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The Opposite of Neoconservativism is not Isolationism


In my recent Foreign Affairs article on progressive foreign policy, I wrote about seizing a middle ground between “liberal internationalists” and “anti-hegemonists.” I struggled a bit with what to call the further left, but I knew from the outset that I wasn’t going to label them “isolationists.” The term is a lot like “neoliberalism.” When the far left wants to discredit someone, they call them a “neoliberal.” The concept of “neoliberalism” might have had some utility, perhaps as a description of the unravelling of socially-embedded capitalism that gathered steam in the 1970s; I’ve found it a useful way to talk about the colonization of social relations by market logics, such as when education administrators recast their institutions as businesses and their students as consumers. But when it just means “stuff that I don’t like,” then it’s time to banish it from our vocabulary.

The difference between “isolationism” and “neoliberalism”? Isolationism never had any real utility as a way of talking about American foreign policy. As Stephen Wertheim writes:

The term “isolationism” was coined in the 1930s to caricature Americans who wanted to stay strictly neutral in the looming war. They scarcely sought to “disconnect from the world,” as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp recently wrote. In fact, most favored peaceful forms of overseas involvement, such as trade, and insisted on defending the Americas from foreign intervention — no small feat. What united them was their opposition to entering the Second World War after the devastation of the First. Judging the United States capable of repelling any outside invasion, they wanted to steer clear of armed entanglement in Europe and Asia. To breach this tradition would embroil Americans in “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” in the words of historian and participant Charles Beard.

Consider Robert Kagan’s Sunday opinion piece in The New York Times.

President Trump may not enjoy majority support these days, but there’s good reason to believe that his “America First” approach to the world does. […] Mr. Trump’s immigration policies may be more popular with Republicans than with Democrats, but few Democratic politicians are running on a promise to bring more immigrants into the country. And just as in the 1920s, isolationism joins anti-immigration sentiment and protectionism as a pillar of America Firstism.

The numbers on trade and immigration do not, in fact, support Kagan’s argument, except insofar as Republicans and Democrats are shifting in opposite directions.

Democrats might seem to be rallying behind the liberal order, but much of this is just opposition to Mr. Trump’s denigration of it. Are today’s rank-and-file Democrats really more committed to defending allies and deterring challengers to the liberal world order? Most Democratic politicians railing against Mr. Trump’s “appeasement” of Moscow hailed Obama’s “reset” a few years ago and chastised Republicans for seeking a new Cold War. Most Democratic voters want lower military spending and a much smaller United States military presence overseas, which hardly comports with getting tougher on Russia, Korea or China — except on trade.

Was the Reset policy a good or bad idea? I happen to think it was a sound policy that achieved some important gains before falling apart. But there is no conceivable way to describe the policy as isolationist or displaying a lack of “commitment to defending allies and deterring challengers to the liberal order.” I don’t recall Russia invading any of its neighbors until the Reset was on life support, and Obama moved very quickly to deter further Russian aggression. If anything, a lack of attention to Moscow’s interests in Ukraine by American officials and the European Union exacerbated the initial crisis.

It doesn’t get any better.

Most Americans in both parties also agree with Mr. Trump that America’s old allies need to look out for themselves and stop relying on the United States to protect them. Few really disagreed with the president’s stated reluctance to commit American lives to the defense of Montenegro. Britons in the 1930s did not want to “die for Danzig,” and Americans today don’t want to die for Taipei or Riga, never mind Kiev or Tbilisi. President Obama was less hostile to the allies than Mr. Trump, but even he complained about “free riders.”

Available polling data does not support the idea that most Americans are skeptical of NATO or unwilling to defend allies against Russia. Presidents complaining about American allies not paying enough is a tradition that goes back many decades. What’s new is not the call for burden sharing; Obama successfully negotiated the two-percent targets that Trump obsesses over. Rather, it’s Trump’s treatment of NATO as a protection racket, and there’s little evidence that most Americans agree with Trump’s approach. Moreover, according to Pew, Democrats have had a more favorable view of NATO than Republicans since at least 2009. The backlash to Trump may have driven these numbers up, but a lack of commitment to core American allies is specific to “core Trump supporters,” not the general population.

In retrospect it’s pretty clear that Mr. Obama was too internationalist for his party base. He expanded NATO, intervened in Libya, imposed sanctions on Russia and presided over the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Democrats may miss Mr. Obama for many reasons, but there’s little evidence that the rank-and-file miss those policies. Mr. Trump’s narrower, more unilateralist and nationalist approach to the world is probably closer to where the general public is than Mr. Obama’s more cosmopolitan sensibility.

Whether or not the US backs NATO membership for Montenegro—or, for that matter, for Ukraine and Georgia—indicates exactly nothing, in of itself, about its degree of commitment to multilateralism and cosmopolitanism. You can believe that NATO membership is a good deal for the US, as a majority of Americans do, and also think that NATO should not expand any further. Support for bombing a country into regime change isn’t a test of “internationalism.” It’s a test of how committed you are to militarized regime change. Later, Kagan writes that “Hillary Clinton struggled to hold off Bernie Sanders, a progressive isolationist,” which is an odd way to describe someone who called for major multilateral action on climate change and affirmed America’s commitment to defend NATO, let alone whose recent foreign-policy rhetoric is profoundly “internationalist.”

It doesn’t take deep analysis to figure out what’s going on here. On the one hand, blaming Trumpism on a general zeitgeist helps absolve (former) Republicans, such as Kagan, for the direction of their party. On the other hand, it’s rather useful to align US foreign policy on a continuum between “isolationism” and “internationalism” in which “internationalism” just happens to be synonymous with neoconservative principles—if you’re a neoconservative.

This is a shame. I think Kagan is right to draw parallels between the present moment and the 1920s and 1930s. But our great experiment in neoconservative foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq, played no small role in the present crisis, whether through destabilizing the Middle East or helping to discredit the Republican establishment. There are other ways of doing internationalism, and these are likely much better suited to the post-Trump era than attempting to recreate the status-quo ante of 2002.

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