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Kupchan’s ‘Isolationism’ revives myth, sets up restraint as maybe going too far

In his attempt to chart the pejorative use of the word, the author seems to be warning against too much disentanglement as well.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Charles Kupchan’s “Isolationism” tells a familiar story, but it is one whose central assumption is itself a myth that distorts the history that it recounts. 

Kupchan has written a history of isolationism, by which he means U.S. foreign policy from George Washington to America’s entry into WWII. In Kupchan’s telling, isolationism allowed the United States to emerge as a major world power, but then it supposedly failed to take up its global responsibilities and “retreated” into isolationism after the First World War. He does not come to praise isolationism, but to bury it (again).

The difficulty with this thesis is that America has never been isolationist. A country that engages extensively in trade and diplomacy, as America always has, can’t be isolationist. The people who have been retroactively labeled isolationist never subscribed to a doctrine of cutting the United States off from the rest of the world. Kupchan’s book serves to reinforce a myth that has been revived and deployed many times to silence critics of an ambitious U.S. global strategy. It is regrettable that the perpetuation of this myth seriously mars what could have otherwise been an interesting study of the history of U.S. foreign policy.

The familiar story is wrong in important ways. America during the 1920s and 1930s was arguably more internationalist and engaged with the world than ever before, so the idea that this was a period of “delusionary isolationism,” as Kupchan described it, is contradicted by the evidence. Practically everyone engaged in the fight over the League of Nations was an internationalist of one kind or another, and the interwar period was marked by a flurry of diplomatic initiatives and commercial activities. Calling this “isolationist internationalism” only highlights the absurdity of the isolationist label. 

As always, the argument was not whether America should engage with the world, but on what terms. Bear Braumoeller summed it up very well in an article several years ago: “the characterization of America as isolationist in the interwar period is simply wrong.” The frustrating thing with the book is that Kupchan is familiar with this scholarship, but dismisses its conclusions as “off the mark,” offering no additional evidence to support the assertion.

According to Kupchan, the United States was isolationist because it did not “take on enduring strategic commitments beyond its immediate neighborhood.” But choosing not to take on such commitments does not make a country isolationist. It makes it normal. 

By comparing America to colonial European powers, Kupchan rigs the test so that America must be considered isolationist unless it engages in the same ambitious policies as the empires of that time. If the options are empire or isolationism, however, most states will qualify as isolationist, which just underscores how inaccurate and misleading the label is. For Kupchan, even our early wars of expansion are considered proof of U.S. isolationism. He also claims, “the embrace of foreign ambition exhibited in 1898 would prove to be only fleeting,” but, as Kupchan well knows, Washington annexed the Philippines and fought ugly wars to keep them as a colony until 1946.

But this is not just a quarrel over labels. It goes to the heart of how U.S. foreign policy debate has been defined and restricted for the last eighty years. Most pre-World War II Americans were committed internationalists, but they were internationalists of a different kind from those who set out to take sole possession of that name. Stephen Wertheim details how this was done very well in his book, “Tomorrow, the World,” where he explains how the myth of isolationism was first crafted to cast out all those internationalists who didn’t agree with a policy of U.S. armed dominance.

Those who created the myth of isolationism did this so that they could claim the mantle of internationalism exclusively for themselves. Kupchan allows that there is something that can be learned from the “isolationists,” but he keeps using the misleading label throughout the book. While he says that he seeks to “refurbish isolationism and rehabilitate its reputation,” this isn’t possible when he uses the pejorative term and bemoans “isolationist comebacks” throughout.

It is as if someone sought to write a sympathetic account of a religious sect, but insisted on using the pejorative labels that were hurled against them by the heresiologists. Indeed, he makes the heretic comparison himself: “Today, to call someone an isolationist is to tar them as a heretic.” Strangely, Kupchan reserves his greatest condemnations of isolationism for the period when the U.S. was more involved in the world than it had ever been until then, and he wants us to accept that the usual “opprobrium” reserved for America’s interwar strategy is appropriate. This is a curious way to “rehabilitate” something.

Kupchan favors what he terms “selective engagement,” and calls for a “major strategic retrenchment,” but objects to appeals by restrainers and others to make much larger reductions in Washington’s global commitments. “Isolationism” is intended as a cautionary tale of why too much disentanglement is supposedly a dangerous idea, and so it is as much about where he doesn’t want America to go in the future as it is a meditation on where it has been.

In case there was any doubt, he tells us explicitly: “America’s isolationist past should not be its future.” He also asserts, “isolationism deservedly became a political pejorative following America’s strategic abdication during the interwar era.” The key problem with this statement is that America did not engage in “strategic abdication” during this period, but was quite actively involved in the affairs of Europe and Asia. Abdication implies that there was a proper role that the U.S. should have played that it regrettably abandoned. But this simply wasn’t true in 1919 or at any point thereafter.

The pejorative label was created to attack one kind of internationalism in order to promote another. From the very start, the isolationist label was a lie. Kupchan says that the “dark history” of the interwar years shouldn’t tarnish strategic restraint, but it is his insistence on casting this period as “dark” and “dangerous” that does just that. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the United States could and should have pursued a very different strategy after WWI, but it is hard to see what that would have been and what difference it would have made.

A foreign policy of neutrality, non-entanglement, and non-interference does not imply isolation from the world, and a lack of strategic commitments in distant parts of the world is the norm for other countries. It is its own kind of “selective engagement.” Just as America chose a foreign policy of militarized dominance in the 1940s, it can choose a much less militarized foreign policy of restraint now. We don’t need the ritual denunciations of American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s to make restraint seem credible, and by repeating those denunciations Kupchan keeps alive a myth that badly distorts our history. While Kupchan’s appeal for a “middle ground” between extremes of overreach and isolation is interesting and worth exploring, his larger argument relies on a misreading of history.

Female delegates to the 1915 Women's Peace Conference in The Hague, aboard the ''MS Noordam.' (Library of Congress/public domain)
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