Hasteners against their will
The most frustrating thing about the most bombastic advocates of muscular American exceptionalism, globe policing, and defense defending is that their refusal to acknowledge the limits of American resources and attention is more likely than any pacifist or isolationist turn to bring about the geopolitical catastrophe they envision.
Apocalyptic scenarios about a world without America are rife among these critics of isolationism. If America does not demonstrate its credibility by supporting democracy and its allies in Libya, how can it hope to succeed in the war against extremism it is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan? If America pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan, how can it reassure Taiwan and the nations of the Southeast Asian littoral it will stand up to China? If America does not demonstrate its commitment to Taipei and Seoul, how will it keep Japan from falling into the Chinese orbit, and will not the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the radical Islamists basically have done the free world in at this point?
This argument would be laughable were its logic not so utterly commonplace in the discourse of American foreign policy. Anything to stem the widening and deepening of American foreign policy commitments, especially security commitments, becomes tantamount to isolationism. This is partially a product of the sort of “right side of history” arguments so pervasive in the U.S. foreign policy discourse. For foreign policy advocates of America’s revolutionary and radical role abroad, Howard Zinn’s reductive quip applies: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Either one is for the expansion of America’s role in the world, or its liquidation and return to the dark days of isolationism. We all know what that means: the 1930s all over, with China, Russia, and Islamic radicals standing in for the new Axis powers.
Truly, the isolationist canard is a tired argument, as Patrick Porter points out in his piece at Infinity Journal (free subscription req.). Not only does it barely apply to most modern critics of the American internationalist consensus, whether of its left or right flavoring, our image of its role in the past is grossly inaccurate:
What is isolationism, exactly? Isolationism is at root both a theory of American security, holding that the U.S. should insulate itself from commitments and conflicts to protect itself, and a species of American exceptionalism, born of a dislike of the Old World’s corrupt diplomacy and a desire to remain aloof from it. Actual isolationism as a conscious policy is historically extremely rare. The lockdown of Tokugawa Japan from outside influence is one example among few. Historically, it was never the grand strategy of the U.S. to isolate itself from the world. It was always extensively engaged in international trade and diplomacy. Many of those unfortunate interwar American forbears who became infamous for their isolationism were not the provincial reactionaries that memory credits them for. Even Republicans like Robert Taft did not call for the strict isolation of the United States from world affairs. A broad church, they were more often not isolationists but ‘hemispherists.’ They believed that the U.S. could defend itself amply across a vast domain from far into the Pacific through to the territories of the Monroe Doctrine in South America and off its eastern coast. To believe that the state should content itself with defending a domain from Alaska to Luzon, Canada to Argentina, Greenland to Brazil, (or beyond that if we include the Philippines), is not the equivalent of hiding under the bed.
Moreover, contrary to the dominant myths of U.S. statecraft, the U.S. was not passively isolationist and dormant before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Washington had placed a stranglehold on Imperial Japan in the form of an economic embargo on shipments of raw materials and oil shipments, and an asset freeze, in pursuit of an East Asian ‘open door’ of trading interests, presenting Tokyo with the choice between abdicating its imperial ambitions and challenging American power. Contrary to the myths that hardened among the makers of U.S. statecraft after World War Two, security crises can be created by American presence, not just its absence. This is a persistent blind spot.
American foreign policy in the wake of the Civil War was generally responsible in balancing commitments with resources. That the US could not have acted more muscularly in such a way as to have prevented the catastrophes of World War I should be apparent, even if it is not to some prominent politicians. The example of American foreign policy during WWI and leading up to its more horrific sequel is instructive, however, for policymakers today.
Woodrow Wilson made a fatal error of committing the United States to a foreign policy it had no intention and no capability of sustaining. The expansion of war planning and controls on civil liberties was rightly found noxious to normal American life, and the sort of military commitment necessary for the US to keep the peace in Europe and Asia was out of the question. The knowledge of the actual costs of war and commitment to Eurasian politics chastened American adventurism, and the rapidity, scope, and depth of Wilson’s vision prompted the vicious reaction which ultimately sunk it. One wonders, if it were Theodore Roosevelt rather than Wilson bringing the United States into the fight, if his presumably less messianic vision might have proven a more materially and psychologically feasible commitment to the American public.
