Are the Isolationists Right?
Some in the conservative movement are under the impression that America’s involvement in the affairs of other nations is an unacceptable and unnecessary. They consider America a worldwide empire, and point out the ubiquitous presence of American troops around the world as evidence as this assertion. This branch of conservatism supports isolationism and paleo-conservatism.
Isolationalists point to George Washington’s farewell address, which warned against entanglement in foreign affairs, and some of the more useless U.S. troop deployments (we have over 75,000 soldiers in Germany, almost three times the number we have in Afghanistan). They believe that the United States suffers from “imperial overstretch”, and will eventually overextend itself and fall.
The leaders of this branch of conservatism are, by and large, slightly crazy. They include Ron Paul, who has always been more than a little eccentric, Pat Buchanan, who was once a real leader of the conservative movement, but now has regressed to something of a xenophobic crackpot (literally, xenophobic is overused, but it fits Buchanan), and Joseph Sobran, whom makes Ron Paul look extremely rational.
There mere fact that nuts dominate a movement does not prove that it is incorrect—after all, during the early Sixties, the John Birch Society was one of the most influential conservative groups until William F. Buckley expelled them from the movement. Not all paleo-conservatives are like Ron Paul—many are rational, and defend their position intelligently. Still, most causes dominated by crazies are, in fact, crazy.
Paleo-conservatism is. First of all, the idea that America is an empire is absurd. “Empire” is defined as “a group of states under one monarch”. The United States, controls, at most, three countries (besides itself, it effectively controls Iraq and Afghanistan), but clearly on a temporary basis. Arguing that America has an “empire” because of its involvements in the Middle East is analogous to arguing that it had an empire after World War II, since this country controlled Germany and Japan.
But, paleo-conservatives reply, what of America’s global dominance? It is undeniably true that America is the world’s most powerful country, and has a great deal of control over the internal affairs of other countries. But that doesn’t equate to an American Empire, rather, it means that America is a global hegemony.
If the charge that America is an empire falls short, there it little left of the paleo-conservative argument, as it rests mostly on that alarmist claim. George Washington’s farewell speech, which does support the paleo-conservative argument, doesn’t hold up. George Washington was a) not a prophet, and b) was speaking over 200 years ago. In his day, America was separated from the rest of the world by two massive oceans, which took weeks and sometimes months to cross. Now, America is no more protected than any other country. George Washington was usually right, but it is as absurd to assume that his advice on foreign policy would be any more helpful in our day than the advice of Elizabeth I (who lived about 200 years before Washington) would have been in his.
Indeed, the idea that we could remove ourselves from the foreign policies of the rest of the world is incredibly naïve. We buy things produced in foreign countries, we sell things to foreign countries, we share our culture with (and export our culture to) foreign countries. The idea that we can do the above, but avoid entanglements in their conflicts is ludicrous. Arguing against foreign entanglements simply doesn’t make sense—by the very fact that the United States exists, it must be involved in world affairs. (Try to name a country that is truly isolationist). And since we dominate economically, we must attempt to exert influence on the foreign policies of other countries.
Are pale-conservatives wrong about everything? No—few movements are. The idea that we are the world’s policemen who are to spread freedom and democracy to the world is as preposterous as the notion that we could withdraw completely from world affairs. Granted, spreading democracy feels good, but all too often doesn’t work (for example, most of Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East). Anyway, there are far too many countries to spread peace and democracy to them all. In that particular criticism, the paleo-conservatives make a strong and valid case.
However, they do not see that we live in a dangerous world, and have lived in one for some time. One of the best tests of a political theory is to apply it to history, and see how things would have changed. Had the United States embraced isolationism during the twentieth century, Germany would have conquered England, and the Soviet Union would have almost certainly won the Cold War. That alone makes a very strong case against the whole isolationist ideal.