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Isolationism and Interventionism in America

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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.
--President George Washington, 1796

Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none...
--President Thomas Jefferson, 1801

Isolationism in early American history

The United States held to a staunch isolationist position from its founding in 1776 until World War II. For about 170 years Americans believed avoiding foreign conflicts and remaining disengaged politically from the rest of the world was key to their prosperity. The US sought to limit its engagement with the rest of the world to the economic sphere. Trade, it was thought, was sufficient to maintain peaceful relations with other countries, and any intervention beyond that was risky and unnecessary

Even with the involvement in the First World War, most Americans maintained an isolationist stance. The US government saw World War I as an unavoidable exception to the isolationist rule, and reverted back to its independent stance at the close of the war in 1918.

I tell the American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship.
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941

From isolationism to interventionism

This attitude changed in a major way with World War II. Aggression from Japan and the rapid domination of Europe by Nazi Germany forced the US back into the world. Not only did America need to defend itself from aggressive nations, but its democratic industrialized partners in Europe were at risk of total domination by fascism. Once conquering Europe, it was feared that the Nazis would set their sights on North America. At best, the US would be forced to coexist with a fascist Europe.

Having defeated European fascism, the US took a much more active role in world affairs. It led the creation of the United Nations, the reconstruction of Japan and Germany as well as cultural, diplomatic and military efforts against the new threat of global communism. With Britain and France demolished by the war, their manufacturing capacity ruined and countless citizens dead, the US quickly became the leader of the democratic industrialized world. It was now the preeminent manufacturing and military power. The US had transitioned from a staunch isolationist nation to an actively interventionist one.


It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both the public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development. What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.
--President Ronald Reagan, 1982

Cold War, interventionism and nation-building

The second half of the 20th century saw a massive increase in American military campaigns of all sizes, ranging from declared wars to covert operations. American isolationism was a thing of the past, an ideological relic of a bygone era. It was irrelevant and, indeed, dangerous in an age of communist infiltration and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Only a small minority were still interested in non-interventionism.

The United States faced serious threats to its security that demanded an active global presence. Moreover, American military, diplomatic, economic and cultural efforts had proven themselves in the war and in the reconstruction of Japan and Germany to have the potential to change the world for the better. Over time, idealistic arguments emphasizing America's moral responsibility to spread freedom and fight oppression featured prominently in foreign policy discussions.

In reality, American intervention was imperfect. It produced greater oppression at least as often as greater liberty. The balance between securing US political and economic interests (anti-communism, or cheap and reliable oil) and fostering freedom and democracy became a perennial problem. Interventionism was a double edged sword, often inadvertently producing anti-American sentiments and sometimes actually further endangering American lives.

As the decades wore on, Americans realized again and again that the world was not as simple as they would have thought. Interventionism gradually became less attractive.


Americans increasingly want to stay out of foreign countries

A new isolationism?

Currently, after multiple expensive failed military adventures (most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s) and an uptick in anti-Americanism in many foreign countries, the potential for a second historical shift from a broadly interventionist to a broadly isolationist attitude presents itself.

With global communism no longer a threat, America does not face a coherent contrary ideological force. The importance of elections and markets is now broadly recognized among almost all countries, if still only given lip service in many places. Ideologically, there is not much left to fight, with the possible exception of Islamic extremism, which itself is limited in potential influence, being concentrated in conservative Muslim societies.

There are several reasons why an isolationist shift may occur in the coming years:

  • Economic/ fiscal: The extremely large debt and deficit make foreign wars unattractive from a purely financial point of view. Debt and deficit considerations are a major factor for the first time in American political history.
  • Cultural: After more than 10 years of continual high level military engagement, many Americans are simply tired of setbacks, conflicts and body bags. Bellicose nationalism has increasingly given way to moderate pragmatism among both conservatives and liberals.
  • Results: Americans see few or no tangible results from these foreign entanglements.
  • Other priorities: Americans are more and more concerned with domestic issues, especially economic issues.
  • Confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance: Americans realize more than ever that the world is a lot more complicated than they thought. The political, cultural and economic conditions of foreign populations make smart engagement difficult or impossible. The public and their leadership often simply don't know what the right course of action is (examples being Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and (still) Afghanistan). The black/ white, good/ evil calculus that was relevant with fascism and communism no longer applies. It has given way to confusing shades of grey, while the circumstances surrounding foreign intervention remain very dangerous.



secularist10 (author) from New York City on December 03, 2014:

Omer--thanks. I always like when non-mainstream candidates get more exposure in the political process, whether the right or left. They have actual ideas to offer. Not a fan of Ben Carson though.

Let's hope more Americans continue to wake up and make the shift on foreign policy.

nicomp really from Ohio, USA on November 22, 2014:

Omer1965 , Dr Carson is less qualified to be President than Barack Hussein Obama. Let's not go down that road again.

