian religion – a religion that has produced disaster after disaster –> failed schools, failed cities (Detroit, Camden, Gary, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Memphis, St. Louis, etc.), failed trillion dollar government programs (Great Society, etc.), some of the world's largest municipal bankruptcies (Birmingham), endless school cheating scandals (Atlanta), academic fraud as egalitarians attempt to stave off scientific onslaught (Stephen Jay Gould and Diederik Stapel), a police state that rivals the old Soviet Union due to immigration and multiculturalism, an unaccountable political class (amnesty = millions more block voters), etc.

    A nation is a nation when it consists of people of similar background, temperament, and cultural beliefs. An empire is an empire when it consists of dissimilar peoples who share nothing in common and care nothing for each other. Empires can either be held together by force or by the economy. When either of those measures do not work, as is inevitable at some point, empires end. They are fragile things; they never come back and often leave their subjects in misery after they pass. America is a militant police state because the elite that governs it is no longer accountable to the people, as would be the case in a true nation-state. America went from a nation to an empire. In doing so, America went from the the cradle straight to the grave.

    "the people behind the Empire live in communities that are 90% white and send their children to private schools. They are not only not hurt by demographic change, they actually profit off it since it provides them with cheap domestic laborers and higher corporate profits."

    Exactly. That applies to many in the media as well. For example, Michael Moore maintains a residence in Traverse City, Michigan. That city is over 94% white Caucasian and just 0.8% black — the national average is 12.5% black and some states have almost 1/3 of their population as black. Keep that in mind next time is he running his trap on MSNBC about white people. He could live in a diverse area but purposely chooses to avoid diversity. His motivation is 1. to seek status by appealing to the ruling class 2. to make money selling books and producing documentaries for his sanctimonious fan base (he's already worth $40 million + despite his attempt to deflect that fact by the way he dresses).

  20. "Why should a person's movement on the planet be dictated by their accident of birth as it relates to a specific geo-political designation or arbitrary borders drawn on maps?"

    Easy. Because their movement affects those who built the areas they move into. Sane nations (China, Japan, South Korea, etc.) do not allow such movement and have been financially and culturally prosperous as a result. Japan, a country the size of Montana and possessing virtually no natural resources, has the world's third largest economy (second largest until China passed it). That's an amazing accomplishment….and they did it without immigration. Japan would be much less of a country if it let the third world invade it – high crime rate, unaccountable government due to ethnic block voting, failed government programs attempting to correct the imbalances of human nature and genetic endowment, failed inner cities, etc. Currently, Japan has none of this. Hiroshima roared back to life after it was destroyed. Compare that to Detroit…or countless American cities. Japan as a decent economy compared with its resources, a beautiful and rich culture due to lack of immigration (multiculturalism = no culture…just ask the good ole US of A…and Burger King/NFL do not make a culture), and virtually no crime. Compare that with Mexico (or this country), a country of almost the same size but having much more natural resources and land area. If Mexico moved to Japan, Japan would no longer have those good traits mentioned above. The Japanese built Japan (and not just economically but culturally) and are entitled to protect it if they are smart. A better question is, "why should the Japanese give up their beautiful country and culture just to provide for a people whose only motivation is economic gain for themselves?" The shouldn't and don't. Good for them.

  21. I am an 'ISOLATIONIST'. I ALSO MIND my own GD business–duh

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  23. [...] John Glaser argued that arming the Syrian rebels is a terrible idea and also dipped into the "isolationist" debate. [...]

  24. The president, citing his authority under the Arms Export Control Act, announced today that he would “waive the prohibitions in sections 40 and 40A of the AECA related to such a transaction.”