Advocates of U.S. intervention in Bosnia respond to their critics by labeling them with the dreaded “I” word: isolationist. Both President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole, his possible Republican opponent in the 1996 election, have recently joined in a shrill chorus denouncing “neoisolationists.” This is the latest contribution to a trend started two years ago, when Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, branded those who are critical of U.S. leadership abroad “neo-know-nothing-isolationists.” This name-calling is an attempt to squelch reasoned debate on America’s future foreign policy and mischaracterizes a point of view that has been embraced by many of America’s wisest thinkers and statesmen.
First, it is important to define what neoisolationism is not. The vocal sector of the Republican right, which holds that the United Nations presents a serious challenge to U.S. sovereignty, is hardly neoisolationist. These Republicans, along with the foreign policy establishment of both political parties, believe that America must continue to dominate international politics. Their view is therefore triumphalist; and in its chauvinistic assertion of American power it is the very opposite of a neoisolationist perspective.
The neoisolationist position is properly characterized not by arrogant unilateralism but by modesty and respect for other peoples’ independence. While Clinton, Dole and the foreign policy community assert that if America is to be engaged in the world, America must lead the world; neoisolationists believe that America can be engaged in the world without attempting to dominate it. Whereas Clinton has asserted that the conversion of the globe to America’s economic and political system should be the central focus of our foreign policy, neoisolationists resist the urge to make ourselves at home in the world by transforming it into America writ large. While the foreign policy establishment argues that Europe’s security affairs must be dominated by a superpower across the Atlantic, neoisolationists hold that America’s imperial role in Europe is demoralizing to the Europeans and engenders an arrogant paternalism within ourselves.
Neoisolationism is based on a grand tradition that embraces not only the views of left-wing foreign policy critics such as historians Charles Beard and William A. Williams but also a strain of thoughtful conservatism going back to John Quincy Adams. Adams admonished America to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” for in so doing “the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force; she might become dictatress of the world, she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”
Another conservative, diplomat George Kennan, has repeatedly invoked Adams’ sentiments. Kennan’s counsel contradicts the policy of democratic and capitalist enlargement advocated by the leaders of both political parties. He argues instead that “our own national interest is all that we are capable of knowing and understanding; if our own purposes and undertakings here at home are decent ones, unsullied by arrogance or hostility toward other people or delusions of superiority, then the pursuit of our national interest can never fail to be conducive to a better world.”
In castigating neoisolationism, Clinton has invoked Richard Nixon, arguing that “if we are to be strong at home and lead abroad, we must overcome a dangerous and growing temptation to focus solely on the problems here in America.” The president would have served the nation better by echoing his one-time mentor, the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, who decried America’s “arrogance of power.” Fulbright eschewed the grandiose temptation to convert the world and argued instead that “we have the opportunity to serve as an example to the world by the way in which we run our own society.”
Americans should not forget that the same charge of neoisolationism that is currently hurled at critics of our foreign policy was also flung at Fulbright, Kennan and others who patriotically criticized U.S. intervention in Vietnam. When Walter Lippmann, perhaps America’s greatest journalist, declared that no vital interests were at stake for the U.S. in Vietnam and that he was “ashamed” that America was performing an “uncivilized, unchivalrous and inhumane” role there, pro-war members of the foreign policy cognoscenti accused him of being a neoisolationist. Clinton, Dole and today’s foreign policy establishment would do well to heed Lippmann’s reply: “Neoisolationism is the direct product of foolish globalism. Compared to people who thought they could run the universe, or at least the globe, I am a neoisolationist and proud of it.”