America's new isolationists are endangering the West

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Josh Ives

U.S. Army Spc. Thaxal Potter, left, provides security as U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup, right, and other troops depart the directorate of information and culture offices following a meeting in Farah City, Afghanistan, April 10, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • America contributes to its decline by having no grand strategy to deal with major challenges.

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  • Isolationists believe America's strength is a source of global conflict. Instead, American weakness is provocative.

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  • Without a US presence internationally, what little order and stability that exists could well disappear.

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The specter of isolationism is stalking the Republican Party. It is still far from dominant, but we would be ignoring reality to underestimate the risks evident in today's turbulent political milieu. Ironically, Republican isolationism is in many respects attributable to Barack Obama. His palpable lack of concern for foreign and defense policy issues, and the public's false sense of security thereby generated, combined with his massive federal expenditures and consequent budget deficits that threaten the vitality of America's economic system, have created an unexpected and deeply troubling reaction among Republicans, heretofore America's national-security stalwarts.

A little recent history. In the late 1990s, many Europeans feared the United States was drifting back into isolationism. They worried that Republican victories in the 1994 elections, capturing control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1952, inevitably meant a reactionary, inward-turning America. George W. Bush's 2000 election as president only cemented their fears that, for example, Washington would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, erect a national missile-defense shield and leave Europe to fend for itself.

These European concerns, shared by the American Left, badly misinterpreted US history. While the United States certainly steered clear of European entanglements before World War I (or tried to), it was not for lack of interest in the rest of the world, but because of preoccupation with building what Thomas Jefferson called "an empire of liberty". While Europe's 19th-century empires have disappeared, America's successful imperialism is memorialized today in once foreign lands named Florida, Texas, California, Alaska, Hawaii and the like. One may find such success irksome, but what Europeans saw as "isolationism" was actually US unilateralism and exceptionalism at work. Of course, many of America's critics also detest those characteristics, but they are nonetheless conceptually and empirically very different phenomena.

George W. Bush's presidency made the differences between isolationism and unilateralism completely clear, contrary to the expectations of critics who feared the former and got the latter. Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, "unsigning" the Rome Statute (which created the International Criminal Court), scuttling a "verification" protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention, and refusing to negotiate a "small arms and light weapons" agreement violating the Constitution's Second Amendment, and more, appalled the "blame America first" crowd. Of course, what really sent them over the edge was dismantling the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime in Afghanistan, followed by regime change in Iraq without a new Security Council resolution granting humble supplicants from Washington permission.

The global Left feared even worse: not only was America not entering a new isolationism, it had become wildly interventionist and unilateralist. Who would save Europe from these cowboys who, rather than abandoning the rest of the world, were instead too much in it? The answer, of course, was Barack Obama, no unilateralist he, and certainly no militarist. And Obama delivered: massive cuts in defense spending even as domestic programs approached European social democratic levels; withdrawing combat forces from Iraq and clearly trying to do the same in Afghanistan; and near-religious approval for the United Nations, multilateral agreements on climate change and a renewed emphasis on reducing strategic weapons systems and US missile-defense capabilities.

Unfortunately, however, new and growing threats, such as the continuing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the broadening menace of international terrorism, the resurgence of Russian political-military influence, and China's growing military capabilities, all required more than the Obama administration believed necessary. Nonetheless, Obama was barely troubled by what happened overseas unless it directly and unavoidably impacted his domestic agenda, or represented a striking success he could deploy to his political benefit. In response, one might have expected the Republican Party, rising to its historical role, to oppose Obama's weakness and inattention to external events. Instead, the party seemed becalmed. Rather than challenging Obama, and rejecting his path of American decline, the Republican leadership broadly acquiesced, generally remaining mute on national security and so ceding the field to Obama, both in Congress and during the 2012 presidential campaign.

That was bad enough, but then, surprisingly to many, Mitt Romney went down to defeat and Republicans suffered losses in the House (although keeping control with a reduced majority) and the Senate. Despair and near-panic gripped many Republicans, especially in Washington, who had expected that Obama would be swept away and Republicans would win the Senate and increase their House majority. The resulting (and continuing) disarray in Republican ranks has set the stage for the disturbing entrance into the spotlight of what can only be described as Republican isolationism, long confined to the nose-bleed balcony seats.

