Isolationism may be tempting, but it is utopian — and dangerous
Isolationism is tempting. We may look at the world and see distant wars as local squabbles that, tragic as they may be, do not impact our life. War in Ukraine? It must be another eruption of ancient tribal hatreds and we should steer clear of it. Moreover, we may be tempted to blame conflicts in faraway lands to our own actions, with our rivals responding only to us and our presence nearby. Hence, as some suggest, Russia must have invaded Ukraine because we were dragging a pro-Russian Kyiv into our camp. In either case, the result is a call for disengagement with the world: let’s come home and live a tranquil life.
Such views become more prominent at election time. They appeal to large swaths of the electorate because they promise national well-being at no cost. We can live better by doing less! On the right side of the spectrum, this is a call for rebuilding the U.S. with the money purportedly saved by withdrawing from foreign policy. On the left side, this is a call to amp domestic social engineering while letting post-modern international institutions take care of the world. Both advocate isolationism for different purposes and with different logics behind them.
And both are pernicious because they promise something that is simply not true: peace and welfare at cheaper costs.
The idea that the U.S. can separate itself from the tribulations of the world arises out of the belief that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are the greatest buffers in history. They allow, so the view goes, the establishment of an autarkic republic, content in its separation from the global mess and self-sufficient in its material needs.
Not surprisingly, many of the ideal states conceived by some of the greatest minds in Western political traditions were islands. In the early 16th century, Saint Thomas More, for instance, drew his “Utopia,” a perfect state, on a peninsula that then the first king would sever from the mainland by digging a wide channel. The isle allows isolation, which then in turn should allow domestic harmony established by well-structured laws and balanced governance.
Appealing as such a vision is, it is nowhere to be found in real life. Thomas More, after all, called it “Utopia,” a place that exists nowhere. As the patron saint of politicians, he warns us not to build polities that are, quite literally, not on this earth.
For the United States, oceans are not moats that can protect us hermetically from the world. On the contrary, they are highways that link us with the rest of the world (and Eurasia in particular), allowing us to trade with it but also bringing distant problems to us. Modern technology only makes such distance less protective than a century ago.
The other belief at the basis of the isolationist temptation is that our actions and presence abroad is the primary source of problems. This used to be a claim coming mostly from the left side of the political spectrum, blaming America for every ill in the world. But recently it has taken hold also of some conservative voices. The argument is that a promethean ideology of progressivism keeps pushing imperial boundaries into lands that reject it. The war in Ukraine, for instance, is thus seen as being caused by the Western attempt to bring this country into its sphere. And Vladimir Putin, according to this logic, was forced to react to this progressive imperialism.
In reality, Russia has its own plans and acts on them. It is not an empty vessel that is filled with resentment of the West and acts only in response to it. It continues to pursue a westward strategy, brutally conquering lands in order to assert its domination. It is expanding when and where it can. Similarly, China is an autocratic state, motivated by a strong Leninist-Nationalist ideology, eager to incorporate countries that are not eager to fall under its sway. The problem, that is, is not that the U.S. is abroad, but that Russia and China want to expand their empires over countries that reject them. Our withdrawal will not end Russian and Chinese aggression.
Tempting as it may be, isolationism is therefore based on false premises and is dangerous. It is utopian. Pursuing it will lead, literally, nowhere.
Jakub Grygiel is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology.