Isolationist vs. Interventionist: The American Predicament

Historically, the United States has been both an isolationist and an interventionist state. When the United States formed on July 4, 1776, it began its history as an isolationist state. It wanted nothing to do with Europe; in fact, it saw European politics as corrupt and imperialist. George Washington once stated: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have as little political connection as possible… Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rival ships, interest, humor, or caprice?… It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” What he was advocating for was a free and prosperous United States that was not reliant on formal agreements that could bind it to any specific policy internationally. He wanted the United States to be able to make its own choices. The founding fathers wanted to focus on the creation of a greater United States, one that would expand the country from coast to coast. This idea would resurface later under the idea of manifest destiny. Yet, the United States of today is far from an isolationist state.

Modern day America finds itself as the apex of the world, something that it is often criticized for. They are expected to provide aid in the wake of disaster, they are expected to lead by example for the western world, to defend the free world in wars of aggression, and they are expected to provide protection from tyranny. Does this actually exist? Is the United States the shining example which the world should look upon? There is no country that finds itself in such a paradox as the United States. If they refuse to help a country, they are chastised internationally and accused of laziness. However, if they do intervene for good or bad, they are unwelcomed and treated as imperialists who are pushing forward American interests. It is a troubling predicament that the United States has found themselves in as a result of their foreign policy over the last sixty years.

Through the Cold War, the Americans used ideology as their justification for aid. Harry S. Truman came to the assistance of Europe and South Korea because he saw the necessity of resisting communism in both regions. Former liberal president John F. Kennedy, stated in his inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” This became the message of the United States and it still exists to this day in their foreign policy. They will assist the free world in any way possible. It may not always be in a favorable way, but they will come to the assistance of a country in need, either by financial investment, the military, or through social assistance. They fought in South Vietnam to try and stop a communist invasion, they fought the Gulf War to stop the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, they defended their own freedom through the Afghanistan war, and they engaged in a less justified Iraq in the name of ‘liberty’ and supposed chemical weapons. Is the notion of liberty a sound justification on its own? Not always. Does the United States have other motives besides liberty when it intervenes in international affairs? Yes. Anyone who thinks otherwise would be naïve. The current issue is over Iran and the nuclear sanctions in place.  Does the United States care about the liberty and freedom of the Iranian people? No, but they care about the security of the region and of their allies.

President Barack Obama recently spoke about the issue in a news conference on November 14, 2013. On the issue of Iran, he said: “But … what I’ve said to members of Congress is that if in fact we’re serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically, because no matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, are always difficult, always have unintended consequences, and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they don’t then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future. If we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there is no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them in table in the first place. Now, if it turns out they can’t deliver, they can’t come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up.”

Is the United States beginning a slight retreat from letting foreign policy dictate the will of the nation? For much of the Cold War, the United States was governed by its foreign policy and the results were mixed. It provided them with a strong international presence, and saw their military drastically expanded, but they suffered domestically. In recent years the same problem has occurred. Foreign policy became too important and the domestic situation of the country deteriorated. Thus, Obama may be putting a stronger focus on diplomacy because he realizes that he must focus on the internal. He must fix Obamacare, the government structure, and he must try to appease the large rift that exists within the current government. While the United States is still active internationally, perhaps they are favoring a more relaxed approach towards intervention. They are a sick country who needs to tend to their own citizens. Obama would rather work things out in a more peaceful manner so that he can divert the necessary attention inward. Is this a resurgence of American isolationism? Not in the traditional sense. However, it does demonstrate a slight retreat by the United States in how they view the international sphere of influence. Perhaps, they have realized that a country can only focus on the wellbeing of foreign countries for so long, if the people of your own country are suffering. The United States is making a tactical retreat and it will try to use diplomacy rather than force to solve its problems. The major question to be asked is whether or not this is a temporary or permanent solution to how the United States conducts its foreign policy. Will we see a dramatic shift? Not immediately, but as China continues to grow and the United States continues to decline, there may be a subtle transition in how much sway they have in international politics. This does not suggest that they will drop off the face of the world. Rather, it suggests that the United States will need to rely on allied support in order to push their policies. They will not be able to dictate international politics on their own and this will be a strange learning experience for the champions of liberty.