February 6, 2011


Stand alone: The case for a new isolationism (Thanassis Cambanis, February 6, 2011, Boston Globe)

A strain of isolationism runs through the history of the United States since its founding, along with a mistrust of standing armies. Isolationists were often linked to populist or nativist politics, and were often portrayed as at odds with modernity. Beginning in the Gilded Age, isolationists resisted American involvement in the global economy and in both world wars. Pearl Harbor made “isolationism” a dirty word in American politics, proving that America had no immunity to turmoil beyond its borders. By the dawn of the Cold War, few people indeed gave isolationist views serious consideration.

Today’s new isolationists are different. World events affect America, they say, and a great power needs a potent military. But America has conflated smaller threats like terrorism with major threats, like competition from a rising China. America should not withdraw from the world, or ignore it, they say; but it should minimize direct interference beyond its borders.

Their 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 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.”

Where the architects of America’s current foreign policy see 70 unbroken years of growing wealth and influence, these cosmopolitan isolationists see a story of ruin and decline. For starters, they point to America’s colossal defense budget. Washington spends about as much on security as the entire rest of the world. Politicians promised a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War, but defense spending has climbed from 3 percent of the American economy to nearly 5 percent.

The entire Clinton boom and balanced budget was just a function of the peace dividend, but then we had to deal with the coda to the Long War and mistakenly, if understandably, did so by boosting spending again.

But we can cut our military massively and remain deeply interventionist. For one thing, globalization is mainly driven by communications, not guns, and imposes our values universally. For the other, we have the ability to deliver lethal strikes anywhere in the world with no risk to our own soldiers which makes such intervention more likely, not less, particularly if we get the rest of the troops out of harm's way.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2011 7:01 AM
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