In any case, this tradition of internationalists reaching beyond their means would have lamentable consequences. As Porter mentioned, Roosevelt’s inability to frankly assess the strategic realities of what was occurring in East Asia during the 1930s led him to take actions which only made war more likely, without doing anything to actually check the expansion of Imperial Japan. But could America even have prevented World War II? Of all the steps that could have prevented the fighting in Europe, there appear few places where America could have turned the tide. Ultimately only sustained US troop presence and an existential common threat provided for the pacification of Europe, and given the local European political climate, as well as the economic realities of the day, this was simply not an option.
There is a stronger case for an American involvement in Asia, of course, but again, America’s resources were not unlimited during the 1930s. Unless America was somehow willing to accommodate a rising Japan, or else launch into war at a moment’s notice, a more present America would only have made the war easier, not prevented it – and even then, this would have threatened the chance of an American involvement in Europe, since it was by no means necessary that the theaters of WWII would be linked if the US had really begun responding to Japanese aggression at its start in the early 1930s.
The obvious point here should be that the two-front US war in World War II was made sustainable only by a major, credible threat to the forcible imperial unification of Eurasia by two nakedly revisionist powers with thoroughly repugnant reputations which had taken the step of striking America or declaring war on it first. Fighting that world war required a military commitment so large that it could only be sustained for a few years. The Cold War response which followed had to capitalize on new strategies, new arms, and a much larger degree of restraint to be affordable. Fighting it required the liquidation of untenable commitments in Eastern Europe and China so as to ensure the resources to protect Western Europe and Japan indefinitely. One can call Truman’s decisions many things, but isolationist they were not.
Wilson and Roosevelt were hasteners of catastrophe against their will. Wilson’s magnificent vision grievously drained the American interest in acting abroad and turned the debate between one of isolationism and potentially massive costs and commitment. Faced with that binary, Americans chose the path of so-called isolationism. Roosevelt, through half-measures, attempted to make commitments to world security beyond the nation’s means and tolerance and instead aggravated the conflict. One must think that had either President, or some other administration, taken a more sober, power-political analysis of the situation, they might have achieved some degree of influence of preparedness that safeguarded some U.S. interests abroad without accumulating prohibitive risks to blood and treasure.
Today, those most fervently assailing isolationism and promoting the muscular brand of American exceptionalism are also hasteners against their will. Speaking of the consequence of a world without American leadership and the choice to decline, their refusal to accept the realities of geopolitical triage will only worsen the potential for calamity. For all the talk about how the defense budget is stable and sustainable, they show little interest in reassuring Americans it will not grow costlier. There will be resistance to withdrawal in Afghanistan and Iraq and demands for expansion of war in Libya, and at the same time, a more prescient (if often overblown) concern about East Asia. Rather than prioritizing these varied interests and distributing America’s limited resources accordingly, we will instead hear about how walking back from one military commitment anywhere imperils American security everywhere.
For all the new-found concern about China and North Korea, we must remember that America’s wars in the Middle East and Central Asia have drained US forces from the Korean peninsula, driven up the costs of the defense budget, and forced a strategic shift away from maritime power that would be more useful in the major theater of geopolitical concern, East Asia. Yet somehow the argument goes that if America does not compound these errors by refusing to scale down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, by not expanding its commitments in Libya, America will somehow be threatening its interests in East Asia too.
Does anyone truly believe that America’s allies and partners in East Asia really care if the US follows through on its incoherent promises to liberate a minor state of negligible strategic importance? Does the U.S. actually look more credible when it finds itself unwilling or unable to extricate itself from years-long ground wars in the Islamic world while China’s military modernizes its aerial and maritime capabilities? When America’s political system grinds to a halt over its budget and debt, a problem that, as Porter notes, is the CJCS’s primary stated national security concern, do Americans look more credible when they insist out of loyalty to the troops, or fear of being slandered as “anti-dictator,” to pour good money after bad and good men after bad strategy – when they go to the point of insisting a war in Libya is not a war at all to insulate themselves from the budgetary and political realities of their choices?
Correcting mistakes, and redirecting what resources America has to do what it can in regions which matter most is not isolationism, it is a responsible way of thinking about foreign policy. It is cold geopolitical logic. If Americans want to make the case for the higher taxes, cuts to entitlement spending, and investments in a larger military – perhaps one that abolishes the all-volunteer force – that would be necessary to sustain America’s current degree of leadership indefinitely, then they should make that case, rather than falling back on a case against a mostly imaginary and politically minor isolationist streak. America is exceptional in the sense that it has the security to make such a major decision about its grand strategy without any immediate existential threat to fear. It is not immune to the grand strategic imperatives of prioritization and scarcity, and the actual catastrophic consequences of an incoherent and overambitious foreign policy which follow from ignoring them.