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I'm an Isolationist?

Here’s a rough outline of my foreign policy beliefs:

- The U.S. spends too much on defense. (I’d link to an On V post, but I couldn’t choose just one; we’ve written dozens on this topic.)

- Conversely, it spends way too little on diplomacy. The U.S. should increase the number of diplomats--and their overall quality--around the globe, focusing on better language skills.

- The U.S. government should also sign on to a host of international treaties to date it has not yet agreed to, including the International Criminal Court, the ban on cluster munitions, and the ban on land-mines (and support the efforts to classify white phosphorous as a chemical munition), along with too many environmental treaties to name.

That’s just for starters and it’s an incredible expansion of the U.S. position globally. I will take this internationalism even further:

- I believe the U.S. should begin donating (for free) U.S. troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations. That’s right. Take the current missions staffed by Brazil, Pakistan and other countries, and bolster them with U.S. brigades on two year deployments. The U.S. military would get peacekeeping training; the U.N. missions would get increased visibility, technology and support.

- I believe America--as soon as we emerge from the current financial crisis--should spearhead an effort for a “Global Marshall Plan” to support the U.N. Millenium Development goals to eradicate global poverty. This would significantly increase U.S. spending on foreign aid by tens of billions.

- I also think the U.S. government should encourage private individuals to donate even more of their wealth to charities working outside our borders.

To cap off these extraordinarily international and involved efforts:

- I believe the U.S. government should try to renew diplomatic relationships with Iran to decrease the likelihood of war. At the same time, the U.S. should signal to the world that it will slowly stop supporting vicious dictatorships, including American allies like Saudi Arabia and the rest of the gulf states.

Despite believing all of these things, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and Sebastian Junger, I’m an isolationist...because I didn’t want the U.S. to start a war with Syria.   

As you probably read last year, I opposed U.S. missile strikes in Syria. I opposed them because I didn’t think they were about the use of chemical weapons, but instead about the ongoing civil war in Syria. This, according to Sebastian Junger in his op-ed, “When the Best Chance for Peace means War” in The Washington Post, makes me an “isolationist” (emphasis mine):

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

I understand Sebastian Junger’s larger point, but, like most fruitless debates, each side on the Syria issue talked past each other. I didn’t and don’t deny the slaughter of innocents in Syria. Then, as now, though, I don’t want the U.S. embroiled in a civil war when I simply don’t trust our military to actually slow or ebb the bloodshed. I also want to know why this civil war--as opposed to the one in Sri Lanka that went through 2008, the ongoing violence in and around the Central African Republic, or the burgeoning conflict in South Sudan--requires our intervention, and most importantly moral outrage, when those did not. (And I could have listed a dozen or more additional conflicts for which Sebastian Junger lacks similar moral indignation.)

But what outraged me most was both John Kerry and Sebastian Junger’s casual use of “isolationism” during the attempted run up to war in Syria. They weren’t alone. Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post used the label. So did Bill Keller in the New York Times. So did countless others.     

Isolationism is a real term. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a genuine political movement supported by Republican politicians. Now it has been bastardized to label anyone who doesn’t want to start another war in the Middle East. Like myself.

Most learned people on foreign policy hold complicated views and simple reductionism don’t do them any justice. For example, I don’t want a militarily-interventionist foreign policy, but I do want a robustly democracy-promoting, free-trade-encouraging, internationally-focused interventionist foreign policy. The difference is I want to intervene before conflicts erupt, not after.

When pro-Syrian interventionists like Junger, Rubin and others label Americans who oppose the strikes in Syria as abject isolationists or naive pacifists, they are abusing those terms and smearing their opponents. If the anti-isolationists really want more peace in the world, they should find the policies that encourage peace in the long run. Unfortunately, military power doesn’t create peace; economic growth, international institutions, international laws, international norms, the spread of democracy, the spread of trade and other parts of foreign policy liberalism create peace.

And to support those policies requires more involvement in the world, not less. Which is why I’m not an isolationist; just someone who rejects unnecessary wars.

six comments

The US’s refusal to sign on to international treaties is the most frustrating example of American foreign policy not working, in my opinion. Sigh. I’m going to have to go write up that post.


