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The isolationism specter is such a canard

Paul Poast is wrong when he says US foreign policy has always 'hinged on the debate between engaging or not engaging with the world'

Analysis | North America

Americans are in the midst of the most meaningful debate over their place in the world, fueled by ongoing conflagrations in Europe and the Middle East, in years.

University of Chicago Political Science Professor Paul Poast waded into this debate in a recent column for World Politics Review, sketching out the reasons for continued U.S. global engagement. “Fundamentally, U.S. foreign policy, particularly starting in the 20th century, has always hinged on the debate between engaging or not engaging with the world. Due to an accident of geography, the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that can have such a debate,” Poast wrote. This framing, though tempting in its linearity, distorts the issues at stake.

The choice confronting Washington, as properly understood, was never between engagement and non-engagement. If the pro-engagement position is simply that the U.S. is a global actor that should vigorously participate in international politics, then there is no one on the other side of that argument. There is not one prominent thinker in the contemporary realism and restraint coalition who believes it is possible, let alone desirable, for the U.S. to exist as a wholly insular state.

It is plain to everyone on both sides of this debate that America is a great power with interests across the world and that it should continue to pursue a wide range of diplomatic, economic, and defense policies in alignment with those interests. The underlying issue, stemming back to the Republic’s founding and early years, has always been how U.S. interests should be defined, thus setting the tone for how, as opposed to whether or not, to engage with the world.

Those on the restraint side of the argument see a fundamental and growing mismatch between U.S. means and ends that, if left unaddressed, will further erode American global standing in the years to come. They have argued that the “rules-based international order (RBIO),” a quasi-international system that emerged during what Charles Krauthammer described in 1990 as America’s “unipolar moment,” is not only unsustainable in its present form but increasingly does not reflect contemporary U.S. interests. They call not for blanket disengagement but for retrenchment, prioritization, and consolidation.

The nub of the dispute is not over global engagement as such, but, as Poast himself suggests, over the necessity of global engagement in the name of preserving the RBIO. The reasons he lists are less than convincing.

It is manifestly true, as Poast outlines, that the health of the U.S. economy is inseparably linked with the global economy, but it does not necessarily follow that U.S. economic health is best ensured by Washington’s increasingly costly and heavy-handed attempts to preserve the RBIO. Consider as just one illustration that U.S. society derives concrete benefits from the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, yet Washington’s relentless attempts to weaponize the dollar via sanctions have spurred de-dollarization efforts with harmful long-term implications for U.S. wealth.

Finally, Poast argues that the U.S. should engage with the world because it can: “The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world—really in the history of the world—with the power and resources to largely shape world politics in a manner that serves its interests, even to the point of being a bit of a bully. While the U.S. doesn’t have to do so, it would seem to be a wasted opportunity not to.”

There is little question that the U.S. retains vast resources and capabilities, but, as events in Gaza and Ukraine have shown, it can no longer dictate outcomes in the way that proponents of the RBIO suggest. Washington can embroil itself in global issues at little cost because, as Poast notes, it has “the resources to afford making mistakes,” but this is precisely the kind of cavalier thinking that precipitated the decline of the RBIO into the 2010’s and helped to usher in a multipolar world in the first place.

There is only so much that a state, even one as powerful as America, can run up the geopolitical tab with injudicious behavior before the bill comes due. The U.S. will have to adjust to a post-RBIO reality in the coming decades — a key part of that transition will be to find a more focused, even if less hubristic framework for global engagement.

"His 128th Birthday" cover of Puck magazine, 1904. (public domain)
"His 128th Birthday" cover of Puck magazine, 1904. (public domain)
Analysis | North America
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