The New Isolationism


ONCE AGAIN, only this time with greater potential than ever before, proponents of isolationism are letting their voices be heard in a national debate on American foreign policy. The virtual death of isolationist sentiment in this country, which, not long ago, it appeared possible to date, first to December 7, 1941, and more officially to Senator Vandenberg's advocacy of the United Nations in 1945, now shows itself to have been a mere illusion. Isolationism was sleeping, sleeping fitfully, and it is now aroused with renewed vigor and confidence.

In fact the potential isolation based in the United States is considerably broader now than in the late 1930's. Due to the unmistakable nature of the adversary during the pre-Second World War period, the backbone of isolationist sentiment was the American right, the America First Committee, Father Coughlin and the Social Justice movement, the Christian Mobilizers, in short, those who believed it possible to do business with Hitler. This is not to ignore the isolationism of men like Senator Gerald P. Nye, who held a faith in non-interventionism rooted in the Midwestern Progressive tradition--but while Nye hitched his star to that of the America First movement and became one of the committee's leading attractions, the alliance was one of convenience, as the America First rank and file represented a political perspective profoundly different from that of Senator Nye. Nor is this categorization of American isolationism as a phenomenon of the Right made in ignorance of the consistent position of Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party during that time, or of the non-interventionist programs of various other factions on the left. But isolationism had no mass constituency among leftists until the Communist Party discovered its historical legitimacy following the Hitler-Stalin Pact. And this abrupt reversal of position by the C.P., so abrupt that it caused a substantial number of defections from the party, was too short-lived to lend itself to consideration as part of a tradition of isolationism among American radicals. As soon as German troops invaded the Soviet Union, in June of 1941, isolationism lost its mass following on the Left, and all that was left was a small group of intellectuals who, for the most part, communicated only with one another.

Contemporary isolationism is, however, a very different thing. It should be pointed out that this neo-isolationism is at present no more than a potential force--the foreign policy debate remains for the moment limited to the intellectual arena, and mass support for an isolationist stance is no more than a legitimate possibility. But in this debate, isolationism has found supporters ranging throughout the political spectrum.

It is perhaps almost too early to address the subject, since there is as yet no unified and coherent position which would begin to define isolationism as an approach to foreign policy. Indeed, from many in the academic world and in public life, isolationism is still a dirty word which conjures up images of an America turning its back, as signals of approaching war and genocide began to emanate from Europe. So without examining the entire range of positions, it is perhaps well to look at the definition which some who are beginning to feel comfortable with the word would apply to it.

In the Spring issue of Foreign Policy, Earl C. Ravenal, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, offers an article which removes isolationism from the abstract plane and gives one a real sense of how the position would translate into policy. Ravenal, who should probably be classified as within the liberal wing of the neo-isolationist camp, explains that liberals who propose means of cutting the defense budget are for the most part deceiving both the public and themselves. Ravenal feels that proposed cuts based on efficiency, on Pentagon personnel extravagances, or on a thinning-out principle, beg the fundamental question and accomplish virtually nothing. This fundamental question is, of course, what is our defense budget for, or to put it another way, what defines the American national interest and what defines national security. To try to effect defense budget cuts without re-ordering U.S. foreign policy and redefining these principles is, according to Ravenal, both a fruitless and dishonest task. He tells us that the defense budget can be reduced by 50 per cent if we begin to view American national interests in neo-isolationist terms. And he also tells us that if we work within these terms, we won't have any further need of arms limitations talks with the Soviet Union, or with anyone else for that matter; the United States can act quickly and unilaterally to cut defense spending in half. The operative principle here is a new definition of the American national interest:


"We should return to a very pristine notion: that the national security function is to guarantee that no part of the United States is attacked and destroyed by an enemy's forces (whether nuclear or conventional); that our soil is never invaded and occupied by a foreign power, that our internal processes are never dictated by the threat of another nation (or non-national group); and that American lives and property are not spent except in the obvious and necessary defense of those objectives."

Ravenal accompanies his proposal with a detailed and impressive analysis of how, in accordance with this principle, massive defense cuts could be effected. There seems little reason to question his argument that the United States could adopt such a posture. What is in doubt of course, is whether we should. Or to phrase the question differently, what kind of world would we then be living in. Now Ravenal doesn't want to be too blunt about things, but he does seem to have some sense of what might happen, and so he takes a roundabout approach:

"The third objective to force retrenchments and defense budget reductions is that our friends and allies would be threatened. There is a large element of truth in this. But the real answer to this objection is not to make a tour d'horizon, asking, "What will happen to Western Europe?" "What will Japan do?" And so forth. The answer is: to make a rather different kind of argument--really, the complement to the argument up to this point: that we are caught in a web of domestic constraints and cannot meet ambitious and demanding defense objectives. We now must consider the proposition that even if we could continue to generate significant resources and support, the effort would probably fall short."

To put Ravenal's point more succinctly, the answer to questions about what would happen on this or that front is in effect, "Who cares?" Elsewhere in the article he writes:

And the moderate-liberal critique, since it shares the administration's concern for Western Europe, Israel, and Japan, cannot effect much of a saving. To cut deeply into the defense budget, more would have to be given up.

Like Western Europe, Israel, and Japan.

And what do we mean by "given up?" Ravenal would have us believe that there is increasing evidence of the inability of any single power to control the international system. But now is not the future. And it would appear that the Soviet Union is about ready to enter an expansionist period. In the context of purely isolationist American foreign policy, one can hazard a pretty fair guess as to what "given up" will mean. At least in one case, that of Israel, it will mean nothing short of destruction.

There is indeed an element of bitter irony here. The immorality of American intervention in Vietnam would have the result of creating a similarly immoral position of complete isolationism. Selective commitments, presumably based on moral as well as strategic criteria, are out, Ravenal tells us. The either/or possibilities suggested by Ravenal remind one of those who opposed the Vietnam War because it seemed the United States couldn't win. Those who stood against the war on moral and not tactical grounds would do well to consider for themselves the moral consequences of this Neo-Isolationism. Ravenal foresees a world of "parameters"--it would be dangerous and wrong to allow those in his camp to set the parameters for this crucial debate on the future of American foreign policy.

Few would question the notion that foreign policy needs to be revamped. But eliminating foreign policy altogether is not the only way to revamp it. And while it is certainly beyond the scope of this article to chart the specifics for a new foreign policy, it remains important to stand in militant opposition to the premise that our only choice is between what we have now and what Ravenal proposes. And it is important as well to state explicitly that a system of selective commitments, based on moral principles, or, if you will, on the principles endorsed in the United Nations charter, is nothing to sneer at.