The resurgence of American isolationism

18 september 2023Leestijd: 5 minuten
Republikeins verkiezingsdebat. Foto: SMIALOWSKI / AFP

America is turning inwards. Europe must avoid fanning the flames of isolationism, writes Roberta Haar.

Read the Dutch translation of this article here.

Summers for me provide the time to read books that are relevant to my research.  My summer books often prove to reinvigorate my interests and passion for understanding and explaining America’s role in the world. This year was no different as I read the wonderfully well-written 2019 biography of the U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, written by George Packer.  Holbrooke is most well known in the history books for his cajoling and strong-arming the opposing sides of the Bosnian War to sign the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995.

While the events at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio are a prime focus of Packer’s book, Packer uses the span of Holbrooke’s political life as a living example of the rise and fall of the “American Century.”  As we slide into the U.S. 2024 presidential primary season, contemplating what Americans think about what is also called “Pax Americana,” feels like a good thought exercise.

Our Man

Packer argues that the rise and fall of Holbrooke’s career mirrors the rise and fall of an idealized America—in particular, the belief that America is an untrammeled force for good. While the so-called ‘the American Century’ is not 100 years, there is a clear beginning.

It starts with the Second World War and the creative bursts that followed in U.S. policy making and includes the founding of the United Nations, the creation of the Atlantic alliance, the implementation of the Truman Doctrine, and what is colloquially known as the ‘founding of the free world.’’ To be sure, the century went through dizzying lows and highs. Packer is fixated upon the lows and the perceived end of the American century.

The end of American supremacy

He wonders what brings on doom to great powers, and great men like Holbrooke. He asks, ‘Is it simple hubris, or decadence and squander, a kind of inattention, a loss of faith, or just the passage of years?’ Holbrooke was a man who achieved great things but who also had a colossal ego. The best was inseparable from the worst. That applied to him just as much as to the America he served. America’s belief that it could do anything yielded the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the Dayton Peace Accords and the endless Afghan War.

American confidence and energy, American reach and global footprint, American excess and blindness—Packer says these contradictions were not so different from Holbrooke’s—he was America’s man and thus giving Packer a very good reason to tell Holbrooke’s story.

America the spent force

I understand why Packer muses that America’s century in the sun has ended and his arguments that too often when America was on top, it overreached. And yet, his forecast feels too gloomy.  There are other visions of America’s future that are less pessimistic. In fact, there are competing visions in the United States for what sort of nation-state it should become. Many within the Joe Biden administration believe that the U.S. should engage in global activism and that the U.S. stands for more than just its own power.

The U.S. liberal internationalism of the postwar era, which includes Harry S. Truman’s and John F. Kennedy’s, can still be found in U.S. sentiments. The challenges that summoned these views are certainly different today from the Cold War but the feeling that the U.S. has a responsibility to other states is still found in Washington.

The new isolationists

Another vision for the type of nation state the U.S. should become in the future has its roots in the pre-WWI and the interwar periods, when the U.S. withdrew from the international system. The epitome of those who continue to want America to withdraw—the new isolationists—was Senator Jesse Helms, who over his 30 years in the Senate doggedly campaigned against the United Nations, the Kyoto Protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Ottawa Treaty (the treaty to ban land mines), and the International Criminal Court.

I had the opportunity to attend a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting that Helms chaired; his southern charm softened his “Senator No” views. However, whether communicated in a southern drawl or one from Queens, New York City, the anti-internationalism, lonesome road that Helms helped pave envisions a disengaged America whose allies are few and who take care of themselves.

America First

The new isolationists believe in America First—that major threats in the world come from an overactive U.S. foreign policy and events outside of U.S. borders are not so crucial to U.S. security. Besides, there is not that much the U.S. can do about such threats anyway. For new isolationists, nation building is a fool’s errand.

To anyone even superficially following American politics, it should be obvious that Donald J. Trump is the successor to those who hold a disengaged vision for the U.S. Today, Europeans must take into account that these sentiments are gaining traction within the Republican Party. Certainly, running up to the election of 2016, Trump capitalized on feelings of unfairness within the NATO alliance and that the United States is poorly served by the order that it built after World War II.

Isolationism is widespread

Echoing those ideas, the current Republican primary candidates are running on platforms of suspicion towards helping allies, especially Ukraine. For example, Florida governor Ron De Santis said that if he were president, any U.S. support to Ukraine would be contingent on European countries increasing their support to Kyiv.

This new isolationist sentiment is finding its way in all corners of U.S. public discourse. While in South Dakota I heard that Trump “got some things right” about its allies not only from the usual suspects (from vivid Trump supporters), but also from my more progressive friends. In fact, over the course of my stay this past summer, I heard more anti-European sentiments than I have ever heard in my entire life.

What are Europeans to do?

 First, Europeans should realize that U.S. campaigns are raucous affairs that include an inundation of television advertising, robocalls, hyper-partisan websites and a bot-barrage through social media.  Americans are able to wade through this electoral onslaught rather well.  As a recent Economist pointed out, most Americans tend to view all campaign messages as spam.

I hope that this also means that a majority of Americans will cast their vote on policy issues and for candidates that promise to uphold traditional democratic values and a renewed commitment to justice, liberty and long-held allies. I hope that Americans vote for a future that strives to be a force for good in the world.

Europe does not stick to the NATO-norm

Second, European must do their part by not adding grist to the new isolationist mill. Europeans should undermine Trump’s main argument that they are not doing enough for their own security and defense. However, at the recent NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, it was still clear that many European members lag behind the 2% guideline of defense spending, to the annoyance of America.