As I’m sure is true for most people, the number one subject in any conversation I’ve had since Tuesday is the result of the presidential elections, and what this will mean for the world. As I discussed the foreign policy implications of his presidency, I was surprised to find that many of the people I spoke with were unfamiliar with the idea of isolationism, which is the base of Trump’s foreign policy ideas.
I had originally meant to write a different piece today, something discussing Loch K. Johnson’s 2007 book Seven Sins of American Foreign Policy, in which he describes seven problems that plague America in its decision-making. I might still write that article later, but right now I want to focus solely on the sin of isolationism.
Isolationism is the idea that the United States can withdraw from the world, that it can lock its borders, cancel international agreements, and protect only itself and its interests. This is often referred to as Fortress America.
Although it seems hard to imagine now with America’s overbearing presence in all corners of the world, the United States started off with a strong isolationist character. The newly created country was still militarily weak and thus wanted to prevent antagonizing foreign powers by joining alliances against them or to be drawn into war by allies. The only entanglements deemed necessary were trade agreements.
This fear of being drawn into other people’s wars has survived throughout America’s history. Think for example of the US’s neutral stance in World War 1 up to 1917 and the country’s refusal to join the allies diplomatically after it did enter the war, and the failure to ratify the League of Nations agreement after. Think also of the late entry into World War 2, which happened only after the United States was itself attacked at Pearl Harbor. For both wars, the United States preferred to have Europe sort out its own problems until American people or interests became threatened.
Having a preference to stay out of war is of course understandable (although some may find it odd that the US even has such a preference), but isolationism goes deeper than that. Staunch isolationists see any international agreement as an entanglement and a constriction of America’s free movement in the world. Treaties on climate change or nuclear disarmament or free trade are subject to this as well, as are agreements on human rights. Although an isolationist America might very well agree with the underlying cause of such treaties, being bound by quotas or being forced to act because of certain articles in a treaty is unacceptable to isolationists. The situation is worse when isolationists reject the underlying cause outright, because then it will not even act towards the greater international good on its own.
Enter Donald Trump, a staunch isolationist. He has rejected the science proving climate change is real, rejects trade agreements that would profit the global economy and the US economy in a questionable effort to save American jobs and markets, and has indicated he wants the US to leave NATO. He aims to make Fortress America a reality once more, and with isolationist Newt Gingrich on the shortlist for Secretary of State the president-elect seems determined to achieve it.
Without US commitment to battling climate change the international community can only achieve so much. When major polluters do not take steps to scale down the damage they are doing in favor of short-term economic thinking, the world is going to be in dire straits, and that is exactly what will happen should Donald Trump do away with the international agreements that have been established. While the international community will remain committed, the credibility of the efforts will have been greatly diminished. Without American leadership and example other nations will choose to ignore these agreements as well in efforts to stay competitive in the short-term.
Threatening to leave NATO is detrimental to the security of the world and especially to that of Eastern Europe. I wrote in an earlier article that Trump could be better for Europe considering his preference for NATO to fight terrorism rather than focus on eastward expansion. Obviously, a decision to leave NATO would destroy that small positive outlook. At a time where Russia is looking to secure its strategic interests abroad, NATO members like Finland, Estonia, and Latvia are depending on a swift American response should Russia target them next. One of the more persuasive deterrents against Russian aggression here is Article 5 coming into effect. Without an American commitment to protect its allies, or worse: with a rejection of the alliance altogether, Eastern Europe faces tremendous danger and chaos.
In and of itself, America wishing to play a diminished role in the world is not a bad thing. The theory of ethical realism to which I subscribe banks on this reduction. However, this is different from isolationism, which seeks to ignore the rest of the world and to act unilaterally in all matters. This reduces the American role in the world so far that it becomes a threat to the international community. Whether the United States, the isolationist movement, or President-Elect Trump wish it so, the United States has become intrinsically linked to the rest of the world. The entanglements are there. Cutting those bounds comes at everyone’s peril.