The return of isolationism

March 29, 2013

Isolationism is back in the news. The big thinkers of the Tea Party, in their pursuit of slashing taxes, lowering public spending, and severely shrinking the size and power of the federal government, have revived an idea that has not been respectable among senior Republicans for more than 70 years. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky believes that, to encourage more young people to vote for the GOP, the party should stop chasing divisive social issues, like incarcerating people for petty drug offenses, and take up civil liberties issues, like protecting American suspected terrorists on American soil from being summarily executed by American drones.

But that is just a start. According to a recent speech in Cincinnati, Paul thinks that, for the GOP to win younger voters, “even bigger to me than the social issues is the idea of war.” “If we didn’t have to be everywhere all the time, if maybe we tried to reserve it for when our national interests were impacted or a vital interest of ours was . . . [he left the thought unfinished] — and if Republicans didn’t seem so eager to go to war — I think we’d attract more young people.” He would prefer it “if we had a less bellicose approach, if we were for a strong defense but a little bit less aggressive defense around the world.” Paul is not suggesting pacifism. What he means by “a less aggressive foreign policy” is that he wishes America would stop taking its international responsibilities so seriously because it costs taxpayers a lot of money.

This is an extraordinary about-face for a leader of a party that in the post-war world has always proudly defended America’s right to intervene with force when and wherever it wishes. The GOP has always been the natural home for isolationists. The “Irreconcilables” that kept America out of the League of Nations were overwhelmingly Republican and it was largely Republican isolationists who advocated the neutrality laws in the Twenties and Thirties. Robert Taft nudged the party towards isolationism in his many failed bids to become the Republican presidential candidate through the Forties and Fifties. And rogue isolationist Patrick Buchanan gave the GOP establishment a scare when in both 1992 and 1996 he prospered in early primaries.

But internationalism and support for the military has been the GOP’s backbone since Abraham Lincoln. Despite Dwight Eisenhower’s belated warnings about the “military-industrial complex,” he was the most accomplished military figure to occupy the White House since Ulysses S. Grant. Richard Nixon had no compunction about secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos in an attempt to bring the Vietnam War to a close. Ronald Reagan may have wanted to trade away our nuclear weapons, and his finest hour as commander-in-chief may only have been the invasion of Grenada, but no one doubted his resolve to counter the Soviet threat by military means if necessary.

After a wobble, George H. W. Bush successfully prosecuted the Gulf War with admirable restraint. And his son, in thrall to neo-conservative hawks, waged war simultaneously in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the casus belli of the Iraq War proved to be a  tragic red herring, expensive in monetary  and military and civilian losses. Navy fighter pilot John McCain, taken prisoner and tortured by the Vietnamese, was likely only half joking when he urged, “Bomb, bomb, bomb/ Bomb, bomb Iran”  to the tune of “Barbara Ann.”  Romney, who dodged the draft by trying to convert France’s Catholics to Mormonism, was the beginning of the end of the fighting tradition. Now, merely to attract fickle younger voters, decades of the GOP’s warrior tradition is to be jettisoned.

Until this Congress, Paul, Senator for Kentucky, was a way outsider, the son and ideological heir of the former failed Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ron Paul, who ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party candidate. Rand Paul, having recently drawn attention to himself by mounting a filibuster over whether the CIA could use drones to kill domestic suspected terrorists, has become a darling of the GOP’s libertarians and a frontrunner to become the 2016 presidential candidate. A straw poll for presidential nominee at the recent CPAC powwow put him neck and neck with another Tea Party favorite, Florida senator Marco Rubio.

It is a mark of how quickly the once staid and stolid Republicans have been over-run by revolutionary Tea Party types that Paul can instantly gain such wide backing. Only last year, his father, who holds near-identical views, could at best muster only about 10 per cent support in the presidential primaries. Rand Paul is more ambitious than his father inasmuch as he is wary of being thought of as too extreme and is cagey  about how he presents his libertarian views. Interviewed at length on Fox (strangely there was not a single question about defense), he looked anxious ‘lest he let slip something that would upset mainstream Republicans. Still he is bold enough to advocate the GOP in 2016 offering “something maybe a little different than the cookie-cutter Conservatives that we’ve put out in the past.” He means, of course, they should choose him.

It was the moderate “cookie-cutter Conservative” leadership that agreed with the President to impose the sequester — automatic profound cuts to public spending, including half of them coming from the Republican holy cow, defense – if a deficit reduction package could not be agreed by Congress. By steaming through the sequester deadline and allowing the savage, often arbitrary cuts to start, Paul’s Tea Party supporters in Congress tacitly agreed an immediate sharp reduction in the defense budget. Paul’s remarks about the need for America to draw in its horns, cut foreign aid, start shutting military bases and bring troops home unless “our national interests were impacted” explains why Republicans, traditionally the party of a strong defense and a large military, are now leading the charge to shrink the defense budget fast.

