Never Alone: Let’s Retire the Word “Isolationism”


Warning that withdrawal from the European Union could threaten the peace of Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed “Isolationism has never served this country well.” This echoes an old theme that American presidents regularly invoke. President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy of 2010 stated, “America has never succeeded through isolationism.” Cameron and Obama are right. Isolationism has never served Britain well, or the United States. Mainly because neither state has ever really practiced isolationism. At least, not according to the fictitious mode of behavior that the accusation suggests. The concept itself has lost its meaning and utility. It has become an obfuscating smear, symptomatic of a wider sloganization of foreign policy debate. It is a slogan fit for the age of Twitter. And it is time to retire it, or at least handle it with care.

The cry of isolationism is intended to conjure historical memories, of an earlier time when our forebears naively tried to isolate their countries from world affairs, only to pay a high price in blood. Britain once stood alone against a continent that was dominated by Nazi barbarism, we recall, without allies. That image was captured in Sir David Lowe’s famous cartoon of June 1940, “Very Well, Alone.” Britons derive pride from that memory. Yet, they don’t wish to repeat the experiment. In truth, in May 1940 when it courageously decided not to capitulate to the Axis powers, Britain faced danger yet it was not alone. It was not an isolated offshore minnow but a global empire and Commonwealth that would mobilize millions to its cause. Indeed, a more complex mix of policies have long characterized its diplomacy.Never-Alone

What does “isolationism” entail, exactly? Originally, the term meant not absolute insulation or detachment from the world, or anti-internationalism. Actual, literal isolation as a conscious policy is historically rare. The lockdown of Tokugawa Japan from outside influence is one of few examples. Rather, historically the term ranged in meanings that always fell short of outright retreat, from the avoidance of formal alliance commitments to a general aversion to over-entanglement. It carried ambiguity, sometimes referring to an absence of friends as well as allies. To detractors, it brought weakness, to defenders, it brought freedom of action.

For both the United States and Britain, it also referred to a wider strategic problem: the difficult balancing act between Europe and the world beyond Europe. Over-entanglement in continental European affairs, governments feared, could jeopardize Britain’s ability to sustain and defend its widely dispersed global empire. Europe was not the entire world, and for some, the continental commitment mishandled could jeopardise core imperial commitments. Europe was but one of multiple centres of power, which Britain sought to keep in equilibrium.

The primal scene of the isolationist charge is not the 19th century, where the term ‘splendid isolation’ comes from. It is, implicitly or explicitly, the interwar period. Folk memory faults the appeasers and the isolationists for turning their back on the world. As Anne Applebaum analogizes it, “Brexiteers want British appeasement, disengagement. Which worked out very well in the 1930s.” How leaving a transnational union or declaring independence necessarily amounts to disengagement is not clear. Certainly, for a mainstream tradition, it is always Munich, 1938 somewhere. Even during the 1920s and 30s, however, neither Britain nor the United States were isolated powers. For both, a fear of overcommitment was not synonymous with disengagement. Baldwin and Chamberlain’s Britain was extensively engaged in European diplomacy, wisely or not, working on the basis of the earlier Locarno Pact (signed in 1925) to the League of Nations and the Nyon Conference on submarine warfare and Mediterranean shipping. If this amounts to “disengagement,” it is a busy kind. Strategic debate in the 1930s was propelled not by an urge to withdraw, but by an urge to hold together a widely-scattered empire against the basic realization that a vulnerable empire could not afford to take on local and far-off adversaries – both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany – at once. As Chamberlain reasoned, just as Britain’s sovereign independence relied on a balance of power in Europe, its weight and world rank, relied on its imperial possessions.

