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 first national security adviser, “neo-know-nothing-isolationists.” Hurling the dreaded “I-word” does little more than squelch reasoned debate on the future of U.S. foreign policy and mischaracterize a point of view embraced by many of America’s wisest thinkers.
That vocal sector of the Republican right, which holds that the test ban treaty and the United Nations pose a serious challenge to U.S. sovereignty, is hardly “neo-isolationist.” These Republicans, like the foreign policy establishment in both parties, believe that America must continue to be the foremost leader in international politics. Their view is therefore “triumphalist,” and in its chauvinistic assertion of American power is the opposite of a neo-isolationist perspective.
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, expressed wariness 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 the pursuit of foreign affairs.
Neo-isolationism is based on a grand tradition that embraces not only the views of critics on the left, but also a strain of thoughtful conservatism going back to John Quincy Adams in the early 19th century. Adams admonished America to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” for in doing so “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.”