Eric and Michael, I agree with most of this post’s arguments in general because the United States of America, claiming to be a pro-democracy superpower, should act like one, but I disagree with your argument about the Syrian Civil War because the Syrian government sponsors anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism (Shia and Sunni), because the Syrian government tried preventing American pro-democracy initiatives during the Iraq War, because Syrian territory inside and outside the Syrian government’s control allows terrorists training to kill civilians not only there but also in the rest of the Middle East alongside Europe, and because America missed an opportunity. Supporting democratic, secular rebels or even Western-friendly Islamist rebels—whether that support would include airstrikes or not—could help America redeem its reputation in the Middle East. Then again, America damaged that reputation through interventionism before.


Gents, Love reading your blog, it is always thought provoking. I have a few comments here that might be piling on to a never-ending debate or attacking personally held beliefs (that I’m unlikely to change). In the second-to-last paragraph you say “Unfortunately, military power doesn’t create peace; economic growth, international institutions, international laws, international norms, the spread of democracy, the spread of trade and other parts of foreign policy liberalism create peace.” I might be arguing against deeply held beliefs, but is this always true? For example, could we not attribute economic growth and the spread of democracy in post-WWII Germany and Japan to the application of military power by the Allies? Has the establishment of democracy (troubled and tenuous democracy, I admit) and economic growth in places like Pakistan and Thailand lead to a reduction in violence or what we could call ‘peace’? Which of the factors you mention as alternatives to military power were the key drivers in reducing FARC and narcotic-trade related violence in Columbia over the last two decades if it was not military power? I ask this as an armchair historian only, not an expert in any of these conflicts. I wholeheartedly agree that a headstrong rush to military intervention is foolhardy. I strongly believe that the military must have answers to key questions of strategy prior to entering a conflict. As a citizen I demand that civilian authority be able to define goals, long-term strategy, and an ‘end-state’ as just part of justification for use of force. I don’t want to be deep into a conflict in blood, treasure, and time before we ask “How does this end?” or “What does ‘winning’ look like”? To axiomatically state in the summation of your piece that military power does not create peace (and therefore should not have even been considered) is not only false, in my opinion, but weakens the rest of your argument that such actions be assessed with a clear head and solid strategy.


Your first two points are good. Most of the rest is liberal pap.

America indeed spends too much on defense. Depending on your accounting anywhere from $600bn to $1trn dollars. Given America’s incredible security and our serious fiscal and economic problems, this is outrageous.

Do we actually need to spend more money on diplomacy, or do we just need a better diplomatic corps? Our diplomats are very poorly educated, especially in history, and language skills are atrocious. Our habit of rotating diplomats so they don’t “go native” produces a permanently ignorant diplomatic corps without deep knowledge of the countries we engage with. The corrupt practice of nominating bagmen (oops, campaign “donors”) as ambassadors is an embarrassment.

The treaties you suggest signing are feel good pap. Maybe signing the ICC is a good idea, though I don’t believe the benefits are worth the domestic fight. The other treaties you suggest signing are crap. Land mines are a very important tool in land warfare, the ban on cluster munitions would make our 155mm artillery an albatross, and what incendiary do you suggest replacing white phosphor with?

UN peacekeeping missions? Who cares? Why is it so important to keep order in various Third World shitholes? This is just the liberal internationalist equivalent to the neocon mindset. Shit countries like Pakistan do this because it’s a cash grab for them. What do we get out of it?

Global Marshall Plan? UN Millenium Development Goals? No thanks! Trying to eradicate poverty globally will be about as successful as trying to eradicate it in America (that is to say a never-ending war on poverty). And this is even granting your delusion that America has the resources it did in 1947. The USA is now the world’s largest debtor nation in history, and with manufacturing down to 11% of our GDP we will need to radically slash our living standards to reverse that position.

I strongly agree we should renew diplomatic relations with Iran—as well as Cuba and North Korea. The USA acts like some scorned teenage girl who endlessly pouts when she doesn’t get her way. A responsible, adult country understands that other countries have their own interests which don’t necessarily coincide with ours, and sometimes they don’t even like us. But that’s no reason to ostracize them until the end of time and bully our allies into doing the same.



I agree with Drew C and Thorfinnsson.