The election could go either way. The senator had a better-than-even shot at winning the presidency, but events on the other side of the globe could could sway votes as much if not more than the domestic issues that the Democratic politician campaigned for. Revolution was brewing in one nation and war was raging in another. In polling, the American public was becoming more and more sympathetic to one side of the far-off war, with stories of mistreatment and atrocities stirring their anger.
But this stirring was not enough to sway voters, or so it seemed. Most American voters wanted to stay out of it, and the senator agreed. His opponents’ criticism and push to get into the war solidified his own anti-war image, and would ultimately lead to his winning the election, albeit by a slim margin.
This was not 2008, and the senator was not Barack Obama. It was 1916, and the candidate was named Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s policy of neutrality and isolationism kept the United States out of war, but not for long. Some believe it was that policy that actually forced us into World War I. So what about now, in 2015? Are we maintaining a quasi-isolationist policy? If not, what would a full or selective isolationist policy look like and what consequences would it hold?
In the early stages of World War I, the average American citizen, while sympathetic to the plight of the Allies in their war against Germany, were not ready for a fight. The United States had just left the era of Theodore Roosevelt and his “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy. Roosevelt believed that the U.S. had lost its status on the world stage, and he wanted to see that change, even sending the white-hulled U.S. Navy fleet around the world as a show of force. Most of Roosevelt’s foreign policy actions were done without the support or consent of Congress, which caused constant tensions.
But that all ended when Wilson came into office, and the shift had palpable consequences. Foremost among them was the weakened state of the military and our position of power in the eyes of would-be aggressors. The Wilson administration relegated the U.S. participation in the early days of the war to loans and weapons shipments, and even when he did commit troops, he did so with the stipulation that they remain independent of the British and French alliance, fighting rather “associate power.”
Other nations have tried and still practice an isolationist policy. North Korea, nicknamed “The Hermit Kingdom,” is the most infamous example of this, and like the United States under Wilson, they have paid a price for their government’s policy of remaining cut off from the rest of the world, in this case economically. They possess a formidable military, but the price for that is the starvation, extensive propaganda, and iron-hand tactics used to keep their citizens in line, as well as the scorn of (most) the rest of the world. To a lesser degree, the old Soviet Union and China both practiced selective isolationism, but this was mostly relegated to their citizens.
Not all experts agree that the U.S. was ever even in isolation. While Brandeis University professor Robert J. Arts believes that the U.S. has had an isolationist history (a category of foreign policies institutionalized by leaders who asserted that their nation’s interests were best served by keeping the affairs of other countries at a distance), others are convinced that the nation has followed a policy of unilateralism (any doctrine or agenda that supports one-sided action) or non-interventionism (abstention by a nation from interference in the affairs of other nations or in those of its own political subdivisions).
Supporters of an isolationist policy might suggest that it would give us the opportunity to put our own house in order, mainly in the areas of the economy and immigration. They might also argue that our military is stretched too thin, and that relegating them to a purely defensive posture would give them a well-deserved breather. Supporters might even agree that selective isolationism in the form of only responding to a direct attack on the homeland; no deployments except in the case of goodwill or training exercises, etc. is the way to go. Obviously, those firmly entrenched in the power-projection camp would disagree.
Some believe that, given the world we live in today, it is impossible to close ourselves off from foreign affairs. By virtue of technology and “connectivity,” many believe that what affects one affects us all globally. Trade, from technology to coffee to oil, links us in such a way that isolationism would throw it all out of balance. From a military standpoint, detractors of an isolationist policy cite that our obligation to our allies makes any change impossible. They would also point out that the U.S. military became a shell of its former self in the years after World War I and World War II due to economic struggles and a desire to avoid another “war to end all wars.” For this reason (among others), Japanese leadership felt that the time (December, 1941) was right to strike and remove us from the chessboard.
Other factors would have to be taken into serious account. Who would take advantage of a United States that has turned inward and left the rest of the world to fend for itself? Non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and ISIS have long stated that their only goal is to get the U.S. out of the Middle East and to establish their own caliphate.
If the U.S. left, would they make good on their word and stop their terrorist march across the region and around the globe? Doubtful. In fact, it might even embolden them to step up efforts to strike us here at home. Nations such as Russia, who have as of late been flexing their foreign-policy muscles, might take full advantage of our absence in the region (even more so than now) and try to regain what they once held. Regimes such as North Korea might make more aggressive moves against their southern neighbors, and China might just decide that those tiny, almost minuscule islands in the Pacific are now worth going to war with Japan over.
In some respects, it seems that the Obama administration has been pushing for an isolationist policy from the outset, even if not as aggressively as the one seen in Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The promise and delivery of the end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are among the most prominent examples. But, like Wilson and his attempt to stay out of World War I, or the way that our state of readiness was perceived as weak by the Japanese in December 1941, we are being forced back down the road to war. As much as it pains many, it seems that “no rest for the weary” is an accurate assessment for the foreseeable future.
(Featured image courtesy of britannica.com)