Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Premise
The US is anything but isolated in the new world of globalized economies, finance, markets, communications, and ideas. It obviously can’t lock the front door as it did in the 1920’s when foreign trade was a small fraction of total GDP, compared with today’s 12 percent for exports and 17 percent for imports. It would be a 21st century isolationism. But my answer is nevertheless a qualified yes.

Two-thirds of Americans are fed up with the drawn-out and ambiguous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense and foreign aid budgets face cuts. A recent poll of returnees shows strong preferences for less foreign military involvement. In the overheated electoral season, foreign policy is a footnote, but in one recent debate among Republican candidates, Libertarian Ron Paul said that the US had no business intervening around the world and should concentrate on rebuilding this country. The audience broke into a cheer that topped all other noises of the evening. The evidence is still fragmentary. But it suggests a turning away from optional military interventions that become costly and fail to attain their purpose, leaving people frustrated and disillusioned.

The History
In the early days of the Republic when the US was dependent on foreign trade, George Washington’s farewell address suggested that it was possible to be militarily isolationist without being isolated. The US stayed aloof from World War I until German U-boats attacked US shipping. It entered the war in 1917 in a euphoric and reformist mood, but the carnage was horrendous. Idealistic hopes were dimmed by the Allies’ cynicism at the 1919 Paris peace conference, and extinguished by the Senate’s rejection of President Wilson’s transformed world order. For a generation the US turned its back on the crumbling peace and its own blueprints for international cooperation like an international court. Until the mid-1930’s, threats from Hitler were not obvious. Isolation and
isolationism happily coexisted.

Disputed military interventions have been the “wars of choice” Richard Haass distinguished from “wars of necessity.” World War II was a “war of necessity”, as the threat became existential, and the Pearl Harbor attack a loud wake-up call. Thanks to the nationalist fervor unleashed in Indochina by Japan’s ejection of European colonialism, intervention in the Vietnam War by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson became complex and eventually unmanageable. “Victory” proved elusive, US goals became murky, costs soared, and American society fractured as popular support disappeared. For the next generation, public sentiment opposed any American effort to intervene in distant aggressions, police civil wars, suppress murderous tyrannies, export democracy, or forcibly “nation-build.”

In the 1990’s a new generation belatedly and reluctantly launched military operations in strife-torn Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo under an evolving UN doctrine of humanitarian “responsibility to protect.” But the Somali operation turned toxic, and the others remained problematic.

9/11 was a game-changer. America’s 2001 attack on al-Qaeda’s springboard, Afghanistan, was widely supported until President Bush diverted attention to Iraq. The bitter reality of tribal and religious conflict ended the US dream of quick, cheap success in both places. The Afghan war follows the pattern that led to past US drop-out periods.

The Forecast
Predictions are hazardous. We Americans are noted for historical amnesia, and American history is cyclical. A new isolationist mood would vanish with a direct attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Tough choices would still arise from an assaul on Israel, Iran production of a deliverable nuclear weapon, or an al-Qaeda attack on the US that is again mounted in a country with a return address. But operations against terrorists will rely on low-visibility Special Forces and technology such as drone aircraft. Targeted small-scale operations such as the dispatch of 100 Special Forces to Central Africa in the fall of 2011 will take the place of boots on the ground. US intervention in critical but not vital places will increasingly depend on coalitions of the willing (as has already happened in Libya) and, it can be hoped, upgraded use of “smart power” other that military.

Some Americans will be inconsolable about refraining from military crusades. But they should consider the words of Germany’s ”Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck who, when asked if he wanted war, is said to have replied, “Certainly not, what I want is victory.”