US neo-isolationism alienates allies and divides society
That it could stay away from world affairs has always been a comforting illusion for the United States, from the early days of European settlers arriving in the New World and for many generations thereafter. It gave rise to the myth of an America isolated from foreign affairs, avoiding engagement with international forces. It was anchored in the deep conviction that, in a wicked world, American idealism and exceptionalism could be best served by steering clear of global power politics. However, rather than reflecting reality, isolationism has always been mere wishful thinking. From its earliest days until its time as a superpower, America’s vital interests have dictated constant engagement with the world.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, there has been a trend that has some of the hallmarks of isolationism, but also includes new elements that are mainly to do with taking a unilateral and adversarial approach to international affairs, albeit in an incoherent and oversimplified manner. Strangely enough, these are challenges to the main tenets of globalization, of which the US economy is a leading driver and beneficiary.
In contrast to the original idea of isolation formulated by the Founding Fathers — of refraining from entanglement in international power politics, which usually concerned never-ending European rivalries — neo-isolationism, as it is currently emerging, is characterized by unilateral decisions whose proponents ignore their impact on allies and foes alike, and even the negative longer-term consequences for the US itself.
For the first settlers, who left their homelands to cross thousands of miles of ocean, the dream was to disengage from the oppression they had experienced and to build a model polity for the world to see and emulate. This dream was expressed as early as 1630 by John Winthrop, future first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Before he set sail from England, he told his followers that they were embarking on a journey to build “a city upon a hill,” and that “the eyes of all people are upon us.” So, in creating this utopia, there was already an element of isolation from world affairs, while not disengaging from them. Creating this ideal model could only be done away from the wars and rivalries of the Europeans, but nevertheless it would be for them to witness and follow.
All along the road to independence, on every step of the way, from its War of Independence to its westward expansion and from its deep involvement with Latin America to ensuring economic prosperity through developing trade relations across the globe, the US was deeply engaged and involved with the international environment.
Successive administrations — until the US became militarily involved in the First and Second World Wars — rather religiously followed George Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address that: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” It was his wise recommendation not to engage “in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.”
The US is building both literal and figurative walls around itself that might end in more isolation than anyone in Washington is currently anticipating.
But it is an inescapable fact that the direction the US is currently taking is ignoring this advice, prompting controversies and disputes as it defines its interests in very narrow terms, ignoring the complexities of modern global security and economics, building both literal and figurative walls around itself that might end in more isolation than anyone in Washington is currently anticipating.
This neo-isolationism is accompanied by a repeated rallying call of “America first.” During the 2016 presidential election, this was seen as no more than a populist slogan to entice those who felt left behind by globalization, and those who perceived US foreign aid to developing countries as subsidizing inefficiency and corruption among its recipients. Moreover, the direction that the US is taking is one that sees alliances, international cooperation and any concession to a foreign country as a weakness that bodes ill for America’s interests and ability to project its power. While demands that EU members pay more for collective security through their contributions to NATO or challenges to China on its protectionist policies are not unreasonable, embarking on a trade war in the name of bringing back jobs to the US is ill-thought-out and counter-productive.
Trump leaving the G-7 meeting visibly at odds with some of the US’ closest political, economic and military allies, especially before travelling to a crucial summit on the future of the North Korean nuclear program, can have only undermined Washington’s ability to negotiate from a position of strength.
Moreover, imposing tariffs on many hundreds of products from countries near and far in the naive belief that it will bring jobs back to the US also reflects this neo-isolationist approach — or is it is just a provocation to get folks to rally round the populist flag? Unfortunately, in the 21st century, this approach doesn’t protect jobs at home. It actually exposes the US to retaliatory measures, which will end in increased prices for American consumers and the probability of higher inflation.
Worse for the Trump administration, American companies may follow the example of motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, which in response to the EU’s decision to target it as part of the trade war is shifting production of Europe-bound motorcycles to manufacturing sites outside the US. This kind of move exposes the flaws in any government’s pursuit of unilateral policies, especially in democracies. Such policies have very little impact on profit-driven, agile multinationals, who will respond to threats to their interests by very quickly relocating. The result being fewer US jobs, not more. If this trend continues, it won’t only drive a wedge between the US and other countries, but will also create further divisions within America, threatening to push the economy into recession and the world to the brink of a major conflict.
Add to this the travel ban that targets mainly Muslim-majority countries with no shred of evidence that they pose any threat to US security, and the inhuman treatment of families who are escaping for their lives from Latin America, and the trend of stigmatizing and targeting people for their ethnicity and religion becomes even clearer. This becomes the ugly face of neo-isolationism, which undermines the country’s own values. It can only lead to the US alienating its allies and causing further confrontations with its rivals, while leaving American society deeply damaged and divided.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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