Dale Johnson from Iowa on November 22, 2014:

This is a very good description of how Libertarian viewpoints are becoming more popular today. Americans are tired war and all its circumstances; unnecessary death and high debt are being of the most malicious. Hopefully, men like Ben Carson will emerge as leaders in our political culture in the coming years. Our very sovereignty may depend on it.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on May 22, 2014:

Jason, thanks, glad you liked it.

The thing is, life is about choices. We can't do everything because we just don't have the money and resources. What made America strong and prosperous in the first place (in the 19th and early 20th centuries) was a continual reinvestment in itself and its own workforce, industries, and so on. It was not spending massive amounts of tax dollars on military adventures and social experiments in other parts of the world.

I certainly think the US should be engaged (intelligently!) with the rest of the world to some degree. But the country is currently overextending itself, and that does nobody any good.

Jason R. Manning from Sacramento, California on May 21, 2014:

This is a fantastic and very fair assessment of our current conundrum. Your comments are just as good and relevant. We’ve always had great ideas and at many times the will power, but as you state, America has become something of a narcissist (my words). Why is everyone so concerned about domestic issues and policy? What are the values and outcomes of disengaging around the world, only to speculate and produce more studies about spending money on more studies, to no effect. One thing this country has to protect is its national interests, as our economy is wrapped up with everyone else. If we give in externally, we will pay a price internally. We are going to feel a new kind of pain no matter the outcome. “Peace through Strength” isn’t a bumper sticker, it works when appropriately applied. We need foreign diplomats; we need to protect our trade partners to ensure our domestic economy doesn’t take any larger hits. We also need to fix much of our selfish spending. American’s, including myself can be a very shallow bunch, we certainly are squandering hard fought and costly freedoms. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this hub. Cheers.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on January 25, 2014:


For one thing, if China wants to go gallivanting around the world trying to dominate everything, then it will meet the same fate America has, and the British Empire before it: a lot of money down the drain, with little to show for it aside from agitated local populations. Ironically, history shows that the quest for world domination is successful only temporarily, at best.

China has been able to become a dominant player in many spheres in recent years precisely because it has avoided the military and diplomatic entanglements that the US has fallen victim to.

As far as supporting developing nations, that's a great goal. But:

(a) over half a century of such activism has not produced any tangible results (aside from what could have been achieved by those nations on their own, if left to freely pursue their interests without foreign intervention and meddling and "protecting of interests"),

(b) in reality, the US will always have its own set of interests, which may or may not line up neatly with "democracy" in a given country. A great example of this is the democratic elections in Palestine that resulted in an American enemy (Hamas) becoming the state. On the one hand, the US loves democracy, but on the other, it hates Hamas. We see this pattern repeated constantly across the world in the entire postwar period. Another classic example is Saudi Arabia (we sacrifice democracy for our own larger interest--cheap oil).

Ironically, pulling back and focusing on economic development and military strength at home would make the US *stronger* and better able to defend itself against foreign threats. Military resources would not be spread thin over the earth for the sake of "presence." In addition, there would actually be *fewer* threats to America in the first place because sending your military to another country itself agitates governments and populations, and creates fertile ground for resentment, hatred and therefore, security threats.

Nobody really cares about relatively isolationist countries like Norway or Japan or Switzerland for instance. They just mind their own business and deal with their own affairs. Groups like Al Qaeda are not anti-Japanese, they are anti-American.

The last point is that although spreading democracy and freedom everywhere might seem like a noble goal in theory, in reality the money just isn't there. Who's going to pay for all this democratic development in societies which usually have backward ideas about women and life in general?

Are you willing to subsidize the social experiments of a random country on the other side of the planet? How much are you willing to pay for that? Don't you have enough bills as it is?

nicomp really from Ohio, USA on January 25, 2014:

tmyerswrites , what are 'American' morals?

tmyerswrites on January 25, 2014:

I don't think America has any choice to revert to isolationism.. Many politicians and a vast majority of the public may want a greater focus at home to sort out many of the domestic issues, but America must stand as a moral leader to prevent unchecked Chinese domination and must stand in support of developing nations to ensure democracy prevails. America's may wish to pull back military occupations but must always stand ready to defend our values and way of life. America essentially must be the global moral policeman!

secularist10 (author) from New York City on January 21, 2014:

Those are all interesting points, but not very relevant to the topic of isolationism and interventionism.

lilylipgloss on January 20, 2014:

I agree with some of the things, views you have, however.......

May I kindly remind you that the Soviet Army had a fairly large part in the winning of the 2nd World War, (Re: "Having defeated European fascism, America"). Not to mention UK, France, NZ, Australia, etc, etc.

I know that pains many in the West, but if it were not for the Russian Army most likely the war would not have been won, and if so at considerable extra cost by the other allies.

Can I also remind you, often glossed over in western education systems I would imagine, is that America came into the war only after Pearl Harbour, declaring war on 8th Dec 1941, after the war had started on 1st Sept 1939.

So they were clearly in no great rush. It was not until their own vested interests were threatened did they intervene, despite constant requests for assistance from Stalin and Churchill before hand.

