Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The isolationists’ dilemma

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 5, 2013 15:33 UTC

There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn’t been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.

The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries’ affairs in Washington and Jefferson’s warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler’s war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.

Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.

Lindbergh’s father, a Republican House member from Minnesota who inspired his more famous aviator son’s isolationism, wrote two tracts that still find a ready audience, Banking and Currency and the Money Trust, an assault on usurers in the banks and the dirty tricks of big businessmen, and, when General Pershing’s expeditionary force set off to break the deadlock in World War One, Why is Your Country at War?. Many of the same ideas can be heard in the mouths of libertarians and Tea Party supporters today.

Here is Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate who became a Republican House member for Texas: “What was the advice of the founders? They said, stay out of the entangling alliances of all nations.” “Our foreign policy is destined to keep us involved in many wars that we have no business being in. National bankruptcy and a greater threat to our national security will result.” “There’s nobody in this world that could possibly attack us today. We could defend this country with a few good submarines.” “The neoconservative belief that we have a moral obligation to spread American values worldwide through force justifies the conditions of war in order to rally support at home for the heavy hand of government.” By any definition, Ron Paul is an isolationist.

The return of isolationism

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 29, 2013 13:07 UTC

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.

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