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