Traditionally defined as it applies to American foreign policy, isolationism means disengaging from international affairs. It means reducing America’s overseas commitments. It means decreasing international responsibilities in favor of domestic priorities. Yet somehow along the way, isolationalism also become conflated with cowardice.
Given the excruciating costs of our last two wars — currently estimated at $6 trillion and climbing, or put into more painful terms $75,000 for every American household — we might expect that a majority of Americans would become increasingly weary of playing 24-hour night watchman constantly patroling every corner of the globe. Moreoever, given America’s massive debt load and crumbling infrastructure, one would anticipate more Americans being in favor of realigning our priorities closer to home. [See Footnote 1]
And that’s exactly what seems to be happening. At long last.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of Americans thinks the United States should be less involved in foreign affairs. [See Footnote 2]
Yet at the same time, we’ve never been more involved in foreign affairs. Most Americans chose to interact with others who live across borders and oceans. We have stronger connections to different parts of the world than ever before — both personally and indirectly. We’ve become intricately linked by economics to almost every region of the globe. We’ve also become teethered together as one vast network by high-tech and emerging communications systems, most notably via the Internet and the exploding popularity of social media. If something happens in Bangalore, it can be seen on our smartphones within 30 seconds.
Foreign affairs has also come to apply to the people we interact within our own borders. Within the last generation or two, our country has gone so far as to change within, as a far more diverse pool of new immigrants have come to these shores than before in order to build new lives here. People who talk with accents aren’t looked down upon anymore. After all, the person who talks a little funny is just as likely to fix your computer as be your doctor.
So, why the apparent inconsistencies? Why do we favor stepping back from macro-world problems while getting more involved in what we think are micro-world solutions? No doubt, we like broadening our options and diversifying our horizons — even when it’s something as simple as dining out on Italian food on Monday, Chinese on Tuesday, Thai on Wednesday, Mexican on Thursday, and Lebanese on Friday. On the other hand, we no longer trust our nation’s most powerful entities to do the right things or necessarily make the world better. We no longer want our military engaging in other people’s business and then sticking us with the cleaning bill. Nationally-syndicated columnist David Brooks perhaps put it best recently when he wrote the following:
What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that U.S. political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. U.S. opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation — that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do. [See Footnote 3]
There are two primary explanations for these changes in public attitude. First, the world has changed. Second, we’ve changed.
Global conflicts don’t unfold in black and white anymore. Perhaps they never did. The world is an increasingly indistinguisable shade of grey. It sure seemed we were on the right side back during World War II. The same can be said of the Cold War, too. But since then, American hegemony hasn’t changed much, while many parts of the world has morphed into a vast landscape without borders, tarrifs, and restictions. Meanwhile, the same Big Brother power structures, notably giant corporations and the military establishment, continue acting according to the old model and struggle to maintain their dominance over global affairs. Many people, including average Americans, simply aren’t going for it anymore. We don’t want the burdens, the costs, or the headaches.
As faith in our most powerful institutions has deteriorated, those old allegiances which were once held in place by a hierarchical top-down command structure have been replaced a broader cohesion of individual interests and initiatives. Many of us no longer trust our elected officials, government, corporations, the military-industrial complex, and other power brokers to act in our best interest. Over the years, time and time again, they’ve blown it. They’ve violated our trust to the point where we now realize the only thing we can really count on is ourselves.
Again, David Brooks said it best when he wrote, “This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm.”
So, isolationism isn’t what it once was. More precisely, isolationism redefined means backing off from the old way of doing things — with battleships by sea, military bases on land, and covert actions in the shadows of the night. Instead, individuals can be trusted to broker thier interests one conversation or mouse click at a time. We don’t need our government telling us what our relationship with another country is, because we now have the power to develop our own relationships.
New Isolationists favor learning from other counties and cultures, especially when it comes to the things they do better than us. New isolationists favor trading with other nations, especially when it comes to getting things we don’t have here. New isolationists welcome diversity because newcomers often bring new ideas and energy to solve problems.
At the same time, new isolationists oppose continuing to risk (and lose) lives in seemingly endless foreign entanglements. New isolationists oppose wasting mind-boggling sums of money that we don’t have on policies which produce little or no positve change nor value to us. New isolationists oppose trusting those in power any longer, especially in the arena of American foreign policy. Perhaps the best example of this institutional ridiculousness can be summed up in one country, and the way we continue to deal with them. That place is Cuba.
Newly defined, I’m proud to be an isolationist.
Footnote 1 — The $6 trillion pricetag for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan comes from the latest figures available, which were reported in today’s The Telegraph (London) which can be read in full HERE.
Footnote 2 — Read the Pew Research Center survey findings in more detail HERE.
Footnote 3 — David Brooks’ full column titled “The Leaderless Doctrine” which initially appeared on March 11, 2014 can be read HERE.