Whose internationalism, whose isolationism?

Author:Rieff, David

That the end of the Cold War has unsettled American thinking about foreign policy to an extent unknown since the repudiation of the Wilsonian project in 1919 is by now a commonplace, the subject of innumerable conferences, essays, and editorials. In retrospect, this turning away from what was, by any measure, a very extreme version of internationalism would have taken place even without the collapse of the Soviet empire. To the extent that it was ever to be taken at face value, the approach to foreign policy exemplified by President John F. Kennedy's emblematic utterance that the United States was prepared to "bear any burden" and "pay any price" in the defense of freedom could only be made in a period of national emergency.

As a realistic account of long-term American intent, it was always unsustainable. It was one thing for the United States to imagine it could take a leading role everywhere in the world during the 1950s and 1960s when it was the sole economic superpower. After that, the idea that American power was limitless was as ill-founded as the idea that the domestic political support for the deployment of that power, particularly to areas of marginal national interest, was bottomless, as the war in Vietnam demonstrated.

Nonetheless, the psychology induced by the Cold War mobilization had such a powerful effect on American policymaking that reverting to a more modest conception of America's international responsibilities has proven far more difficult than might have been expected. America is not a society where the idea of limits gets a friendly hearing. So the response to the end of the Cold War on the part of many, particularly outside the policymaking elite, has been to turn toward the idea that if the United States cannot do everything, then perhaps it should do nothing except what it is required to do to protect its most vital national interests.

That, of course, is not how superpowers have traditionally conceived of their roles, nor is it a view that is upheld with any rigor or consistency, as the continuing support for near-Cold War levels of military expenditure demonstrates. But nowadays, the United States is a reluctant superpower, eager to continue to enjoy the privileges of that status but increasingly unwilling to assume its obligations.

It is possible that, however haltingly, what this change in American attitudes represents is no more than a salutary if belated coming to terms with imperial overstretch. Both realists and radicals have been relieved by signs of a new-found modesty in U.S. foreign policy goals. The question remains, however, whether, as foreign policy specialists assume, or, at least, hope, the public's disenchantment is only with that extreme variant of the internationalist agenda - the one that at its height combined Cold War-level capabilities for projecting military power, an aggressive trade policy, and a high level of commitment to human rights and humanitarian actions.

The alternative is to suppose that what is really taking place is not a restoration of the proper balance between American ambitions and American capabilities but, on the part of the public, a genuine retreat, if not toward isolationism in the strict sense, then at least toward a form of neo-isolationism that will make any effective American action, except in response to the most dire emergencies, all but impossible.

Taft's Revenge

It is worth bearing in mind that the internationalist consensus in the United States is a product of the Cold War era. It did not exist before the Second World War and, indeed, it is somewhat at odds with the traditional American view - one that Woodrow Wilson himself shared to a large extent - that for the United States to involve itself in the affairs of foreign countries deemed to be corrupt was to put its own societal health at risk. When Wilson tried to commit the United States to ensuring the peace of Europe, he did so as a moral crusader, not as a statesman representing a great power. And it can be argued that the Cold War, too, would not have commanded the loyalty of Americans had it not been presented as another exceptional moment, another crusade - in other words, as outside the normal realm of foreign policy.

Arthur Schlesinger's suggestion that ideals "are an indispensable constituent of American power" can be interpreted as implying that unless Americans can be convinced that some great ideal is at stake, they prefer to remain aloof, to concentrate on their domestic concerns. But since the Cold War was just the sort of moralized conflict that has historically fired the American imagination, it was possible to imagine for the past half-century that the isolationist impulse had expired with Sen. Robert Taft.

The current crisis, which has involved widespread popular repudiation of both the Wilsonian and the Cold War variants of internationalism, puts that conceit to rest. It may be impossible, in the current interdependent global economy, to be a pure isolationist (the weight of the American historical experience suggests that pure realism, its polar opposite, is not a doctrine that is sustainable in the United States either), but it is wishful thinking for members of the policy elite to imagine that the debate over the direction of American foreign policy in the aftermath of the Cold War is purely corrective.

The entire liberal international agenda is under attack, from foreign aid, to the need for participation in international political institutions (international economic institutions are another story), to the role of the U.S. military. In other words, it is the viability of internationalism as one of the agreed-upon organizing principles of the American state that is being questioned.

Senator Taft must be smiling. There has not been such a turning away from internationalism since the U.S. Senate's refusal to endorse the League of Nations, and with it any prospect of collective security in the post-First World War world. The elite of government officials, academics, and officials of nongovernmental organizations and foundations debate what the goals of American foreign policy should be in the post-Cold War era, but they rarely question the need for American leadership. Within the general public, however, a sense, still largely inchoate but tonally similar to the one that prevailed in the early 1920s, has arisen that the United States simply has too many commitments abroad and should rid itself of many of them. They do not accept, as Wilson accepted, and the American presidents who presided during the Cold War accepted, that the United States needs to conceive of itself either as a superpower or as a guarantor of liberty - the two roles that the Cold War conflated in the minds of most Americans.

More Drift Than Mastery

The politicians are to a great extent caught in the middle, trying to please anxious and skeptical voters while continuing to uphold the web of commitments that are the legacy of half a century of aggressive international engagement. It is an increasingly difficult balancing act. The new isolationist impulse and the Wilsonian visionary impulse seem increasingly irreconcilable. Small wonder, then, that within the policy establishment, the search for scapegoats has already begun - a debate that might be called, "Who lost internationalism?"

For many, including a surprising number of liberal Democrats, the Clinton administration bears much of the blame for the retreat from engagement that is finding such favor with the public at large. What has angered and confused many traditional internationalists is less candidate Clinton's assertions about the need to concentrate more on domestic affairs ("It's the economy, stupid") as much as, paradoxically, the gap between so many of Clinton's campaign promises about specific foreign policy questions - his engagement to stop the slaughter in Bosnia, or to hold China to a higher human rights standard than the Bush administration had done - and the policies he undertook once in office.

Clinton has obviously retreated from many of the positions he took initially, and much was bungled in his foreign policy. Nevertheless, to blame the administration for the crisis of internationalism is to shoot the messenger. The essential point is that whatever the administration's particular failures and inadequacies, it is likely that any president in this immediate postwar period would have exhibited more drift than mastery where foreign policy was concerned.

It is, of course, possible to imagine some extraordinary leader who could articulate a new vision of America, but given the failure of our ablest thinkers about internationalism to come up with anything of the sort themselves, such an expectation does not seem realistic. For policymakers are being confronted with a challenge from the public that they did not expect, one that is skeptical about the...

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