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  • Isolationism? A False Choice on Foreign Policy

    On Sunday, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had a stark message for the GOP candidates on ABC’s This Week:  “We cannot move into [becoming] an isolationist party.  We cannot repeat the lessons of the 1930s when the United States of America stood by while bad things happened in the world.”  Senator McCain is correct that Americans should not withdraw from the world in response to the active internationalism of recent years.

    Fortunately, conservatives do not need to choose between intervening everywhere and walling ourselves off from the world economically, politically, and militarily.  If we look to first principles, the proper foreign policy is somewhere in between: a doctrine of always supporting liberty and self-government but not necessarily intervening militarily in every situation.  This doctrine, as Matthew Spalding has written, is at once principled and prudent.

    The foundational text for most isolationists is President George Washington’s Farewell Address.  What they don’t realize is that the foreign policy of the Founders was anything but isolationist.  His speech warned against permanent alliances and enmities, not all alliances or enmities.  In that spirit, he encouraged Americans to trade with foreign nations.  Above all, his great hope was that our nation would be powerful enough to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”  America is neither realist nor idealist in the international realm—it looks to its interests and justice in adopting a course of action.

    As one example of the foreign policy of the founding generation, the United States chose not to intervene militarily when the Greeks rose up against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s.  This was a choice of peace based on our national interest.  President James Monroe expressed America’s “ardent wishes” that the Greeks should win their independence, and the government allowed many private citizens to support the revolution.  The first measure was a daring stand in the age of empires and monarchs, and the latter was an important contribution to the Greek war effort.  This foreign policy was not morally relativistic, but neither was it reflexively interventionist at the risk of our own interests.

    We should be mindful to draw a distinction between a fixed doctrine and a specific policy for certain situations.  Isolationism is a doctrine that rejects foreign military intervention, alliances, and even trade, in all situations.  This doctrine only took hold in American politics during the 1930s, and as Senator McCain explained, the consequences of German and Japanese militarism were devastating.

    Internationalism is a doctrine that commits us to alliances and military intervention as a rule.  This doctrine only took hold in American politics during the early twentieth century as the progressives rejected American first principles.

    Fortunately, conservatives do not need to choose between isolationism and internationalism.  Our foreign policy can be faithful to the Founders’ approach of international trade and principled prudence.  In certain situations, we will decide not to intervene in a particular conflict.  In others, we will go to war to defend our liberty, independence, or security.  In all of them, we will be guided by our commitment to liberty as well as to American security.

    Brian Lipshutz is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    3 Responses to Isolationism? A False Choice on Foreign Policy

    1. Noel says:

      Isolationism is a conceptual nullity. In as much as a country is inexorably engaged in global free trade, and reserves the right to self-defense, the term 'isolationism' does not represent any real political or economic status. We are not isolated; it is manifestly unachievable.

      A virtuously selfish United States, rational, judicious, and objective with the application of its wealth and influence will do the world greater good than the haphazard and whim-based emotionalism that passes for our foreign policy today.

    2. Noel says:

      Isolationism is a conceptual nullity. In as much as a country is inexorably engaged in global free trade, and reserves the right to self-defense, the term 'isolationism' does not represent any real political or economic status. We are not isolated; it is manifestly unachievable.

      A virtuously selfish United States, rational, judicious, and objective with the application of its wealth and influence will do the world greater good than the haphazard and whim-based emotionalism that passes for our foreign policy today.

      • George Colgrove, VA says:

        "haphazard and whim-based emotionalism that passes for our foreign policy today."

        Good way to phrase it Noel! This has been our foreign policy since 9/11. The DoD and intelligence agencies all for their personal gain have adopted the practices of the environmental left to keep us in a constant state of fear so to keep this industry alive and well. This year we will pay out over $400 billion to defense contractors alone!

        Foreign policy has much more to do than wage war on something as little as hacking into weak computer system (as we are promoting as of late) but also inspiration. The US in the '80's grew our miiltary, but we also flew many shuttle flights into space and was setting hope that soon there would be much to reach for "out there." People from all over wanted to join in. We had international quests for space. Now? Today, all we do on this rock is wage war!

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