There is a very profound difference between arguing America should disengage from certain alliances or security commitments, reduce its profile in certain regions, reduce its involvement or abstain entirely from certain kinds of war, and being an isolationist.
Isolationists do not just believing in putting America First, though the America First Committee would have one believe differently. They believe that putting America First rarely means doing anything beyond the Americas themselves as a continental system. So, even if somebody thought that the US should withdraw from the UN, disband NATO, end the War on Terror and withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, get rid of US military bases in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and direct every ounce of remaining military equipment not engaged in defending the Americas to East Asia to counter China, he or she would not be an isolationist. An actual isolationist would be content to bring the boys home from everywhere and rely on America’s nuclear or overwhelming conventional forces.
During World War II, actual isolationists opposed selling arms and economic entanglements with belligerent countries, opposed NATO, and opposed the United Nations. One can say a lot of things about the views of those who think the US is overextended or unnecessarily engaged in foreign affairs, but saying they are isolationists is intellectually dishonest unless they really believe in a comprehensive political-military disengagement with the world beyond America and its sea lane approaches.
It is also wrong to call refusing to file in behind smaller powers in an action more directly related to their interests than our own an abdication of leadership. When the US lets smaller powers pull it into conflicts that are not its own, it is then it abdicates leadership, by taking on burdens not its own for another state’s interest. A greater mistake is to call the preservation of “leadership” on issues of minor importance to US interests an interest in itself. Leadership is a means, not an end, to American interests.
It is yet more foolish to assume that the US failure to “lead” on an intervention, such as in Libya, means that the US is ceding its position of global leadership to Europe or becoming isolationist. Calling America isolationist or unfaithful for refusing to help its European allies in a war of their choosing and in, primarily, their own interest, is downright ridiculous. Nobody calls Europe isolationist or unfaithful for refusing to contribute to the defense of South Korea, or balancing against China, even though what happens to those countries is far more consequential for Europe than Libya’s fate is for the US. One might argue that only the US has the capability to effect change in Asia from beyond the continent. Quite so, the European contribution to Asian security would only marginally advance European interests. The inability to accept that America is subject to similar diminishing returns in the payoff of its efforts in Libya for interests advanced or protected makes sense only if one chooses to totally ignore that the US has a bevy of other serious concerns in the Middle East, let alone the world.
So, quite apart from being a sign of isolationism, reluctance to take on unnecessary wars of choice is a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite for maintaining US presence and interests in other parts of the globe. The recent crop of fears about American isolationism stems from a dark reading of the Tea Party’s foreign policy intentions and an utter misreading of the objections to US interventions in Libya. This is, as Aaron Ellis put it, “mistaking Libya for the world.“
Yet fretting about isolationism, leadership, and interests in this way all does a very good job of crafting a “narrative,” because of all the things that policymakers thought was missing from Obama’s National Security Strategy, written by a former speech writer, narrative was what they decided needed more representation. To see how this looks in practice, read the lauded “Mr. Y*” document. I’ve read the document and am drafting my thoughts, but read it, if you can get through the mind-boggling bureaucratic euphemisms and next-generation lingo.
*As a fun exercise, read the actual “Long Telegram” and compare it with “Mr. Y’s “National Security Narrative.”