Isolationism may be tempting, but it’s utopian – and dangerous
Isolationism is tempting. We can look at the world and see distant wars as local disputes which, however tragic, have no impact on our lives. War in Ukraine? This must be another eruption of ancient tribal hatreds and we must stay away from it. Moreover, we may be tempted to blame conflicts in distant lands on our own actions, our rivals answering only to us and our presence nearby. Therefore, as some suggest, Russia had to invade Ukraine because we were bringing a pro-Russian Kyiv into our camp. Either way, the result is a call for disengagement from the world: let’s go home and lead a quiet life.
These views become more important at election time. They appeal to large sections of the electorate because they promise national welfare at no cost. We can live better by doing less! On the right side of the spectrum, it is a call to rebuild the United States with the money supposedly saved by withdrawing from foreign policy. On the left side, it is a call to amplify national social engineering while letting post-modern international institutions take care of the world. Both advocate isolationism for different purposes and with different logics behind them.
And both are pernicious because they promise something that simply isn’t true: peace and well-being at a lower cost.
The idea that the United States can separate itself from the tribulations of the world stems from the belief that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are the greatest buffers in history. They allow, according to them, the establishment of an autarkic republic, satisfied with its separation from the world disorder and self-sufficient in its material needs.
Not surprisingly, many of the ideal states devised by some of the greatest minds in Western political traditions were islands. At the beginning of the 16th century, Saint Thomas More, for example, drew his “Utopia”, a perfect state, on a peninsula which the first king would then separate from the mainland by digging a wide canal. The island allows for isolation, which in turn should allow for domestic harmony established by well-structured laws and balanced governance.
As attractive as such a vision is, it is nowhere to be found in real life. Thomas More, after all, called it ‘Utopia’, a place that doesn’t exist anywhere. As the patron saint of politicians, he warns us not to build politics that are, literally, not on this earth.
For the United States, the oceans are not moats that can seal us off from the world. On the contrary, they are highways that connect us to the rest of the world (and to Eurasia in particular), allowing us to trade with it but also bringing us distant problems. Modern technology only makes such a distance less protective than a century ago.
The other belief at the base of the isolationist temptation is that our actions and our presence abroad are the first source of problems. It used to be a claim coming mostly from the left side of the political spectrum, blaming America for all the ills in the world. But recently, it has also taken hold of some conservative voices. The argument is that a Promethean ideology of progressivism continues to push imperial frontiers into countries that reject it. The war in Ukraine, for example, is thus seen as being caused by the Western attempt to bring that country back into its sphere. And Vladimir Putin, according to this logic, was forced to react to this progressive imperialism.
In reality, Russia has its own plans and acts accordingly. It is not an empty vessel filled with the resentment of the West and acting only in response to it. He continues to pursue a westward strategy, brutally conquering lands in order to assert his dominance. It grows when and where it can. Likewise, China is an autocratic state, driven by a strong Leninist-nationalist ideology, eager to incorporate countries that are not eager to fall under its sway. In other words, the problem is not that the United States is abroad, but that Russia and China want to extend their empires over the countries that reject them. Our withdrawal will not end Russian and Chinese aggression.
As tempting as it is, isolationism is therefore based on false premises and is dangerous. It’s utopian. Pursuing it will literally get you nowhere.
Jakub Grygiel is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology.