George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address set the stage for more than 150 years of “isolationism” for American foreign policies. While the advice was challenged prior to both world wars and brought the U.S. into each, the idea of abstention from external political affairs became a near-sacred political “theology” for most American history. Even after it was “violated” by both Woodrow Wilson (1917) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1930s), the idea that foreign “entanglements” were taboo grew into a political article of faith for most Americans. Washington’s advice was finally laid to rest by Harry Truman and the Cold War in 1947, but the idea has had such a profound impact upon the culture that it never permanently disappeared.
Trump and Isolationism
Today, Donald Trump, with his slogan to “Make America Great Again” recalls the isolationist past, and he has been roundly accused of destroying the “world order” established by Truman. But foreign policy is rarely an election issue, and the 2016 campaign, like all those since the end of the Cold War, proves the point.
If President Trump really wants to return to an isolationist past (which is uncertain), he is only “preaching to the choir.” America was “conceived” in isolationism, and the culture that held to that strategic wisdom throughout its early and mid-history is unlikely to discard the notion. Today, after historic achievements through two world wars and a Cold War, the American public has evidenced little or no tolerance for either world leadership or the “superpower” status that history and war seemed to have bestowed.
Nor should they, either by nature or geopolitics. Why would a factory worker in Ohio, a nurse in Seattle, a farmer in Nebraska, an inner-city waitress, a housewife in Scranton, a bus driver in Alabama, a ski bum in Colorado take the slightest interest in the background issues of Islamic history that produced 9/11? By the same token, Americans were shocked by Pearl Harbor, but they were still out of work from the Great Depression. Why would an Asian island country matter in the unemployment line?
Americans do not vote on foreign policy issues
Through self-interest and geopolitics, Americans have never, not once, voted to change foreign policies. The issues are historically remote, geographically distant, and equally impossible to relate to “Main Street” and the issues that impact the voting public.
In the 1916 campaign, Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the promise “he kept us out of war.” Five months later, he declared war on Germany, and both the Congress and its public endorsed the war (enthusiastically). Either way, peace or war, the public aligns its security with the President, his diplomats, and the military. During the entire Cold War period, nearly half a century, no Congress, no public, no protest movement ever seriously challenged any administration’s adherence to the foreign policy of “containment,” no matter where on earth it was pursued (Vietnam included). Nor was Ronald Reagan’s policy of ending the Cold War through intrusive policies against the Soviet Union ever challenged by the Democrats or the public (those few who knew of it).
The best the opposition could do was to ridicule the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as “Star Wars.” Well into the new century, SDI was still critical in ending the Cold War (and the USSR).
After historic achievements in peace and war, the public has always, repeat, always, reverted to Washington’s original advice. After World War I, the Republicans retreated into “normalcy.” After World War II, the military was reduced from 16 to 1 million personnel within two years. Likewise, the public ignored the Cold War until Truman adopted his “Doctrine,” and the Marshall Plan (1947), the Berlin Airlift (1948), and NATO (1949).
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush promised a “new world order” after the invasion of Iraq. Iraq was invaded, but the new order was quickly forgotten. Bush also forgot his pledge to “Read my lips: no new taxes.” The electorate cared little about any “world order” but couldn’t forgive Bush for new taxes.
The Cold War ended in 1991, and, the following year, the Governor of Arkansas became president on the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton’s first Inaugural Address was an inspiration to renew “ourselves, our families, our communities, our country” but revealed nothing on either the Cold War or a new foreign policy. He then adopted something called “assertive multilateralism,” which later was re-named by Barack Obama to “leading from behind.” Neither slogan indicates the slightest interest to forge a world order based upon the political qualities of Western civilization or the American founding.
Going into the 2020 election, Americans have seemed to completely “isolate” themselves from the rest of the world. As before, foreign policy will arrive only after another attack like the 2012 murder of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi. But these are not “policies” but “incidents,” derived from a history that few in the public were even aware of.
The 2020 Presidential debates: No foreign policy
After four televised hours, in the June 2019 primary debate among the twenty Democratic candidates, the subject “foreign policy” never surfaced. Race and capitalism vs. socialism (Econ 101) dominated, while seven billion people in the other 192 countries heard nothing from us about them. Economist Robert Samuelson noticed this disparity: “The campaign’s attention is focused heavily — almost exclusively — on domestic problems and programs, but the most pressing issues that await the next president will probably involve foreign policy.” (The Washington Post, July 1).
Unlike most of the rest of the world, the American political culture has rarely had to prepare for high tension or war from a powerful neighbor. Even England, a country that practiced a “splendid isolation” from the continent, is just twenty-six miles across the channel. The United States is 3,000 miles away. In an air and space age, with instantaneous communications from hemisphere to hemisphere, this simple geopolitical fact can explain why twenty Democratic Presidential aspirants can still talk as if no one else was listening.
Kamala Harris advertised her qualifications for President because she was once “bused” to grade school (“that little girl was me”). Joe Biden once “colluded” with southern Senators on issues of the day. These are emotional and contrived arguments, called the “race card.” These things also occurred in another generation and in another century. Bernie Sanders wants a socialist culture, and most of the others want free things taken from the rich, who were unanimously ruled out of the culture as if they were an “enemy within.” The whole episode appeared theatrical, seemingly right out of a “Me Too” stage-play.
If these “issues” (such as they are) appear surreal, unworldly, or a bit “dipsy,” there is still a silver lining: at least the candidates are not talking national security.
But, by nature and definition, foreign policy issues cannot be argued coherently by an electorate. The analogy is baseball: one does not analyze the game by what happened in the bottom of the ninth. For the general public, the issue is generic and instinctive, i.e. leave us alone.
Recall the Gadsden Flag rattlesnake: “Don’t tread on me.”