Sunday, December 16, 2012

Call Me Isolationist

For as long as I've studied history the term "isolationist" has been more of an epithet than any representative of any kind of systemic thought.  It conjured up images of Americans naively believing their nation had no interests or responsibility in the larger world, foolishly attempting to ignore the rest of the world.  The proof of Isolationist folly was fascism and World War II.  The Cold War only made Isolationists even more irrelevant, we were told. 

I came across a book review and a follow-up letter (actually the other way around) in The Nation that gave me an entirely different understanding of the opponents of American international engagement in the first half of the 20th century, the many who were derided for their views.  Promise and Peril:  America at the Dawn of the Global Age by Christopher Nichols offers a far more nuanced view of the Isolationists than is acknowledged by the conventional wisdom.  The money quote:
Isolationism, as Nichols insists, “did not entail cultural, economic, or complete political separation from the rest of the world.” On the contrary, “the inner logic of isolationist arguments turned on the inner life of the nation and on visions of national self-definition, serving to reinforce many, albeit limited, forms of international engagement.” Isolationists were not provincial bumpkins; they were cultural cosmopolitans who distrusted the impact of empire—not only on “native” populations abroad but on US society and character at home.
 What became known as isolationism was by no means an effort to wall off the United States from the rest of the world; it was the basis for a foreign policy strategy that encouraged cultural and economic involvement with other nations while discouraging political and military intervention—even as it recognized that such interventions might occasionally be necessary. This was hardly the ostrich-like caricature created by its critics.
That last paragraph sums up my world view.  If that be Isolationism, then I am an Isolationist and will proudly join the company of Thomas Jefferson, William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs and Jane Addams, all of whom understood the value of engaging with other nations but questioned military engagement. They had a different view of America in the world.

Many opponents of foreign military engagement recognized the inherent danger of a militarized society, which is the reality of America in the 21st century.  They feared the corrosive effects of a standing army. So did the the men who wrote the Constitution.   Article I, Section 8 requires Congress to "provide and maintain a Navy" while only authorizing Congress to "raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation for that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years."

The Framers were men who understood the dangers of standing armies and powerful executives.  So too, did many Americans--the Isolationists--in the early years of the last century.

Twenty-first century America would do well to remember.


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