The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Who’s the isolationist?

February 2, 2006

If anyone still needed any evidence that political speech — public rhetoric intended to legitimate certain courses of actions while ruling out others — is governed by the demands of social sustainability rather than by the demands of logic, they need look no further than President Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening. My favorite howler in the speech came near the end, when Bush called for determined commitment by suggesting that “the United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe and been complicit in the oppression of others,” clearly suggesting that the United States would of course have done no such thing . . . and conveniently forgetting that the United States did, in fact, consent to and perhaps even aided in the deepening of the division of Europe after the Second World War. “Yalta,” referring to the famous wartime conference in which Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt effectively agreed on postwar spheres of influence, remains a term of great opprobrium throughout the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and I can think of quite a number of Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians (not to mention residents of the Baltic states) who would beg to differ with Bush’s version of events.

But one of the most striking things about the speech was Bush’s attempted linking of criticism of his administration’s foreign policy (including the Global War on Terror(ism), the war in Iraq, and various ways of handling Palestine, North Korea, Iran, etc.) and the dreaded specter of “isolationism.” This was kind of a “back to the future” moment for me, since I’m currently putting the final touches on a book [obligatory shameless self-promotion link here] about how US commitments of money and troops to Europe were produced and socially sustained — legitimated — after the Second World War. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I know a thing or three about “isolationism” in American political history. Congressional democrats and other critics of the Bush Administration may be many things, but they certainly aren’t “isolationists” in any clear sense of the term.

Evaluating political speech by the canons of logic and evidence seems a futile effort, since political speech is part of a strategy designed to produce policies that incline in particular directions rather than in others. While not historically or definitionally accurate, the charge of “isolationism” is a traditional one in the history of US foreign policy, and it’s fascinating to see Bush trotting it out in an effort to rally support for the latest global reform project — it used to be making the world safe for democracy, then it was fighting communism, and now it’s “the end of tyranny in our world,” as Bush put it. Back to the future indeed.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. “Isolationism,” one of Franklin Roosevelt’s chief fears, wasn’t a coherent position as much as a general call for disengagement and the vigorous defense of the American homeland. Robert Taft, an outspoken “isolationist” senator, was an early advocate of a massive retaliation capability for the US Air Force so that America could be defended through the threat of bombing the heck out of anyone who might threaten us. Other “isolationists” supported proposals ranging from unilateral disarmament to peaceful cooperation with any and all foreign powers through trade to a renewed focus on shoring up the fundamentals of American democracy. What all of these had in common — besides the fact that Roosevelt didn’t like any of them, since they got in the way of his overriding goal of getting the United States into the Second World War and defeating Hitler’s Germany — is their emphasis on the essential separateness of the United States. “Isolationism” is about fundamental difference, such that its basic assumption is that the United States is not like the rest of the world: it is distinctive and special and chosen, either by God or by History (sometimes by both) to fulfill some task that is universal in scope. Different “isolationists” drew different conclusions from this basic postulate, which we might call American exceptionalism, but all of their positions rested on that central claim.

But the thing that we have to keep in mind here is that the essential separateness of the United States, and in particular its essential separateness from Europe, is more than just one position among others in American political history. Instead, “we are not like Europe” might be thought of as the central notion of all American national identity rhetoric from even before the founding of the United States. In a way, it’s hard-wired into our most basic social institutions, and Americans take it in with their mother’s milk or bottled baby formula about the same time that they imbibe that massive dose of “irrational Lockeianism” that makes liberal individualism seem like second nature to most Americans. Case in point: witness all of the immense work during the 19th and early 20th centuries that went into producing a genealogy for “America’s pastime,” the game of baseball, that excluded British games like cricket and rounders to focus on the outright falsity of Abner Doubleday inventing the rules for baseball out of his own head sometime in the 1860s. (Check out the details here and here, if you’re interested.) As baseball, so other aspects of American culture — and virtually all of US foreign policy (think: “Monroe Doctrine“) up until the early part of the 20th century.

In a way, the problem facing any US official who wants (for whatever personal motives) to promote official US involvement in other parts of the world — and usually this means military involvement, although formal governmental economic assistance also displays this pattern — faces exactly the same problem: the postulate of American exceptionalism has to be handled somehow. The default position in American foreign policy is to rest on exceptionalism, and under most circumstances that means advocating minimal official involvement with the affairs of other countries and peoples. George Washington’s Farewell Address is instructive here, with its call to avoid “entangling alliances” in favor of peaceful commercial relations with all. And Woodrow Wilson’s strenuous attempts to preserve the rights of a neutral United States after war broke out in Europe in 1914 display exactly the same pattern: we’re exceptional, we’re special, all of you can do your little thing and fight your little wars out there while we stay comfortably aloof and safe and distinctive.

Now, we know that Wilson eventually changed his mind. How did he get the United States into the war? By borrowing a page from his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, and speaking in terms of ‘civilization’ rather than an exceptional America. Wilson characterized World War One as a clash of civilization versus barbarism, democracy versus Prussian authoritarianism, good versus evil — and then seized on incidents like the sinking of the Lusitania to spur the country to war. Out with exceptionalism, in with a different basis for the United States to act in the world: as the leader of the ‘civilized’ powers.

