World / November 17, 2023

Two Cheers for Isolationism

The left should be arguing that the US’s purpose is its own redevelopment—which is incompatible with global primacy.

Jeff Faux
somber photo American flag, US isolationism

An American flag as seen through a window.

(Dave G. Kelly / Getty)

American progressives are at a foreign policy dead end.

Their historic concern for global human rights, democracy and peace has become an ideological cover for naked American imperialism, and the fabricated paranoia that feeds it.

The left desperately needs a collective rethink. But its traditional faith in “internationalism” as a moral principle has made its alternative, “isolationism,” into an epithet that stops conversation. Thus, for example, concluding an otherwise insightful analysis of the myths of Pax Americana, The Nation’s Editorial Director Katrina vanden Heuvel flatly tells its readers: “Isolationism is not the answer.”

Current Issue

Cover of April 2024 Issue

Perhaps. But with its wide variety of meanings, the term is maddingly imprecise. For the neoliberal center, isolation means opposition to free trade, military spending and preventive war. For progressives it conjures up images of amoral, head-in-the-sand selfishness—indifference to injustice in the world. Both camps consistently misapply it to the right, e.g., Donald Trump.

But Trump is no isolationist. He entered the White House with 144 separate businesses in at least 26 countries, and his foreign policy was largely a protection racket for his shaky corporate ventures and a stage set for his preposterous ego. Trumper Republicans cater to his weird relationship with Putin by opposing more aid to the Ukraine, but they are loud champions of a bloated military, Middle East intervention, and provoking war with China.

George Bush’s explanation for 9/11 remains the accepted wisdom among  the politicians and pundits who speak for the governing class: “They hate our freedoms.” After his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was exposed as a lie, Bush shamelessly relabeled the Iraq War as liberation of the oppressed women of Islam.

Today, Biden tells us we must risk war with China, Russia, Iran, and other ”bullies” who want to take over the world, including vague and undefined US “interests,” a charge that conveniently diverts voters’ attention from the obvious: They threaten us here because we threaten them there.

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

Having had its ideological pockets picked, the left is now stuck…

• futilely arguing over “good guys vs. bad guys” (Israelis vs. Palestinians, Russians vs. Ukrainians, Chinese vs. Taiwanese, etc.) in a world with thousands of conflicts—indecipherable from without, and often from within as well;

• venting impotent outrage at US participation in global violence and oppression;

• and hoping for a revival of an anti-war movement.

There will be no such revival. In the absence of a draft or war taxes, the majority of Americans are comfortably indifferent to the damage we do in the world. Our mainstream politicians and pundits have persuaded them that “collateral damage,” corruption and waste, and decades of military failure are the price of their security. Pax Americana keeps the barbarians outside the gates.

We have lost that post­–Cold War debate, and with it any ability to slow, much less stop, our governing class’s headlong plunge into a global war on four fronts.

It is time to think out of the box. In order to break the propaganda lock the imperial project has on the public psyche, the left needs an argument that is big, easy to understand, and makes common sense around the kitchen table. And it needs to shed its own internationalist illusion—that somehow, with smarter, more compassionate leaders, and in concert with like-minded humanitarians around the world, a US government could lead the world in building a community of nations to establish benign global governance.

Maybe one day. But for now, so long as our foreign policy is based on the assumption of American leadership, Wall Street and the Pentagon will call the shots—making the world a more dangerous place for us all.

Therefore, we Americans should mind our own business, concentrating our resources and attention on rebuilding our crumbling democracy, reverse growing inequality, and vastly shrinking our presence in the world.

It is time to pull out and stay out of, first, Ukraine, leaving Zelensky, the Europeans, and the Russians to work it out; and second, the Middle East, leaving Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab states to face their responsibilities without US meddling; to cease patrolling the Chinese coast and offering lunatic encouragement of Taiwanese independence; and to call off the hunt for those on the State Department’s politically tainted global kill list.