There are several currents among Republicans and the American public contributing to this newly stirring isolationism. Not all of those questioning the party's historical foreign policy and defense stand are isolationists, far from it, and many would emphatically reject the label. Moreover, it is hardly certain that isolationist sentiment will prevail. But it is critical to understand clearly these strands of thought and their relationships, so that national-security Republicans can answer the questions being raised, restore a coherent party platform and thereby thwart the new isolationism.

The starting point is the budget problem, precipitated by Obama's massive overspending. Huge expenditure increases in domestic programs did not provide the predicted Keynesian stimulus to jump-start the economy, but have instead crowded out private-sector growth and sown the seeds for potentially massive inflation ahead. Moreover, taking advantage of Democratic congressional majorities during his first two years, Obama obtained devastating defense cuts even while increasing domestic spending. Combined with sequestration more recently, he has achieved reductions in total defense spending (both nominally and as a percentage of GNP) that the American Left had only dreamed about previously.

All Republicans agree that the awesome federal deficits must be curtailed, the sprawling entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) brought under control, and discretionary spending slashed. Divisions arise because some budget-cutters believe defense expenditures, even after their massive shrinkage in Obama's first term, should be subject to further reductions through the painful sequestration process now under way. Many see a dollar spent on defense as no different from a dollar spent on agriculture, and believe that waste and misspending on defense permit significant savings. Most contend such reductions will not in fact impair US military capabilities, nor do they say that is their objective. Where they go wrong, however, is in underestimating the effects of Obama's previous defense cuts, which amounted to $800-900 billion. Slashing defense further, from a lower baseline, even though domestic expenditures are also reduced by the sequester, has a disproportionately negative effect on defense, even excluding war costs from the comparison (Iraq expenditures have stopped and Afghanistan costs are falling precipitously).

Obama and the Democrats achieved these huge reductions without having to pay any discernible political price, since pliable congressional Republicans quietly acquiesced. Certainly, while not all Republican defense budget cutters are isolationists, all isolationists are defense budget cutters. In either case, Republicans who can't see the difference between aircraft carrier battle groups and soya bean subsidies are simply unwitting pawns in the Left's game plan. If they understand the debilitating effects of the spending reductions, and some do, they are obviously much more threatening to a robust Republican position on national security.

The second strand in the new isolationist Republican thinking is to reject the convenient, strawman view that America is the world's policeman, and that we must be prepared to intervene anywhere, any time in pursuit of abstract ideals of global stability. One variation on this theme is rejecting "democracy promotion", an enthusiasm of neoconservatives, or "humanitarian intervention", the enthusiasm of the Left's "responsibility to protect" proponents. Neoconservatives are at least partially to blame here for expansive, unrealistic theorizing and a penchant for intervention seemingly for its own sake. How much really differentiates them from the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, under which powers otherwise criticized as "imperialist" nonetheless intervene essentially everywhere for humanitarian purposes, especially when they have absolutely no national interests at stake?

Of course, the isolationists' characterization of traditional conservative foreign policy is erroneous, since it never aspired either to be the global policeman or to elevate "intervention" from an operational technique to a philosophical principle. And importantly, neocons do not dominate Republican thinking any more than isolationists do, despite the media hype. Instead, repelled by what they label indiscriminate interventionism, the new isolationists sound depressingly like Neville Chamberlain. Faced with Hitler's demand to annex Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, Chamberlain said in September 1938: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Munich followed.

Sometimes, rejecting neocon or liberal interventionist policies is characterized as "war weariness", a political argument that Americans are heartily sick of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we should bring the troops home and close the door on foreign adventures. Opinion polls tend to support the "war weariness" argument, but miss the point. Americans are intensely practical; they recognize that the demands of daily life require that they delegate enormous responsibility for national security to the president. They expect him to be on the watch for threats to US interests, and to justify the costs of protecting those interests when necessary. This system generally worked well until Obama, whose view of America's place in the world is very different from every president since Franklin Roosevelt, if not before. Obama is entirely comfortable with American decline from a position he and the transatlantic Left think is unfairly privileged.

Accordingly, reducing Washington's pre-eminence does not represent a decline as such, but only an appropriate leveling, "spreading the wealth [or power] around" internationally as it were. Thus, in a badly misguided effort not to offend the world's Muslims, Obama argues that the war on terror is almost over. Al-Qaeda "is on the road to defeat" he asserted, for example, in accepting the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination, six days before Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three others were killed in Benghazi by terrorists who obviously weren't paying adequate attention. Similarly, nuclear proliferators like Iran and North Korea can be handled through negotiation, and strategic threats like an increasingly assertive China and a belligerent Russia just don't phase "no-drama Obama".

