“Neo-Isolationism” Is Not a Dirty Word

By Benjamin Schwarz

28 October 1999 LOS ANGELES TIMES



J. William Fulbright

After the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, President Clinton accused Republican opponents of embracing “neo-isolationism.” But recently, Republicans themselves also have been denouncing those who question the wisdom of an expansive foreign policy as “isolationist.”

The Clinton administration, like the Bush administration before it, has been quick to brand opponents of its foreign policy as, in the words of Clinton’s former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, “neo-know-nothing-isolationists.” Hurling the dreaded “I” word, however, has squelched reasoned debate on America’s future foreign policy and mischaracterizes a point of view embraced by many of America’s wisest thinkers and statesmen.

It’s a popular misconception that the vocal sector of the Republican right, which seized the test ban treaty and the United Nations as serious threats to U.S. sovereignty, is “neo-isolationist.” In fact, the foreign policy establishments 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 is the very opposite of a neo-isolationist perspective.

Neo-isolationism is properly characterized not by arrogant unilateralism but by a sense of modesty. Clinton, the Republican leadership and the foreign policy mandarins all assert that if America is to be engaged in the world, America must lead the world. But neo-isolationists believe that America can be engaged in world affairs without attempting to dominate them.

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, neo-isolationists resist the urge to make ourselves at home in the world by transforming it into America writ large. Indeed, since the Spanish-American War a century ago, “isolationists” have emphasized the limits of U.S. power, been wary of a universalist conception of U.S. security interests, held to the conviction that America cannot and should not remake the world in its own image and warned against excessive presidential power, secrecy and deception in foreign policy.

Neo-isolationism is based on a grand tradition that embraces not only the views of left-wing foreign policy critics 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, the 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 enjoins us instead to do for ourselves what we cannot do for the globe: “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 neo-isolationism, 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 had he echoed his one-time mentor, the late Sen. 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 charge of neo-isolationist was also flung at Fulbright, Kennan and others who patriotically criticized America’s intervention in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, journalist Walter Lippmann declared that America should “eschew the theory of a global and universal duty, which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness.”

He, too, was accused by pro-war members of the foreign policy cognoscenti of being a neo-isolationist. Clinton and today’s foreign policy establishment would do well to heed Lippmann’s reply: “Neo-isolationism 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 neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

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