Politics & Policy

Call it Isolationism!

There’s a name for people who won’t promote American values abroad. And we should use it.

Statesmen must debate and reassess the merits of any war. How else can they apply our principles to foreign policy in a prudent manner?

Such a debate is not, in itself, indicative of rising isolationism in the Republican party. Most people, including Republicans, shun isolationism. But the war-weary may be tempted to embrace strict non-interventionism, even if they don’t wish for America to isolate herself from the world. The problem is that many of the arguments now masquerading as “non-interventionist” are actually isolationist in substance and effect — and, as such, at odds with America’s principles and foreign-policy traditions.  

#ad#Isolationism, in its academic meaning, is a coherent grand strategy composed of economic protectionism, military non-involvement, and cultural detachment. In essence, the doctrine seeks to withdraw America from the world.

Over time, however, the term isolationism has often been conflated with strictly military non-interventionism. Pres. Calvin Coolidge in 1925, for example, warned the nation to follow neither the Progressive internationalism of Wilson, nor its counterpoised isolationism: “It will be well not to be too much disturbed by the thought of either isolation or entanglement of pacifists and militarists.” Instead, Coolidge advised, America should maintain “such a military force as comports with the dignity and security of a great people.” Coolidge recognized and celebrated America’s indispensable role in the world. 

Coolidge also recognized that a policy of non-intervention — or neutrality — is sometimes appropriate, but that a doctrine of strict and absolute non-interventionism leads to isolationism. Silent Cal’s words are especially pertinent today, because in 1925 he was seeking to keep conservatives from veering into the murky waters of isolationism. By the late 1930s it became clear that his words had not been heeded, as Americans embraced a doctrine of non-interventionism. America’s refusal to look at events in Europe realistically and to stand for its principles and interests culminated in the uncontested rise of Hitler’s Germany and the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The Republican party must now chart America’s course through 21st-century international relations. The waters, though, have been thoroughly muddied by military actions with ambiguous objectives and the frequent misuse of the terms “isolationism” and “non-interventionism.”

Yet, there are indeed distinctly isolationist voices on the right that are dragging the GOP discussion about foreign policy noticeably to the left. Ron Paul, for example, recently employed very isolationist (and even anti-war) arguments in support of his non-interventionism doctrine — and received standing ovations from the (evidently) war-weary Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

That’s a problem.

First, it threatens this nation’s security. Many isolationist non-interventionists appear to believe that combating America’s enemies abroad makes America less safe at home. They believe that Osama bin Laden told the truth about “why they hate us” and that we should expect terrorist attacks. This inaccurate belief inspires a foreign-policy approach that puts American interests and security at risk. Pres. John Adams understood this, as did his navy secretary, Benjamin Stoddert, who said in 1798 that “by keeping up incessant attacks upon the [enemy] on their own ground, they will in a degree at least be prevented from coming on ours.” Such actions actually prevented a full war with France and continued George Washington’s clearly stated preference for peace through strength. 

Second, on the question of America’s role in the world, the doctrinal non-interventionists declare simply that America should “mind its own business.” This sentiment contradicts the very character of America, which, unlike other nations, is dedicated to a set of universal principles that it must uphold in the international realm (though not necessarily through military incursions). So it is a mistake to proclaim isolationism a “pro-American foreign policy.” 

#page#There can hardly be a more “pro-American” foreign policy than that espoused by America’s Founding Fathers. The guiding principles and actions of early U.S. foreign policy are a powerful testament to America’s commitment to securing liberty at home and prudently defending it abroad. America was the leading country in the world supporting the cause of republican self-government for the Latin American republics in 1821, Greece in 1823, and Hungary in 1848.


Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “entangling alliances with none,” committed American troops in a military coalition with England, Sweden, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to fight the Barbary Pirates and protect peaceful American commerce. Jefferson understood these actions to be consistent with America’s interpretation of the “Law of Nations,” which the Constitution granted the U.S. government the power to define and enforce. America’s character, interests, and principles animated American engagement abroad, which has proven an indispensable good throughout most of our history. 

Those who advocate withdrawing America from engagement in the world through a strict non-interventionist doctrine may not be isolationists properly understood (meaning they do not embrace all of the elements of an isolationist grand strategy). But they are most certainly isolationists as the term is commonly understood. 

We should have a prudent foreign policy committed to America’s Founding principles, and that will probably mean employing a policy of neutrality from time to time. However, those who want to advance a traditional American statecraft should call the isolationist doctrine of non-interventionism what it is — a return to the naïve and dangerous isolation Coolidge warned against. 

— Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). 

Marion Smith is the executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an educational and human-rights non-profit authorized by a unanimous act of Congress.

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