Republicans share some responsibility here, especially those who, like Obama, focus on domestic policy to the effective exclusion of national security issues, whether because they don't understand or don't care much about them. Once again, however, American voters have been let down. They expect that if the president fails to meet their expectations of maintaining adequate US defenses, the opposition party will do the necessary, and oppose. Republicans failed at this duty, some intimidated politically by the President's electoral strength, some through lack of knowledge of and comfort with debating the issues, and some, unfortunately, because they agree with Obama's reprise of George McGovern's 1972 line "come home America" more than they care to admit publicly. Ironically, once again Obama's policies of American decline and Republican isolationism produce the same toxic result: retreat from international engagement.

A third strand in this confusing mélange is that the isolationists see an assertive, often unilateral, US international posture as synonymous with military intervention, although they are obviously quite different. A robust foreign policy is complex and possesses a far wider range of capabilities to assert American influence than military action alone. The Republican isolationists, however, risk conflating all foreign leadership with military force, and rejecting not just force but the strong US political and economic presence necessary to assert and defend key American interests. They join with true national security advocates in rejecting Obama's penchant for multilateralism, so beloved of Europeans of many political persuasions, but confuse the operational morass of the UN system and other international organizations for overseas involvement more generally. Instead of seeing the benefits of proceeding unilaterally where appropriate or with a coalition that shares US objectives, they reject the external involvement itself, once again confusing broad policy with operational and tactical questions.

A fourth strand is focusing on particular weapons of war, remotely-piloted aircraft or "drones" being the flavor of the day. Indeed, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul used a genuine old-fashioned 13-hour filibuster to dramatize his opposition to drone strikes and his broader opposition to what he has repeatedly called America's "aggressive" foreign policy. The Left has long attacked drones because of a thinly veiled sympathy for the targets, who have no effective means of defense against weapons that strike from remote locations without warning. Moreover, in this view, because drones minimize the risk of US casualties, they make it less costly for Washington to wage war. That of course is precisely why drones are so attractive to US military planners, and why we should expand and improve their capabilities. And yet Republican isolationists find themselves again imitating their leftist doppelgängers.

These various strands of thought which nurture the growing Republican isolationism coalesce with Obama's comfort with American decline to produce essentially the same conclusion. Consider the following examples in three broad categories.

First, America is recklessly and unjustifiably limiting its own capabilities, the massive defense budget cuts being the most telling example. Another is Obama's near total reversal of Bush's national missile-defense policy, gutting even the minimal program Bush proposed, one limited to countering rogue states like Iran and North Korea. In mid-March, however, faced with Pyongyang's rapid progress (having detonated its third nuclear device and successfully orbited an unknown payload in December), the White House partially reversed itself, announcing deployment in 2017 of additional interceptor missiles, which were originally scheduled to be operational in 2009. And as Iran also progresses steadily toward deliverable nuclear weapons, America's missile-defense capabilities remain well below what they could and should be.

Also gravely worrisome is Obama's ideological pursuit of "global zero", the promised land where all nuclear weapons have disappeared. Persistent administration leaks indicate that, on top of existing arms control agreements such as the ill-advised "New START" treaty with Russia, Obama will announce further, unilateral nuclear arms reductions. Under "global zero" theology, these unilateral US efforts will inspire Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang to make their own reductions. Good luck with that. But unilateral American nuclear cutbacks could spur proliferation, not reduce it: US allies, seeing the nuclear umbrella shrinking, may well ramp up their own weapons programs, as contemporary political discussion in South Korea and Japan already presages.

Second, America contributes to its decline by having no grand strategy to deal with major challenges. Russia and China fall into this category, with Russia rejecting the multiple concessions of Obama's famous "reset button" as insufficient, and China, under the chimera of a "peaceful rise" to become a "responsible global stakeholder" has developed and utilized the world's most sophisticated cyber-warfare arsenal. Obama discerns no potential threat from either country (remember his 2012 discussion about "greater flexibility" in his second term with Russia's President Medvedev), and the isolationist Republicans rarely even discuss these issues. To be sure, dealing with powers like Russia and China is a complex matter, where reasonable people can disagree on many issues, but it would be far more comforting to have a president and an opposition who understand the need to worry about the future rather than simply ignore it.