This does not mean disengaging from the world. The United States should be a good global citizen—pay its dues, strengthen the UN, and shoulder its share (but no more)—of collective peacekeeping burdens.

US foreign aid, which has long been a means of bribing poor countries’ corrupt elites, might then fully concentrate on improving the lives of the world’s poor. And without the excuse of protecting our soldiers in 80-plus countries, we might finally join the International Court of Justice, and ratify treaties such as the Law of the Sea and bans on cluster bombs, poison gas, and land mines.

The United States is commonly described as having been isolationist until the Spanish-American War. Yet it was a trading nation, open to immigrants, and involved in global scientific and cultural progress.

Yes, it was morally stained by the brutal ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and by the war with Mexico. But the primary business of America was its own domestic development, which among other things enabled the North’s industrial power to finally destroy America’s original sin of slavery.

Today, the left should be arguing that the purpose of the United States is its own redevelopment, which is incompatible with the preservation of global primacy.

The empire’s defenders like to argue that it is easily “affordable” since it costs but a small percentage of our federal budget. But it absorbs almost half of all discretionary spending. And will take more: The shrinking importance of the United States in the world economy and the spreading challenges to the imperial order will add to the already spiraling US debt.

More important for the country’s future, dealing with domestic decay and global climate change will require a massive investment of financial capital and the sustained mobilization of political capital to restore faith in democratic government.

The United States cannot usefully participate with—much less lead—the world in common cause against the inexorably hotter climate while threatening war against China and other large industrial economies.

The foreign policy establishment shouts that any weakening of American “leadership” will create global instability. Perhaps. But it is arguably just as likely to force US “allies” around the world to take responsibility for solving their own regional problems, which the US empire aggravates and then uses to justify more interventions.

That the left can bend, much less reverse, our relentless march toward the militarization of our lives and our politics may be a long shot. But polls show that the public’s skepticism of our imperial adventurism is spreading. And so far, the beneficiaries are on the right.

At any rate, a clear call for a retreat from empire would seem to have better odds than clinging to a liberal internationalism that has become an enabler for a destructive, blood-soaked foreign policy.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux was the founding president of the Economic Policy Institute. His books include The Servant Economy.

More from The Nation

Meet the Reactionary International

Meet the Reactionary International Meet the Reactionary International

Conservative leaders from across Europe met in Brussels, but we know very little about this network. A new consortium has been launched to investigate its global infrastructure.

David Adler and David Broder

A battlefield visualization system.

Meet the New Military-Industrial Complex Meet the New Military-Industrial Complex

How the Pentagon–Silicon Valley alliance is harnessing AI to defeat China in World War III.

Michael T. Klare

Woman walks by photo of Iranian missiles

Joe Biden Is Destroying His Own Foreign Policy by Giving Israel Impunity Joe Biden Is Destroying His Own Foreign Policy by Giving Israel Impunity

World / November 17, 2023 Two Cheers for Isolationism The administration’s blatant double standard demonstrates that the new “liberal international order” is built on hypocrisy…

Jeet Heer

People prepare to transfer the body of a World Central Kitchen WCK worker killed by Israeli airstrikes, near the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 3, 2024.

Israel’s Attacks on Gaza Are Not “Mistakes.” They’re Crimes. Israel’s Attacks on Gaza Are Not “Mistakes.” They’re Crimes.

The political and media class is doing what it always does with the US and its allies: trying to frame deliberate atrocities as tragic mishaps.

Harry Zehner

The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance

The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance The NSA Wants Carte Blanche for Warrantless Surveillance

If the Senate passes an expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, any American’s international communications could become an open book.

James Bamford

A funeral ceremony is held for Palestine TV correspondent Mohammed Abu Hatab, who was killed along with his family members in an air strike on his home in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on November 3, 2023.

Israel’s Genocide in Gaza Is a World Historical Crime Israel’s Genocide in Gaza Is a World Historical Crime

When Jews were being slaughtered by the Nazis, the world turned away. Now, the world has awakened to Israel’s crimes.

Ellen Cantarow