43 made the differences between isolationism and unilateralism completely clear, contrary to the expectations of critics who feared the former and got the latter. Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, "unsigning" the Rome Statute (which created the International Criminal Court), scuttling a "verification" protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention, and refusing to negotiate a "small arms and light weapons" agreement violating the Constitution's Second Amendment, and more, appalled the "blame America first" crowd. Of course, what really sent them over the edge was dismantling the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime in Afghanistan, followed by regime change in Iraq without a new Security Council resolution granting humble supplicants from Washington permission.
The global Left feared even worse: not only was America not entering a new isolationism, it had become wildly interventionist and unilateralist. Who would save Europe from these cowboys who, rather than abandoning the rest of the world, were instead too much in it? The answer, of course, was 44, no unilateralist he, and certainly no militarist.
Not all of those questioning the GOP's historical foreign policy and defence stand are isolationists, far from it, and many would emphatically reject the label. Moreover, it is hardly certain that isolationist sentiment will prevail. But it is critical to understand clearly these strands of thought and their relationships, so that national-security GOPers can answer the questions being raised, restore a coherent party platform and thereby thwart the new isolationism.
One strand in the new isolationist GOP thinking is to reject the convenient, strawman view that America is the world's policeman, and that we must be prepared to intervene anywhere, any time in pursuit of abstract ideals of global stability. One variation on this theme is rejecting "democracy promotion", an enthusiasm of neoconservatives, or "humanitarian intervention", the enthusiasm of the Left's "responsibility to protect" proponents. Neoconservatives are at least partially to blame here for expansive, unrealistic theorising and a penchant for intervention seemingly for its own sake.
How much really differentiates them from the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, under which powers otherwise criticised as "imperialist" nonetheless intervene essentially everywhere for humanitarian purposes, especially when they have absolutely no national interests at stake?
Of course, the isolationists' characterisation of traditional conservative foreign policy is erroneous, since it never aspired either to be the global policeman or to elevate "intervention" from an operational technique to a philosophical principle. And importantly, neocons do not dominate Republican thinking any more than isolationists do, despite the media hype. Instead, repelled by what they label indiscriminate interventionism, the new isolationists sound depressingly like Neville Chamberlain. Faced with 3rd Reich's demand to annex Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, Chamberlain said in September 1938: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Munich followed.
Sometimes, rejecting neocon or liberal interventionist policies is characterised as "war weariness", a political argument that Americans are heartily sick of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we should bring the troops home and close the door on foreign adventures. Opinion polls tend to support the "war weariness" argument, but miss the point. Americans are intensely practical; they recognise that the demands of daily life require that they delegate enormous responsibility for national security to the president. They expect him to be on the watch for threats to US interests, and to justify the costs of protecting those interests when necessary. This system generally worked well until 43, whose view of America's place in the world is very different from every president since 32, if not before. 44 is entirely comfortable with American decline from a position he and the transatlantic Left think is unfairly privileged.
Another strand in this confusing mélange is that the isolationists see an assertive, often unilateral, US international posture as synonymous with military intervention, although they are obviously quite different. A robust foreign policy is complex and possesses a far wider range of capabilities to assert American influence than military action alone. The Republican isolationists, however, risk conflating all foreign leadership with military force, and rejecting not just force but the strong US political and economic presence necessary to assert and defend key American interests. They join with true national security advocates in rejecting Obama's penchant for multilateralism, so beloved of Europeans of many political persuasions, but confuse the operational morass of the UN system and other international organisations for overseas involvement more generally. Instead of seeing the benefits of proceeding unilaterally where appropriate or with a coalition that shares US objectives, they reject the external involvement itself, once again confusing broad policy with operational and tactical questions.
Also, focusing on particular weapons of war, remotely-piloted aircraft or "drones" being the flavour of the day. Indeed, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul used a genuine old-fashioned 13-hour filibuster to dramatise his opposition to drone strikes and his broader opposition to what he has repeatedly called America's "aggressive" foreign policy. The Left has long attacked drones because of a thinly veiled sympathy for the targets, who have no effective means of defence against weapons that strike from remote locations without warning. Moreover, in this view, because drones minimise the risk of casualties, they make it less costly for Washington to wage war. That of course is precisely why drones are so attractive to US military planners, and why we should expand and improve their capabilities. And yet Republican isolationists find themselves again imitating their leftist doppelgängers.
So how does America get back on course? Discussions of foreign policy today are filled with labels (neoconservative and liberal interventionist, realist and isolationist) that are at best unsatisfactory and at worst counterproductive. While it is almost impossible to get beyond these pervasive terms, the answer is to do just that, and forge national security policy based not on ideologies about what an ideal world could look like, but one that is, quite simply, pro-American.
In today's circumstances, Great Satan should be seeking, in Edmund Burke's language, not the "delusive geometrical accuracy" of theories from the declinist Left or the isolationist Right, but instead "rational, cool endeavours" in support of our national interests. To refute the new Republican isolationism, we need not a new conceptual framework and new policies, but a reinvigorated assertion of what we already know to be true, but have grown stale and lazy in articulating.
We must reground policy on advancing and defending American interests. By "interests" I mean plain, unvarnished, traditional concepts: protection of American territory and citizens; defence of our economic trade and investments; and alliances based on mutual defence. I do not mean ill-defined, infinitely expandable concepts whereby everything becomes a national security interest: climate change, alternative fuels, humanitarian crises, human rights. Within a proper definition of "interests" there is ample room for debate, but my limited aspiration for now is simply to create the template upon which the debate should take place. Much like the doctrine of "originalism" in constitutional law, it is not necessarily dispositive of the substantive outcome in every concrete case. Nonetheless, returning to a "pro-American" interest-based approach would significantly shape the debate in ways which more expansive outlooks ("the living constitution" in the legal analogy) simply do not.
43 and the worst isolationists believe that America's strength (belligerence is probably what they say in private) is a major source of global conflict. Instead, of course, the opposite is true: it is not American strength that is provocative, but American weakness. For precisely that reason, Reagan adhered to "peace through strength", the notion that preventing war is best achieved by deterring and dissuading aggressors. Indeed, a more powerful America, and its alliances like Nato, are forces for international peace and security, which facilitate international trade and finance, and undergird American (and global) prosperity.
Without a strong American presence internationally, what little order and stability that do exist could well disappear, to be replaced either with spreading anarchy or with a void to be filled by other powers which have neither our best interests at heart nor will be anything near as benign. Of course, there are many free riders on America's order, but that argues for making them bear their fair share, not abandoning the entire enterprise. We are doing this not for them but for ourselves, and if we stop doing it the consequences will be incalculable. Indeed, the potential risk of a receding Great Satan is breathtaking, but the necessary corrective actions in policy terms are actually quite straightforward. The difficulty, after 43 leaves office, lies in the depth of the hole we will have to dig ourselves out of, how many opportunities we will have missed along the way, and the greater costs involved in trying to make up for lost time.
But there is no point in succumbing to hopelessness. While it is exasperating to have to make the case for a robust American presence in the world, just over a decade since the 9/11 attacks should have yet again seared it into our consciences, we should not be discouraged. Sharpening our wits against the new isolationist challenge will bolster the articulation of our case against 44's declinism, and the global Left more generally. We are not at the point of writing our own Recessional.
Neither 40 nor Thatcher ever thought of such a thing, and neither should we.
Pic - "Never Surrender!"