Paul’s arch-rival Rubio takes issue with Paul over defense and American involvement in the world, thereby establishing an important point of difference in determining the direction of the post-Romney GOP. Conceding that “we can’t solve every humanitarian crisis on the planet, we can’t be involved in every dispute, every civil war and every conflict,” Rubio insists that “we also cannot retreat from the world. It’s not that America will continue to function as the world’s police officer. The problem is that like anything in the world, if you pull back from it, a vacuum will be created. … The alternative to U.S. [engagement] on the global stage is chaos.” Isolationism is simply not an option, he argues. Like saving money on maintenance, withdrawing from our global responsibilities is short-sighted. “Every single time that nations have retreated from the world, every single time this nation has retreated from the world, we have paid for it in the long run,” Rubio said. “We have paid for it dearly.”

Rubio is right. The failure of America to follow Woodrow Wilson’s lead in joining the League of Nations after World War One indicated to the dictators Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo they would not be challenged if they embarked on the territorial conquests that eventually dragged the democracies into World War Two. And the strength of the isolationists in America through the Thirties, and the succession of neutrality laws that insisted we remain aloof from foreign entanglements, delayed the day of reckoning, allowing the dictators a head start, and did nothing to prevent our inevitable entry into World War Two.

While Rand Paul is proposing isolationism as a means of achieving his real libertarian aim, a shrunken, weakened federal government, he has yet to make the geo-political case for an American withdrawal from the role it inherited from the bankrupt and defeated British in 1945. Nor has he explained that if we shrink our military we will not bring the troops home to serve at home but to fire them to save money. For every young voter tempted by Paul’s apparent radicalism and his softness on drugs there will be a military family  who will no longer vote Republican. All credit to Paul, though, for daring to think the unthinkable and for shifting his party away from the stale sectarianism that currently makes it unelectable. However, giving the dangerous nations of the world a free hand to bully and plunder as they wish merely to save a few dollars in the short term is plain crazy.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky gestures at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Mr. Wapshott, let me introduce you to two different words in the English language – interventionism and isolationism. Interventionism – the willingness to militarily intervene in the affairs of other sovereign nations, a behavior that has characterized American behavior for quite some time now (pre WWII we tended to keep our intervening to Central and South America), is NOT the opposite of isolationism. Isolationism is an unwillingness to engage with the rest of the world. Refusing to join the league of nations was a case of isolationism. Declining to attack another nation who has not attacked us is a case of non-interventionism, not a case of isolationism.

Suggesting that the US is isolationist is laughable. Our engagement in the IMF, World Bank, UN, etc etc etc gives us real non-isolationist cred. Furthermore, being a non-isolationist doesn’t mean that you have to go along with every cockamamie idea that some former colonial power comes up with, either. I don’t want my country to be isolationist. I also don’t want it to be interventionist, either.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

Isolationism is not back. Just the usual tea-party-cries-about-Obama tantrum. No serious republican, after Iraq, Afghanistan, Gulf 1, Reagan’s invasion of Libya, Grenada, Panama, arming of mujaheddin rebels….. could claim to be isolationist. Ever again. They are the most interventionist bunch of war-scrounging, contract-seekers on the face of the planet. These are people who thought it would be smart to put Osama Bin Laden on the CIA payroll and send him weapons. Not bright.

The GOP is simply a party of sore losers. We’re supposed to believe they have found religion on foreign intervention?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

American internationalism was born of pragmatism. A national of practical merchants discovered that international disputes had a way of finding us (in the form of wars) and that, as a result, it was cost-effective to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with the rest of the world.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

The opposite of “isolationism” is “Imperialism”.

American Imperial militarism is unique in the history of the western world in that it is practiced as charitable enterprise oriented toward exporting wealth and lives for the benefit of non-Americans. Every other Imperialism has been focused on profit. The American variety, as promoted by both the Republican and Democratic parties, is an outward bound wealth transfer at the expense of the American people as a whole and for the “glory” of the New York centered, self-styled “ruling class” of self-identified “intellectuals”. It is the product of a non-free political system.

It is high time that it stop.

If the author and others see such virtue in starting a huge series of unprofitable minor wars fought at enormous expense that this policy should continue, let them find some other country to bathe in such “glory”. Good luck in finding one of the old Euro-Empire countries to take up the burden. When the profit stopped coming in, the Empires were disbanded. Based on the Marshall Plan model, American Imperialism has always been a money losing charity, but with the bulk of the cost passed to future generations while the perpetrators anoit themselves the “Greatest”.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

@ usagadfly: an interesting premise but not, I think, quite correct. I would say that the US engages in internationalism to help create new and expanding markets around the world. American business, given our rather mature markets domestically, will benefit by efforts to expand democracy and bring peace throughout the world because those areas become commercial markets. If they are not democratic and not peaceful then they are very unlikely to become markets. American business needs governmental internationalism – – desperately.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

Yes, business in general wants US militarism to continue. Now whether those businesses are “American” or not is an important question.