‘Civilization’ is not the only or the most successful response to American exceptionalism in the history of US foreign policy; it’s not even the most important one in the 20th century. That title, or so I argue, should go to ‘Western civilization,’ a superficially similar notion with one striking difference: unlike ‘civilization,’ the opposite of which is just ‘barbarism’ or ‘savagery’ or something equally lesser, ‘Western civilization’ as a postulate holds out the possibility that there might be other civilizations. And those other civilizations might be in some sense on the same level as our own — different from us, but not simply composed of primitives whom we need to educate and cultivate and improve into mirror-images of ourselves. ‘Western civilization’ is the controlling rhetorical logic of the Cold War, occasional calls for ‘rollback’ to the contrary — by and large, the Cold War is about us staying on our side of the fence, them staying on theirs, and our involvement in the world being centrally mediated through multilateral alliances (NATO above all) with our fellow-‘Westerners.’

[Note that neither ‘civilization’ nor ‘Western civilization’ are factual claims, even though they are sometimes expressed in that form (especially by people like Samuel Huntington). There is no way to conclusively determine whether some country is or is not ‘Western’ or ‘civilized.’ Rather, these terms are part of political strategies, which is why I keep placing them in single-quotation marks — “scare-quotes,” if you will.]

So: American exceptionalism is the heart of “isolationism,” and gives rise to unilateral policies in which the United States refrains from commitment to the rest of the world, and looks after its own interests — since those interests are in some sense of universal significance (in the sense that “perfecting liberty” might be part of God’s Ineffable Plan For The World). ‘Civilization’ and ‘Western civilization’ are important components of political and rhetorical strategies intended to promote vastly different policies: multilateral alliances, long-term commitments to involvement in other parts of the world, and in general a broader sense of the community which US foreign policy is supposed to be preserving and protecting.

Taking that as established, let’s examine some of the central foreign policy arguments made in Bush’s speech on Tuesday night. I’ve highlighted certain key words and phrases.

The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership. So the United States of America will continue to lead.

In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores.

But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil. America rejects the false comfort of isolationism.

. . . we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed and move this world toward peace. We remain on the offensive against terror networks . . .

All of these claims work together to establish an interesting hybrid: American exceptionalism remains strong, but it is coupled to a state of emergency that necessitates a temporary deviation from the default state of an aloof United States working on its own internal values and structures. Call this the Wilson-minus strategy: Wilson’s crusading impulse and fervor, but without the notion of a community of ‘civilized’ powers with which the United States should cooperate in bringing about these just and beneficent ends. Indeed, Bush only refers to allies once in the speech:

In all of these areas — from the disruption of terror networks, to victory in Iraq, to the spread of freedom and hope in troubled regions — we need the support of our friends and allies. To draw that support, we must always be clear in our principles and willing to act. The only alternative to American leadership is a dramatically more dangerous and anxious world. Yet we also choose to lead because it is a privilege to serve the values that gave us birth. American leaders — from Roosevelt, to Truman, to Kennedy, to Reagan — rejected isolation and retreat because they knew that America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.

Several things are fascinating about this. No allies are mentioned by name, and certainly no multilateral alliances involving such allies. The support of “friends and allies” seems to be contingent on those friends and allies signing on to the “clear principles” that the United States is articulating — a very conditional kind of alliance, to say the least. And the overall goal remains simultaneously universalist and particular: our values, our notion of freedom, which has universal significance. And our “friends and allies” are people and states that recognize this and agree with us, and therefore lend us their support. (On 20 September 2001 Bush told the assembled countries of the world that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”; the logic of Tuesday’s speech is, in all important respects, exactly the same.)

And consider Bush’s concluding paragraph:

We will lead freedom’s advance. We will compete and excel in the global economy. We will renew the defining moral commitments of this land. And so we move forward optimistic about our country, faithful to its cause and confident of the victories to come.

Sounds like a call for internal purification to me. Who’s the isolationist here, exactly?

Some may dismiss all of this as “mere rhetoric.” Some may point out that these kinds of flourishes abound in State of the Union addresses and Inaugural speeches. (Dan and I actually did this in our (in)famous article on the Borg and US foreign policy, cited here.) But I would suggest that there’s more at stake here than simple ornamentation. Public rhetoric is an indispensable component of a political strategy, as it provides the meaningful frame and context within which people (and in a democracy, voters) make sense of proposals for action. Rhetoric matters inasmuch as different frames have wildly different implications. The fact that Bush is arguing a classic American exceptionalist position, that the entire foreign policy of his administration is centered around the proposition that the United States is in some sense chosen by God or History to deliver the world to truth and righteousness — and to do this with “coalitions of the willing” defined as those countries and institutions that agree with the US, rather than through multilateral conversations and complex engagements with long-standing allies — matters. The United States is so big and so powerful that the terms on which it engages the rest of the world may well be the most important issue in international politics today.

And frankly, the terms that the Bush Administration is utilizing scare the hell out of me, since those terms point to a permanent state of war with everyone who disagrees with their particular vision of world order. If the United States is essentially different from the rest of the world, what other conclusion can be reliably drawn? What other future can be reasonably imagined?

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.