Finally, there are far too many cases where Obama has a strategy, but it is failing badly, notably preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and winning the global war on terror. Faced with determined regimes in North Korea and Iran, Obama still prefers negotiations, opposing repeated congressional efforts to strengthen economic sanctions against Iran, and granting waivers where he can. EU-led negotiations with Iran are now proceeding on a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic physics of uranium enrichment, which if reflected in an agreement, will rapidly enable Iran to fabricate not just one or two nuclear weapons but dozens in a matter of months, while simultaneously weakening the sanctions.

Obama continues treating terrorism as a matter for criminal law enforcement, not the war against the West it clearly is. US withdrawal from Iraq, the accelerated drawdown in Afghanistan, and the administration's limp response to the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and to terrorism in North Africa generally, are only strengthening radical Islamists who think that, yet again, American will and resolve have weakened. The very real concern that a third September 11 will erupt with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons launched by international terrorists should keep the President up at night, but obviously does not.

So how does America get back on course? Discussions of foreign policy today are filled with labels (neoconservative and liberal interventionist, realist and isolationist) that are at best unsatisfactory and at worst counterproductive. While it is almost impossible to get beyond these pervasive terms, the answer is to do just that, and forge national security policy based not on ideologies about what an ideal world could look like, but one that is, quite simply, pro-American.

In today's circumstances, the United States should be seeking, in Edmund Burke's language, not the "delusive geometrical accuracy" of theories from the declinist Left or the isolationist Right, but instead "rational, cool endeavors" in support of our national interests. To refute the new Republican isolationism, we need not a new conceptual framework and new policies, but a reinvigorated assertion of what we already know to be true, but have grown stale and lazy in articulating.

We must reground policy on advancing and defending American interests. By "interests" I mean plain, unvarnished, traditional concepts: protection of American territory and citizens; defense of our economic trade and investments; and alliances based on mutual defense. I do not mean ill-defined, infinitely expandable concepts whereby everything becomes a national security interest: climate change, alternative fuels, humanitarian crises, human rights. Within a proper definition of "interests" there is ample room for debate, but my limited aspiration for now is simply to create the template upon which the debate should take place. Much like the doctrine of "originalism" in constitutional law, it is not necessarily dispositive of the substantive outcome in every concrete case. Nonetheless, returning to a "pro-American" interest-based approach would significantly shape the debate in ways which more expansive outlooks ("the living constitution" in the legal analogy) simply do not.

Those Republicans showing symptoms of isolationism should remember that Adam Smith was no isolationist. He wrote in The Wealth of Nations that "the first duty of the sovereign [is] that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, [which] can be performed only by means of a military force". Two hundred years later, in 1982, Ronald Reagan said that "[t]he top priority of the federal government is the safety of this country", and he raised defense spending while cutting taxes. Explaining that the United States was "faced with the development of weapons of immense destructive power", Reagan said: "Yes, the cost is high, but the price of neglect would be infinitely higher."

Obama and the worst isolationists believe that America's strength (belligerence is probably what they say in private) is a major source of global conflict. Instead, of course, the opposite is true: it is not American strength that is provocative, but American weakness. For precisely that reason, Reagan adhered to "peace through strength", the notion that preventing war is best achieved by deterring and dissuading aggressors. Indeed, a more powerful America, and its alliances like NATO, are forces for international peace and security, which facilitate international trade and finance, and undergird American (and global) prosperity.

Without a strong US presence internationally, what little order and stability that do exist could well disappear, to be replaced either with spreading anarchy or with a void to be filled by other powers which have neither our best interests at heart nor will be anything near as benign. Of course, there are many free riders on America's order, but that argues for making them bear their fair share, not abandoning the entire enterprise. We are doing this not for them but for ourselves, and if we stop doing it the consequences will be incalculable. Indeed, the potential risk of a receding United States is breathtaking, but the necessary corrective actions in policy terms are actually quite straightforward. The difficulty, after Obama leaves office, lies in the depth of the hole we will have to dig ourselves out of, how many opportunities we will have missed along the way, and the greater costs involved in trying to make up for lost time.

But there is no point in succumbing to hopelessness. While it is exasperating to have to make the case for a robust American presence in the world, just over a decade since the 9/11 attacks should have yet again seared it into our consciences, we should not be discouraged. Sharpening our wits against the new isolationist challenge will bolster the articulation of our case against Obama's declinism, and the global Left more generally. We are not at the point of writing our own Recessional. Neither Reagan nor Thatcher ever thought of such a thing, and neither should we.

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