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Is America normal? Isolationism and internationalism in American foreign policy

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After the traumas of World War I, Warren G. Harding campaigned for president in 1920 to bring the U.S. back to “normalcy.” Toward the end of the Cold War in 1989, former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick wrote a major article pleading that the U.S. return as “a normal country in a normal time.” Basically, they both meant to “return home,” to avoid the international obligations and policies that took America so far away from its original purpose and nature.

Technically, “normal” means conform to standards, patterns, not to deviate from principle. To Harding, it meant “…to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make use of the right path, [that] tranquility at home is more precious than peace abroad.” Kirkpatrick expressed a similar theme toward century’s end, to concentrate on “…pressing problems of education, family, industry and technology.”

Americans have always claimed to be “exceptional,” so how does this equate with being “normal”? For most of its history, certainly before Warren Harding, America’s “normal” pursuit of foreign relations was “isolationism.” From George Washington’s Farewell Address through to Pearl Harbor, the dominant American purpose overseas was to trade and prosper but to avoid any and all “entangling” political relations with others. To the 1920 generation, the world war was a deviation from this and “normalcy” meant a return to isolation. World War II and the Cold War interrupted this again, and to Jeanne Kirkpatrick and others, it was time to renew the main purpose. In Harding’s words, to “steady down.”

America was an “exception” by itself and did not need to export home values elsewhere. President Donald Trump indicates this belief and wants America “great again,” which may mean what Harding also wanted, “normalcy.”

In his classic book, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997) University of Pennsylvania Professor Walter McDougall traced the historic tension between these two strains of home vs. foreign policies that have competed for the American purpose. A comparison of the Inaugural Addresses of John F. Kennedy (1961) and Bill Clinton (1993) will show the disparity between, not only two presidents, but between two time periods and two purposes. Both came from the exact same philosophical source and the same set of political values. By definition, they both are equally “exceptional” and, thereby, equally “normal.”  

Kennedy’s speech, in the middle of the Cold War, had not a single word on domestic issues. His ringing declarations announced the renewal of a global commitment to the finish. “Let every nation know,” he declared, “…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  

Clinton’s oration, after the Cold War, contained oblique references to “change” in the world and “opportunities” but was largely a call for renewal at home. “We must do what no generation has had to do before,” he announced. “We must invest more in our own people, in their jobs, in their future, and at the same time, cut our massive debt. And we must do so in a world in which we must compete for every opportunity.”

Kennedy’s call was for dramatic action on a global front; Clinton’s was a renewal for continuity. Clinton’s was the more “normal,” especially if we just substitute “every” for “no” in Clinton’s first line, above.

The difference between the two inaugurals reflects the difference between the two main American purposes. Throughout history, the American people have always identified their own security and well-being with safety at home. Dangers from outside have rarely occupied great or sustained attention while “internal” issues have, by comparison, consumed the gravest and most immediate “existential” threat.

As Lincoln famously stated it in 1858, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The chief explanation for this phenomenon is geopolitical: unlike Europe and most of the world, the United States has not had to defend its external borders against powerful and aggressive enemies. It had the freedom to expand and prosper without too much interference (relatively). Also, while Britain is separated from Europe by 26 miles of water, the U.S. is separated by 3,000 miles.

If there is any central fact in this explanation, it might reside in the sacrifices that Americans have expended against internal threats. The Civil War, in a population of 32 million, took approximately 720,000 lives, more than in all other U.S. wars combined! That’s about 2.5 percent of the population. What is 2.5 percent of 330 million, and what would it take for today’s Americans to sacrifice that part of the population?

Certainly, more than 9/11 and individual terrorist attacks. The question hovers over the Republic but cannot even be addressed. But it is not abstract and has, in fact, happened before.

The two defining moments between the tensions within the American purpose are April 12, 1861 and December 7, 1941. The first ensured internal unity and saw a renewal of isolationism in foreign policy. The second ensured the world would be safe from Fascism, then Communism, and began internationalism in foreign policy.

Today, the country has been in strategic “limbo” since the “unipolar moment” came and went.  This critical “intersection” has been approached but not crossed. Aside from political interests and personalities (“crooked” Hillary vs. “racist” Trump), the tensions between Trump and his critics center on the two competing worldviews.

Sooner or later, the country must decide which threats are “existential”: the ones from within or from without. Unfortunately, history offers no clear guide as to the answer. The honest answer would be “both.”

Unfortunately, again, it will probably be the pull of events that will decide. Lacking a long-term worldview and obsessed with self-identities and infinite, petty quarrelling, strategic “drift” seems likely to continue, until another dramatic alarm wakes the slumbering giant.

Is this “normal” or “schizophrenic”?  

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