The Specter of Isolationism
by Andrew Bacevich
The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump’s haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.
Remember when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It’s now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey’s Higher Loyalty also sells for a penny less than a buck.
An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “insider’s account” of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer’s memoir as Trump’s press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci’s rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski’s “inside story” of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amaneusis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.
All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It’s called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy and if you’ll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.
Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait — its very essence — “would insensibly change from liberty to force.” By resorting to force, America “might become the dictatress of the world,” he wrote, but “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.
A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn’t this country’s purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history’s future course.
Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet — at which point Europeans spoiled the party.
The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable — so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army’s lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating — and promoting — an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing “dominance in the name of internationalism,” with U.S. military supremacy deemed “the prerequisite of a decent world.”
The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce’s Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.
While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book — fewer than 200 pages of text — it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France. He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as “isolationists,” a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became “internationalists,” a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of “isolationism” that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising “global leadership.”
Wertheim persuasively describes the “turn” toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications — permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry — would only become apparent in the years ahead.
While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that “so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted.”
Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim’s book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.
At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power — did someone say “the rise of China”? — are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment’s response is simply to double down.
So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.
The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successful policy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?
To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army’s sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht’s assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.
Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.
The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country’s soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of “endless wars” that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.
Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the “turn” that Wertheim describes has occurred. An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump’s promise to put “America First” might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of “fire and fury” alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators (“we fell in love”). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with “the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.” Little of this was to be taken seriously.
Trump’s legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you’ll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.
On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump’s departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.
To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.
As Peter Beinart puts it, “When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that’s going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers.” Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world’s number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the “inside.”
Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. “The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.
So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.
The Voices That Count
What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it’s not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler’s assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?
I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.
Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex — the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new “threats” — one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.
As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.
After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.
My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it’s difficult to imagine what worse could have been.
Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.
This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.
Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The World came from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation’s role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.
The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.