Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Imaginary Isolationism

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 7, 2001 --  

With American power more dominant over the world than ever, the diplomatic community has become increasingly alarmed that a conservative Bush administration is leading the United States down the path of isolationism. At first glance, the evidence appears overwhelming. In his first six months in office, Bush has threatened or announced his intention to withdraw from five international treaties. These covered establishment of an international criminal court, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, limiting small arms sales, enforcing a biological weapons ban, and banning nationwide missile defenses.1

America's Democratic opposition has joined furious European diplomats in denouncing Bush as an isolationist. In addition to the treaties, they are upset about America's moves to reduce troop deployments in Europe, restructure the Armed forces away from fighting multi-theater wars, and America's hands-off approach to peace in the Middle East.

These isolationist claims are sincere, but totally off the mark. The reality is that the United States is more engaged with the world than ever before, and the international community is just too stuck in its old-fashioned ways to be able to see it. Since the end of World War II, an orthodox group of internationalists has formed from the ranks of diplomats, non-governmental organizations and official international agencies. These professionals are amazingly stuck in the mid-20th century world, practically blind to all of the changes that have taken place around them.

After World War II ended, the United States left tens of thousands of troops at bases along the iron curtain in Europe ready to fight the Soviet invasion that never came. It's been ten years since the Soviet Empire fell, but thousands of troops still sit with no enemies in sight. NATO's high-tech U.S.-led forces seem to have little purpose other than policing small-scale ethnic disputes in the Balkans. How possibly can this idiocy be allowed to continue? It is not isolationist to open your eyes to the fact that the world has changed.

On the military front, the United States has hardly been retreating to its borders. The Bush administration has signed on to a massive military aid package to fight drug trafficking in Columbia -- a stupid (but blazingly internationalist) plan that will guarantee massive American involvement for many years to come. Likewise, many missile defense proposals call for expanding America's naval presence near potentially hostile states to shoot down warheads during the early "boost phase" after they are launched.

But to even focus discussion on military matters is to put the debate on the terms of the stodgiest of old-line internationalists. Gunboat diplomacy was a tool widely used over a century ago. Today, it is the power of global markets that truly matter. In this sphere, as others, the United States has never been so active internationally. Imports to the United States have grown an astronomical 17,500 percent in constant dollar terms since 1948.2

It was the creation of huge trade barriers that was the hallmark of the isolationist era in the United States, when the country tried to protect its flagging industry and become self sufficient. Exactly the opposite is true today. Since the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, U.S. imports have actually doubled.3 Thankfully, the Bush administration has proven as enthusiastic as its predecessor about negotiating lower international trade barriers that will lead to greater world integration and prosperity.

American businesses are the engines that drive this movement to global integration. They have been so successful that most international protest is not against U.S. isolation, but against the global reach of U.S. companies that have transformed the world. How possibly can Frenchmen protest McDonald's as a symbol of U.S. cultural imperialism at the same time as their preident accuses the country of Isolationism? It is utterly absurd.

Like trade, the issue of immigration has really shown a marked turn away from America's isolationist past. During the 1930s, the U.S. Government closed the gates to the country by implementing strict quotas for the number of new arrivals from each country. While this quota system still exists, it has been relaxed to create a huge wave of immigration unmatched since the first great migration a century ago. Bush's proposed amnesty for illegal Mexican migrants, as well as his discussion with Mexico's president about seeking an open border represents remarkably fresh thought, and a completely anti-isolationist orientation.

In light of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, charges of American isolationism should be taken for what they are -- partisan posturing by the domestic opposition, and self-righteous indignation by European diplomats who are finding that American interests in the modern world don't often correspond with their own.

Bush certainly deserves criticism for unnecessarily ruffling feathers. He should be criticized for some of his treaty rejections -- especially the one on the international court -- but nothing is served by the misapplication of the I-word.

The reality is that the United States is more engaged on the world stage than at any time in its history, and that is largely a good thing. Until the internationalist community is purged of the dinosaurs that continue to dominate its thinking, expect increasing expressions of outrage from an increasingly marginal internationalist elite.


1. The Economist, August 3, 2001

2. U.S. Merchandise Trade Statistics: 1948-2000, Congressional Research Service, March 2001 [ 1948: $7,123.9; 2000: $1,244,292.3 ]

3. Ibid. [ 1994: $663,255.7 ; 2000: $1,244,292.3 ]