America has gone back to isolationism, many commentators are saying. Not just the dovish Democrats, but also Republicans who were so hawkish a decade ago are turning away from the world.
There is something to this, but it’s more complicated than that. To understand where we are, it’s helpful to put today’s developments in historical perspective.
One picture of American history has it that this country left the rest of the world alone through most of its history, was pulled into world politics by World War II and the Cold War, and is now just reverting to its norm.
The problem with this picture is that it leaves a lot of things out. George Washington kept Americans out of a world war between Britain and France, wisely, because the early republic was split down the middle on which side to back.
But a few years later, Thomas Jefferson was quite willing to send the U.S. Navy and Marines to quell the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. He recognized that we were a maritime and trading nation and had an interest in keeping the sea lanes open for trade.
America has sent missionaries as well as merchants around the world for two centuries. The nation has projected power and acquired territory in the Pacific as well as the Caribbean.
It has participated in international organizations since it ratified The Hague Conventions that set out principles of international law in 1899.
So the proposition that America long isolated itself from the world is laced with exceptions.
The term “isolationist” became common in the years after World War I. It was applied, erroneously, to senators who opposed the Versailles Treaty because it committed the U.S. to go to war without a vote in Congress.
But the heyday of isolationism was not the 1920s, when Republican presidents were heavily involved in European negotiations. It was in the middle 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt torpedoed the London economic conference and signed a Neutrality Act. He changed course around 1938 when he decided that Hitler was a menace America could not live with.