Policy Periods: Isolationism and Internationalism
In his classic 1997 study on American foreign policies, Walter McDougall (University of Pennsylvania) divides the subject into old and new “testaments,” between the time when the country was young and weak and since it became a global power (Promised Land, Crusader State). Both time periods were derived from the same geopolitical and ideological sources, and both are still alive today, pandemic or not.
In short, the division McDougall asserts is simply between an isolationist country unable to affect events beyond its shores and the internationalist nation that won two consecutive world wars and a Cold War and maintains whatever “world order” is still alive today.
The division is both appropriate and relevant and will stay that way indefinitely. In some ways, this disparity goes beyond human decision, regardless of whether or not one approves of President Trump or joins either political party.
The men who governed America in the nineteenth century did not choose isolation; it was forced on them by circumstance. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed to allow the U.S. to supervise the entire Western Hemisphere. Nine years earlier, the British Army burned Washington, D.C. (1814). Can a country that cannot protect its own Capitol supervise Brazil or Argentina? During the Civil War, British shipyards were supplying Confederate “blockade runners” against the Union Navy. When the Cabinet suggested declaring war on Britain, President Lincoln replied, “Gentlemen, please, one war at a time.”
The time when America began an assertive global reach is called “Wilsonian” since President Woodrow Wilson used U.S. entry into World War I as a design to “make the world safe for democracy.” Yet Wilson could not even persuade the Senate to pass the peace treaty, and America descended into another period of intense isolation, broken only in 1941 at Pearl Harbor.
With the end of World War II (1945), the U.S. began the process all over again, demobilizing nearly all of its 16 million military personnel and passing the “GI Bill®” for an anticipated war-free world. Not so fast, USA.
As Foreign Service Officer Joseph M. Jones described in his classic book, The Fifteen Weeks, it took just that long for the U.S. to dispense with any pretensions of neutrality or isolation to come to the rescue of Britain and western Europe against the potential of a world dominated by communism and the Soviet Union. Within that time period came four historic events that transformed a “promised land” into an authentic “crusader state” that forever (perhaps) cast American power on to a global landscape, for “better or for worse.”
The first was the Truman Doctrine (March 12, 1947) that promised aid and assistance to Greece and Turkey against the Soviet Union and on behalf of “free peoples everywhere.” The second was the Marshall Plan announced at Harvard June 5, 1947, which provided history’s largest foreign aid package against a war-ravaged Europe and, literally, saved the entire area from starvation and occupation. The third was the Berlin Airlift (June 24, 1948 – September 30, 1949) that saved the two million people of West Berlin from the same and, to this day, represents maybe the greatest voluntary contribution any democracies made for another country, a former enemy twice removed. On one day alone, April 15-16, 1949, U.S. and Allied airplanes made over 1,383 round trips to that beleaguered city, one landing every 30 seconds. The total mileage for the whole operation was 92 million miles, the distance from the earth to the sun. The fourth was the North Atlantic Treaty, April 4, 1949, that for the first time in history guaranteed a peacetime American military role in any world strategic event.
That was seventy years ago. NATO still stands with 30 members and still represents the vestiges of a world order that was the culmination of the sudden, “revolutionary” transformation of a formerly domestic-engaged nation whose “Manifest Destiny” was once fulfilled at the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.
What has changed? Or, more appropriately, what’s new? The answer: nothing – same old, same old.
In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and world communism as well, the United States began “doing it all over again,” as if nothing had happened. Taking the advice of former Reagan UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the U.S. went back into a “normal country in a normal time,” an invitation to return to the original plan (when there were thirteen states and a whole continent left).
As if to reinforce the new plan, the Governor of Arkansas was elected in 1992 on the slogan “it’s the economy stupid,” while the incumbent (Bush I) forgot his pledge against “new taxes” with an apology that he was troubled with foreign policies, or “that vision thing.”
It’s been “downhill” since, with “assertive multilateralism,” “leading from behind,” and “MAGA” all reflecting that neither “crusader” nor “promised land” are designs that reflect any tradition or purpose from the Founding Fathers, or any subsequent thoughts on America’s role in the world.
At this point in time, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves that America was conceived in “revolution,” one whose final destination is yet undetermined. Nor did the Founding thoughts rest on the notion that revolution was a passive or empty pursuit, that the break from England was but a change in authority. From the very beginning, it was assumed that America’s “cause” in the political globe was to affect change, and, like the Jesuit Order, the goal was to “convert” rather than stand alone, “a city upon a hill.”
As early as 1780, Jefferson made this mission clear in his “Empire of Liberty” address, “as she has never surveyed since the creation and I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.”
It is past time that we recognize that we are the heirs of Jefferson and the generations who were equally “persuaded,” so that America’s mission in the world rises far above the resentments and accusations that have come to dominate today’s public discourse.
Maybe someone could just give a speech on that, even if, like Mr. Monroe, he doesn’t really mean it.