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Why “Isolationist” Obscures More than It Reveals

- May 2, 2013

We welcome this guest post by Ohio State political scientist Bear Braumoeller:


Yesterday’s New York Times included a brief summary of recent Times/CBS poll results on American foreign policy. The article, by Megan Thee-Brenan, lit up the Twittersphere not because of its substantive conclusions but rather because of its lede, which began, “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria.” Critics, like my colleague (and former advisor), Stephen Walt, have responded quite correctly that it takes more than skepticism of a particular intervention to qualify as an isolationist. I think the critics are right; moreover, the impact of this criticism is more substantial than most of them realize.
First of all, isolationism does not refer to abstention from only one form of internationalist behavior. Multilateralists, for example, prefer joint efforts to unilateral ones, but that hardly makes them isolationist. Moreover, the fact that the public doesn’t favor the costliest sort of intervention doesn’t mean that they don’t favor intervention of some sort: a year ago, a plurality of respondents favored the use of American air power in Syria to create safe havens, and nearly 40% favored the provision of weapons. Sending troops, by contrast, netted a slim 15% support. That hardly seems isolationist. Isolationism, I would argue, is better understood as “the voluntary and general abstention by a state from security-related activity in an area of the international system in which it is capable of action.”

Second, by that standard, isolationism is exceedingly rare. The Chinese in the later Ming Dynasty and, more famously, Japan in the Tokugawa era, fit the description quite well; America never has—not even in the interwar period—and true isolationists are scarce. The fight over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles was overwhelmingly a fight between unilateralists and multilateralists. Each commanded widespread support, but neither could muster the two-thirds majority needed for Senate ratification. American unwillingness to stand up to Hitler in the late 1930s was the result of a widespread perception that Germany posed little threat: When, to nearly everyone’s surprise, France fell in 1940, American isolationist sentiment all but disappeared, and defense appropriations, initially set at $1.7 billion, skyrocketed to $10.5 billion.

With those facts in mind, I would make a radical, and intentionally provocative, argument: Isolationism rarely if ever deserves a place in the analysis of American foreign policy. “Isolationist” is a term that, by virtue of its persistent imprecision, obscures more than it reveals. By blurring the line between a lack of desire for a certain kind of action and a lack of desire for any kind of action, it distorts our descriptions and skews our inferences. We are far better off utilizing a range of questions to determine, not whether the public is internationalist or isolationist in general, but rather, what costs they would be willing to bear to achieve a particular foreign policy objective and how easy or difficult they think it would be to achieve it.