The American people, flesh and blood, make up America. Not businesses. Business could care less what happens or has happened to the American people. Working for one makes that quite, quite clear. They have mailing addresses in this country, but are intentionally not American other than to collect benefits and to influence policy. It is of little import to the People whether those organizations are headed by an “American” or a Russian or a Chinese. Businesses are as they do, and “American” business has been a very scant friend to the American people.

The business of America is its people, not its businesses. Let those businesses raise and bankroll their own armies. They will not. And if they do, they will not be permitted to operate in the USA or any of its dependencies.

We have been far too easy, as a country, on businesses that act in ways harmful to American human beings. Human beings have a pulse, by the way, no matter what some oligarch has to say.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

I do not agree with Nicholas’s article. He seems to think isolationism is profane. Therefore, if he can label Rand as an isolationist, he can discredit sensible ideas such as closing foreign bases and bringing military members home. He goes on to attack Rand for being cagey by trying to talk about libertarian ideas that would most resonate with watchers of Fox news and avoid talking about the ideas that would be more popular with young voters who are probably not watchers of Fox news. Ending militarism for the benefit of elites and multinationals does not make you an isolationist.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

Nicholas Wapshott is still buying the idea that the USA keeps the world from what; war, poverty, abuse of humanity by corporations and military might, pollution, and the excesses of consumption? Huh?
In exactly what way has the USA contributed to the progress of humanity other than in areas that will enhance the consumptive patterns of Western, northern hemispheric countries?
The age of cheap oil is ending in the coming 2-3 decades. It has already begun. China and India will both find out that 1st world lifestyles won’t be possible for them, no matter how much effort they invest in the dream. We in the West and Europe have squandered the bulk of cheaply attainable carbon wealth and if all of us do not begin to conserve what is left of these resources, it won’t make a tinker’s damn who the “world’s policeman” is, or who thinks they have achieved that, so glorious status.
The worldwide corporate structures will fade as will all of our efforts at the practice of hubris.
My, but that was long winded! :-) :-)

Posted by hapibeli | Report as abusive

@usgadfly wrote:

“The American people, flesh and blood, make up America. Not businesses. Business could care less what happens or has happened to the American people. Working for one makes that quite, quite clear. ”

I couldn’t agree more with that statement. I’d like to add that it seems every ideal or decision we have in this country at its beginning and end focus on “how it effects American business.” Frankly, I get really tired of that.

We spread capitalism for profit and call it Democracy. BS.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

this country is far from being isolationist. exporting war
to showcase weapons systems to others is big business…and the complex that builds those weapons would not want to be isolated! I’m sure that the complex knows all these “tea politicians” have a number.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

How does reducing number of bases overseas eqate to isolationism? It’s hard to know whether or not to respond to biased article like this.

Posted by oaebcr | Report as abusive

@usagadfly: You said: “The business of America is its people, not its businesses.”

That is a marvelous statement and I wish I could agree with it. But, the reality is that “The business of America is business.” – – Calvin Coolidge. Our founding fathers were all business people, many the equivalent of CEOs in their time. They created a governmental construct that would be conducive and friendly to business, not people. I sincerely wish you were correct but you are not. It’s a pity but it’s the truth.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

You’re using ‘business people’ broadly to define the founders. They were business people in the sense of owning plantations or for some in the north owing business enterpises or being artisans selling their handiwork. The “planter class” are instructive to look back at today – many were plagued by debt due to an appetite for foreign goods from somewhat corrupt middlemen importers. Jefferson always kept a foot in this camp.

Others were the originators of “Buy American” and gave first priority to self-sufficiency within their holdings and building up infrastructure for domestic trade, canals, harbors and wagon roads in that day; Washington was the foremost in this camp.

We can still find a middle ground, with a new generation hopefully learning from the huge and ongoing cost of Iraq interventionism. Engagement by many means, to keep a global framework of law, is neither interventionism nor isolationism.

The Spanish-American War and the first World War led to understanding that we were reluctant imperialists by the first half of the 20th century, shortly before Eisenhower also rightly said that we were the only world power that had an anti-imperialist or anti-colonialist heritage.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive

[…] Beyond those who are using the current turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Ukraine for domestic political purposes, there is a general feeling among Americans that, having fought two wars for 10 years, it is time for the U.S. to pull back from the world. Neo-isolationism – the modern iteration of the popular movement that kept America out of World War Two for three years – is on the rise and leaders on both right and left are happy to ride the wave. […]

Posted by Democracy is on the ropes. So what are we going to do about it? | Nicholas Wapshott | Report as abusive