This was also the case for the first World War, it was not until that war was in its latter stages, did America come to the party. Vested interests also at play, as has been the case in most of America's wars, not just fighting for "freedom" but for what they can, may get out of it in return.

Its ironic that this fighting for freedom, has done an about face now, with everyone's emails, phones, internet use, library usage, texts etc monitored.

Freedom has a price clearly.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on May 24, 2013:

Thanks! Glad you liked it. And thank you for the fan mail, I appreciate it.

d.william from Somewhere in the south on May 24, 2013:

excellent article. Well written and insightful. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on March 02, 2013:

I think it would certainly be possible, it might just take time and a gradual rethinking of the "common knowledge" about America's role in the world among politicians and thinkers. But it could happen. If it happened once, it can happen again.

Perhaps the US does not need or want to be a "world power" per se. It seems to be drastically losing influence, despite Republicans' and Democrats' desperate attempts to hold onto the foreign policy status quo, and despite the many billions of tax dollars spent every year on maintaining the empire.

A nation such as Switzerland has been a good model for centuries: very prosperous and strong on its own, without the need to get involved in foreign countries. The US also enjoyed tremendous economic growth during the 19th century. Commerce with other nations is the way to go.

I would trade a military base in Okinawa for a higher per capita GDP any day, I don't know about you. Some say the former makes us safer, but I say to the contrary, the latter makes us much safer than sticking our noses in other people's business as a matter of course.

Washington and others certainly explicitly advocated an isolationist or at least non-interventionist stance, so it was a principle as well as a practical policy for many leaders.

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on March 02, 2013:

I'm not sure that its practical or even possible for the United States to return to an isolationist foreign policy as a world power. Being a world power in my view necessitates making many trade and military treaties worldwide. But as you pointed out, possibly these entangling alliances have created as many problems as they've solved.

I see the isolationist stance from the nations founding till WW2 to be more a practical policy position than a founding principle. At the time of the nations founding the ocean separating America from Europe was a formible barrier and the United States didn't have the military and economic power to challedge the European nations.

When our maritime trade in the Mediterranean was threatened by the Muslem Barbary Pirates, America did respond militarily when the Europeans who had the same dilemma did not. As a matter of fact, the pirates had imprisoned thousands of American seaman and demanded ransom for there return, The United States instead sent a fleet to invade their capital city and forced the pirates to sue for peace and cease their raids on American shipping. This occurred around 1800, when America was still a fledgling new nation.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on August 14, 2012:

Do I consider that to be isolationist. Well, not particularly. I don't particularly consider John Adams' choice in fashion to be isolationist either. It's perfectly consistent with isolationism though.

The fact that the US held to an isolationist stance from its founding and for the 19th century is not in debate among American historians or anyone else. It's an acknowledged fact. So if you have a problem with that, take it up with them, not me.

Simply seeking formal recognition from a foreign government is quite different from actively intervening in their affairs diplomatically and militarily.

nicomp really from Ohio, USA on August 13, 2012:

Before being elected president, John Adams spent quite a bit of time in Europe patiently building alliances and asking to borrow money. Holland, after 18 months of on-site politicking by Adams, eventually recognized America's sovereignty in 1782.

Do you consider that to be isolationist?

secularist10 (author) from New York City on July 12, 2012:

Glad you enjoyed it, Steve. I think if the US had pursued a responsible, restrained interventionism over the last 20 or 30 years, those fiscal issues would not even be on the table, there would probably be less anti-Americanism around the world, and a major swing toward isolationism would be much less likely. All things in moderation.

Interestingly, an emphasis on trade and commerce would have made much more progress in modernizing many of the backward cultures in the Islamic world and elsewhere, through simple cultural osmosis. Far more effective than high-grade military operations.

Steve Orion from Tampa, Florida on July 12, 2012:

Certainly, as a "super-power," the U.S. shouldn't be isolationist, rather involved in multiple fronts with other countries. There are, as described in your Hub, many different aspects to this; a balance of self-interest concerning reputation, assistance, reciprocity, economic and social developments, policing and human rights issues, and so on.

I have a feeling that, if you're correct concerning a possible new isolationist mindset, it can be perhaps most strongly caused by the fourth point. A shame when your politicians are only slightly more educated than the already ignorant public. Thanks for the well written Hub on our history, a few things to be remembered!

Michele Travis from U.S.A. Ohio on May 07, 2012:

That does seem true, at least I hope it is.

secularist10 (author) from New York City on May 07, 2012:

Thanks, Michele. I think there is a good chance of isolationism, or something like it, making a comeback for just those reasons. Regardless, it seems a major shift in American foreign policy attitudes are at hand.

Michele Travis from U.S.A. Ohio on May 07, 2012:

This is a very interesting hub, although I don't have any answers. Yes, we are tired of wars, the worst depression this country has ever had, the longest war we have ever had. However, these things are happening to other countries also. Is there an end in sight? I don't know. How can we work it out? I don't know that either. Still it is a very interesting hub.

Voted up.

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