“Isolationism” is easiest to define when it’s used as an insult, as it most often is: You don’t want the United States to do this thing that I want it to do.
Political scientists define it strictly as “a nation-state that could affect security arrangements in a region declining to do so”—and they often point out that the United States hasn’t actually had an even remotely isolationist policy for well over 100 years.
The label arises, today as previously, at moments of intense anxiety over the state of the country—amid political currents trending toward a fundamental struggle over the uniqueness of what it may mean to be American.
The Founders, perhaps most famously Thomas Jefferson, bequeathed us this struggle. He scorned, and longed to reject, the traditional tools of European statecraft. He believed that war, coercion, and diplomatic dissembling were inherent to autocratic states that put the good of the government over the good of citizens. A republic, he argued, shouldn’t practice these techniques. His eloquent writings have inspired Americans in every subsequent generation to insist that the United States should stand aside from playing power politics. Nonetheless, as secretary of state and then as president, Jefferson used every one of the practices he’d condemned—in the service of expanding American power.
Power and the shadow of Jefferson, then, have for the last century hung long over the question of the proper U.S. role in the world. While it was once popular to describe the 1920s and ’30s as isolationist decades, the United States, in fact, was a central participant in negotiations to limit weapons, attended and spoke at the League of Nations despite not having joined, and made active use of its navy in support of the Allies well before entering World War II. The policies of the period were cautious, hortatory, fiscal, and generally eschewed force—which is to say that they were quite different from the two world wars and from the Cold War period that followed. But leaders across the political spectrum were intensely engaged with the question of what security arrangements in Europe and Asia would best benefit the United States, and how to achieve them.
The American public, too, is often accused of being strongly or reflexively isolationist, but this is also a canard. In reality, a strong majority, across political affiliations, will say that it’s in favor of U.S. “involvement” and “leadership” in international security affairs. However, the minority that would explicitly prefer the United States to stay out of international entanglements has grown and concentrated itself in the GOP, giving it more power. Trump supporters, specifically, are less positive toward alliances, international agreements, and globalization than other Republicans.
But that distaste for the tools of U.S. security policy blurs isolationism with another tendency that has grown among conservatives in the post-Cold War period: unilateralism. Unilateralists are perfectly happy for the United States to use its muscle, up to and including force, to pursue its interests abroad—in other words, they don’t see treaties, alliances, and reciprocal commitments as desirable tools, preferring that the United States preserve its resources, its freedom of action, and what some see as its cultural and institutional uniqueness. Put unilateralists together with isolationists, and they make up a potent force in today’s politics—as they did in the post-World War I period.
It’s thus not coincidental that the “America First” slogan adopted by the Trump campaign has its origins in that period. The phrase was originally the name of the America First Committee, an anti-war movement founded in 1940, as war came to seem more likely. The group argued that the United States best protected its own democracy and recovering economy, and promoted international democracy, by avoiding involvement in foreign wars. The group was promptly labeled fascist and anti-Semitic because its membership included German agent Laura Ingalls (a distant cousin of the famous pioneer) and known racist Henry Ford—though those labels didn’t entirely prevent it from having some influence over prominent Americans of the time.
Yet there’s another element to the array of forces that can sometimes seem like a broad isolationist front in U.S. politics: U.S. military engagements that the public doesn’t perceive as a response to direct threats to the United States never have majority support. None of the proposed or actual humanitarian interventions in the Bosnian, Kosovan, Libyan, and Syrian conflicts received majority public support. Involvement in Afghanistan, a direct response to an attack, was more popular. This discomfort with U.S. military engagement is bipartisan, and marks a place where traditional ideological divisions fail as the anti-intervention left meets two strands of the right—libertarian anti-interventionists, and unilateralist conservatives.
When trying to understand these three different strands of thinking on the proper U.S. role in the world, and how they relate to centrist conservative and liberal thinking, “isolationism” conceals much more than it reveals—even as its resurgence does tell us something important about ourselves.
So do Americans contradict themselves, with majorities expressing consistent desires to exert “leadership” and “influence,” while at the same time complaining about non-essential wars and voting in politicians who oppose the non-violent tools of international leadership available through diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, economic statecraft, and cultural power?
This fundamental tension—often derided by foreign-policy professionals as a sign that American voters are, at best, ignorant—was in fact baked into the founding of our republic. The Native Americans who were here before us could prosper without engagement across the oceans—the people who came after have never been able to do the same. A better word for the public phenomenon we label as isolationism, then, might be insecurity: Are we great? And if we believe that to be the case, how do we remain so?