Indeed, it is not easy to design an alternative history for British statecraft in the 1930s where affairs could work out better. Chamberlain’s government was rearming, attracting the charge of being warmongers, and doing so gradually while trying to buy time in order to prevent economic dislocation after the devastating Great Depression. What prudent alternatives were there? A grand alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union? This would have entailed appeasing a totalitarian regime at the expense of the Baltic States and aligning with a regime that had, to that point, committed more atrocities than Hitler and purged its army. An early, preventive war against Nazi Germany, without the support of the United States or Commonwealth countries? As it happened, there were disasters to come. But Britain’s preparations and policies left it in a position to survive the terrors of 1940, and leaving the burden of the first-move to Nazi Germany, which became the unambiguous aggressor. Glib dismissals of 1930s statecraft don’t quite capture the gravity of the dilemmas involved.

Historically, it was never the grand strategy of the United States to isolate itself. It was always extensively engaged in international trade and diplomacy. True, its Senate defied President Woodrow Wilson over the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, and the country rejected the League of Nations. Yet this did not signal retirement. The United States maintained a Pacific empire, presided over the Washington Naval Conference of 1922, and tried to assist German economic revival and address the reparations issue through the Dawes and Young Plans. Advocates of insulation from European power struggles often believed that the United States could defend itself amply across a vast domain from far into the Pacific through to territories in South America and off its eastern coast. To believe that the state should content itself with defending a domain from Alaska to Luzon, Canada to Argentina, Greenland to Brazil, (or beyond that if we include the Philippines), is not the equivalent of hiding under the bed.

Moreover, contrary to the dominant myths of statecraft, America was not passively isolationist and dormant before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. America’s war began not as a failure of isolationism in Europe, but as a failure of coercion and deterrence in the Asia-Pacific. Washington placed a stranglehold on Imperial Japan in the form of an economic embargo on shipments of raw materials and oil shipments, and an asset freeze, to oppose its predations in China and in pursuit of an East Asian ‘open door’ of trading interests — presenting Tokyo with the choice between abdicating its imperial ambitions or challenging American power. We know what happened next. And up until Pearl Harbor, the United States was increasingly implicated in the European war, providing Atlantic naval escorts, acting as the arsenal of democracy, and expanding its defence perimeter to Greenland.

The point here is not to fault or favor these choices. It is to suggest that even in times mythologized for foolish isolation, both Britain and the United States have strategically engaged in major and consequential ways. Evidently, there are no universal formulas. Different forms of engagement, intimately or from a remove, can succeed or fail. What works in some places and times will not work in others. Periods of aloofness and restraint can lead to war, but so too can periods of escalation, arms races, and formal alliances. Those are the two, conflicting meta-patterns of the 20th century. It’s a hard reality of diplomatic history, and it is difficult to compress into 140 characters.

These days, isolationism as a concept has stretched to breaking point. It now refers, pejoratively, to a broad church of instincts and attitudes that favor limitation of some kind. Indeed, the word and the surrounding rhetoric elide two distinct concepts, restraint and isolation. To be wary of overstretch, to avoid military intervention in some cases or reduce the defense budget to the point where it still eclipses most major powers combined, to insist that allies or partners carry a greater burden of security provision, or to propose leaving a transnational union, all such efforts at rebalancing means and ends are now tainted by the suggestion that what the target really desires is a state of isolation. To follow the tired metaphors, it is to pull up the drawbridge, withdraw from the world, and turn inward. It is to leave the stage to the mercies of the predatory or even apocalyptic forces. It is to sacrifice ambition and internationalism for a false security. There is also a notion lurking here of the world citizen. To be “isolationist” is to be what the airport-hopping, conference-attending, holiday-making international elite fear, provincial rather than cosmopolitan, ‘little’ rather than macro, national rather than post-national.

