Isolationism? A False Choice on Foreign Policy

Brian Lipshutz /

On Sunday, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had a stark message for the GOP candidates on ABC’s This Week:  “We cannot move into [becoming] an isolationist party.  We cannot repeat the lessons of the 1930s when the United States of America stood by while bad things happened in the world.”  Senator McCain is correct that Americans should not withdraw from the world in response to the active internationalism of recent years.

Fortunately, conservatives do not need to choose between intervening everywhere and walling ourselves off from the world economically, politically, and militarily.  If we look to first principles, the proper foreign policy is somewhere in between: a doctrine of always supporting liberty and self-government but not necessarily intervening militarily in every situation.  This doctrine, as Matthew Spalding has written, is at once principled and prudent.

The foundational text for most isolationists is President George Washington’s Farewell Address.  What they don’t realize is that the foreign policy of the Founders was anything but isolationist.  His speech warned against permanent alliances and enmities, not all alliances or enmities.  In that spirit, he encouraged Americans to trade with foreign nations.  Above all, his great hope was that our nation would be powerful enough to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”  America is neither realist nor idealist in the international realm—it looks to its interests and justice in adopting a course of action.

As one example of the foreign policy of the founding generation, the United States chose not to intervene militarily when the Greeks rose up against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s.  This was a choice of peace based on our national interest.  President James Monroe expressed America’s “ardent wishes” that the Greeks should win their independence, and the government allowed many private citizens to support the revolution.  The first measure was a daring stand in the age of empires and monarchs, and the latter was an important contribution to the Greek war effort.  This foreign policy was not morally relativistic, but neither was it reflexively interventionist at the risk of our own interests.

We should be mindful to draw a distinction between a fixed doctrine and a specific policy for certain situations.  Isolationism is a doctrine that rejects foreign military intervention, alliances, and even trade, in all situations.  This doctrine only took hold in American politics during the 1930s, and as Senator McCain explained, the consequences of German and Japanese militarism were devastating.

Internationalism is a doctrine that commits us to alliances and military intervention as a rule.  This doctrine only took hold in American politics during the early twentieth century as the progressives rejected American first principles.

Fortunately, conservatives do not need to choose between isolationism and internationalism.  Our foreign policy can be faithful to the Founders’ approach of international trade and principled prudence.  In certain situations, we will decide not to intervene in a particular conflict.  In others, we will go to war to defend our liberty, independence, or security.  In all of them, we will be guided by our commitment to liberty as well as to American security.

Brian Lipshutz is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm