The danger of repeating the cycle of American isolationism


A couple displays ink-stained fingers at a polling center during the country's provincial elections in Baghdad, April 20, 2013. Iraqis voted for provincial councils in their first ballot since U.S. troops left the country, a key measure of political strength before parliamentary elections next year.

Article Highlights

  • History has shown that, once the United States chooses to lead, we and the world benefit

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  • Missing from the US global leadership debate is analysis on whether the ends to which we aspire have somehow changed

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  • Rather than cutting first and then asking how to manage what’s left, we must define our priorities, then allocate resources

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Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent Democrat, is a former senator from Connecticut. Jon Kyl, a Republican, is a former senator from Arizona. They co-chair the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project.

The case for American retrenchment has gained new traction in Washington. Much as in the past, economic problems and public war-weariness have spurred calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for neo-isolationist policies — demands for retreat from the world clothed in the language of fiscal prudence and disinterested realism. Although there may be short-term political benefits in calling for a diminished U.S. role in the world, history shows that retreat comes with substantial long-term costs for our country.

After World War I, disillusionment with war and then the Great Depression brought a widely popular U.S. retreat from internationalism, economic as well as political. But the attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that the United States could not avoid the responsibility of engagement with the world in the cause of freedom and democracy.

After World War II, skepticism about the extent of the communist threat led to a sharp reduction in military spending and a willingness to ignore ominous developments along the Pacific Rim and in Eastern Europe. But when communist aggression reached a boiling point on the Korean Peninsula, moral duty and national interests again compelled the United States to lead. The cost of the war that followed certainly exceeded that of effective deterrence and of steadily maintaining U.S. armed forces.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, some argued that the United States had fulfilled its obligation to lead the world and had defeated all plausible opponents; defense funding was slashed. Ten years later, the attacks of Sept. 11 reminded us of the risks of assuming that peace will always prevail.

Today, we are in danger of again repeating this cycle. Progress in the fight against al Qaeda and the perceived costs of global leadership have led some to question whether the United States should retain — or is even capable of retaining — a robust international economic and political presence. Yet missing from the debate are analyses of both the benefits of this role, rather than just the costs, and whether the strategic ends to which the country aspires have somehow changed.

History has shown that, once the United States chooses to lead, we and the world benefit. After World War II, U.S. aid helped rebuild shattered European and Asian economies. Those nations are now not simply at peace — they are among our most important trading partners. The U.S. naval presence on the high seas has guaranteed the free flow of goods. Without it, increased piracy, lower trade flows and higher prices would result — not just for our country but for the world. The hundreds of millions who rose out of poverty in the latter half of the 20th century are markets for U.S. goods and forces for stability that might never have existed without the global compact secured by U.S. leadership.

Rather than cutting first and then asking how we can manage with what’s left, we must define our priorities and interests — and only then determine how to allocate resources. If the United States is still committed to fostering a freer and more democratic world, supporting free trade, maintaining international stability and meeting threats abroad, then there must be a reasoned discussion of the ways in which diplomatic retrenchment and military budget cuts may limit our capacity to achieve those critical national goals.

Just as the benefits of U.S. global leadership are often ignored, so, too, are the costs of retrenchment. Proposed cuts in aid and military strength, especially when implemented under strategic guidance that calls for a “small footprint” in the world, will affect our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and individuals. U.S. disengagement will also foster the emergence of military, diplomatic or economic forces that will fill the vacuum created by our absence. We cannot predict how much it might ultimately cost to counter those forces but, again, experience dictates that the price will be high.

Time and again when we have sought to predict the nature, timing and location of the next crisis, we have been wrong. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur H. Vandenberg — an erstwhile isolationist — came to a consensus that would shape our foreign policy for decades; it took the Korean War for this country to fully accept both the burdens and the benefits of a robust internationalism.

We must not wait for another catastrophe to persuade us of the continuing importance of American internationalism. Regardless of party or ideology, our leaders must forge a new consensus about the U.S. role in the world. That will require engaging with those who disagree to rebuild and reaffirm a bipartisan foreign policy consensus based on the lessons of history. Our country and our world are more secure, free and prosperous when America is prepared to lead. History may repeat itself but only if we allow it.

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About the Author


  • An attorney by training, Jon Kyl served 18 years in the US Senate after serving for eight years in the US House of Representatives. He was elected unanimously by his colleagues in 2008 to serve as Republican whip, the second-highest position in the Senate Republican leadership, a position he held until his retirement in 2013.
    As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he helped write reforms to US patent law and the landmark Crime Victims’ Rights Act, as well as important provisions of the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and other antiterrorism laws.
    As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he was a chief advocate of pro-growth tax policies, including low tax rates on income, capital gains, dividends, and estates. He was a member of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the so-called “Super Committee.”
    At AEI, Senator Kyl will join former Senator Joseph Lieberman to lead the American Internationalism Project, an important new effort from AEI's Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. The project's focus will be to rebuild and reshape a bipartisan consensus around American global leadership and engagement.

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