This poses a difficulty. Strategy, or the alignment of power and commitments, is about limitation. Resources are scarce, few choices are free of opportunity costs, and free lunches are few. If limitation is just about inevitable, and if the charge of isolationism encompasses just about any notion of self-limitation, then any orientation short of universal hyper-activism is open to the accusation. When most politicians can indict most others for it, the term loses value. In practice, those who cry isolationism when advancing their own activist causes usually favor restraint elsewhere. Historian Niall Ferguson praised Cameron’s speech, on the grounds that “there was never anything splendid in British isolation.” Yet Ferguson counterfactually argues for British non-involvement in Europe’s catastrophic war of 1914, despite the fact that it had a treaty commitment to Belgium dating from 1839. Why is it isolationist to oppose membership of the European Union, but not isolationist to oppose the defense of Belgian neutrality and participation in Europe’s defining war? Isn’t it rather the case that all statecraft must mix shaping and restraining measures?

If the measure of anti-isolationism, as Cameron’s speech suggests, is a historical willingness to wade into conflicts that implicate British interests, why does that stop at Europe? One of the most momentous wars that shaped the 20th century, and the future of the British empire, was the American Civil War. Some “internationalists” considered intervention in the form of recognizing the Confederacy. Was staying out of that struggle “isolationist” too?

Consider an area where the stakes are high today: In the race for the presidency, critics brand as “isolationist” Donald Trump’s curious foreign policy offering of protection rackets, forced wall-financing, debt defaulting, and murderous bombardment. Leaving aside the clownish surrealism of it all, and forcing another country to pay for a wall, is many things, but it is not a refusal to engage beyond the water’s edge or in others’ internal affairs. Expanding America’s bombardment of the Islamic State to the families of terrorists is not the equivalent of what Charles Lindbergh and “America First” demanded in the interwar period: that the United States retract itself from security commitments, take refuge behind its ocean moats and naval/air shield, and leave security crises to the Old World. If we are to define Trump’s odd assortment of foreign policy poses, he is a particularly violent, Jacksonian nationalist, looking to shape world order through a kind of imperial terror.

The cavalier misuse of terms like “isolationism” reflects something more fundamental happening to politics, its regression back into a trivial pursuit. Today, political combat is played out in rapid tempo, with inflammatory sound bites and slogans, with the Twittersphere further accelerating the velocity of democratic politics. No doubt these developments make possible all kinds of useful mobilization. Unfortunately, they also damage the quality of debate about international questions. They lend a hysteria, and a kind of cartoonish disproportion, to discussion. In the past few years, commentators branded the campaign against the Islamic State as “the new battle of Britain,” the “Brexit” vote as the equivalent of Athens defying the Persian empire at Marathon, and in speaking of cyber-attacks, warn of “digital Armageddon.” Further, lest we forget the Global War on Terror to suppress militant jihadis, that some advocates labelled World War III, or IV. The dividends of such hyperbole are the neglect of detail and the peculiarity of every situation, a dangerous want of proportion, a seductive wish that binary rhetoric can resolve complex diplomatic issues.

Today’s debates, on either side of the Atlantic, are not best conceived as a tussle between internationalism and isolationism, however that framing suits some partisans. It is rather a less spectacular, more difficult and more grown-up issue, namely what the terms of engagement should be. Britain’s E.U. referendum is not a matter of isolation, but one of integration. No one of consequence is proposing a wholesale withdrawal from continental affairs, or from NATO.

The forthcoming report of the United Kingdom’s Iraq Inquiry ought to be a sobering reminder of what is at stake when we reduce international relations to a morality play. As Todd Gitlin warned while U.S.-led troops attempted to bring Iraq back from the brink of implosion

All challenges qualify as unique challenges, as do all enemies and the dangers they present. Wars will always be atrocious, but sometimes the absence of war will be atrocious, too. Circumstances count. Ends count, means count, and the relations between them count. Attaching a Roman numeral to the prospect of war does not make it either just or smart. Metaphorical overstretch bids to be the thought disorder of our time.

It is time to retire the word “isolationism.” Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen, precisely for the usefulness of the term. We in the audience can at least view the term with a new shock of recognition, and insist on some care with words in a demagogic age.


Professor Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.  He is the author of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.

Image: White House