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The Revenge of Geopolitics
Is the Neo-Isolationist Moment Already Over?

In the 2012 presidential election campaign, the debate between Governor Romney and President Obama on foreign policy was widely considered the least important of the three debates. But because of the Ukraine crisis, foreign policy is back at the center of our national conversation, and the WSJ’s Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib thinks it will stay there. The world is getting nastier, Seib argues, and domestic issues won’t be able to elbow out foreign policy anymore:

Syria is turning into an ungovernable mess, and a breeding ground for all manner of extremist groups. President Bashar al-Assad isn’t going away, thanks to an influx of help from his friends in Iran and Russia, but he isn’t reasserting control of his country, either.

[...] If tensions in the Middle East are rising because of weak governments there, they’re rising in Asia because rival governments are growing stronger. China’s arrival as an economic power and as an emerging military power has led to tensions with a newly assertive Japan in the East China Sea, and with a handful of American allies in the South China Sea. At a minimum, the tensions require attention and deployment of naval assets to reassure friends.

Iran’s nuclear program isn’t going away as an issue, regardless of the outcome of current international negotiations designed to rein it in.

As the domestic political debate over these crises heats up, we are seeing a classic American pattern in action. America’s success abroad breeds stupidity and hubris in U.S. foreign policy. This hubris and stupidity leads to bad choices and magical thinking. We begin to believe, for example, that the world can become safer and more democratic even as we scale back our involvement. These bad choices and bad ideas then lead to huge global challenges. Those challenges ultimately spark smarter, more purposeful American engagement, usually after we’ve tried a few unsuccessful gambits first. That engagement finally leads to American success, which leads back again to American stupidity and hubris. And so on.

Contrary to Jeffersonian legends, what drove increasing American engagement over the 20th century wasn’t the missionary itch of the Wilsonians, or corporatist, Hamiltonian plots to build spooky New World Orders to Bilderberger specifications. It was the reality that when Americans got foreign policy wrong or ignored the outside world, the consequences were so severe that we were continually forced back into the “game” of world politics. What Seib is gesturing to is the reappearance of this reality. A mix of poor foreign policy choices—under President Bush as well as President Obama—added to the consequences of a tentative American pivot away from global engagement have led to a sharp deterioration in the world situation. Accordingly there will be more momentum behind broader U.S. international involvement as global security continues to get worse.

Recently, those who support smaller U.S. presence abroad have had a moment. Provoked by exhaustion over our adventures in the Middle East, American discourse has shown some sympathy for politicians like Rand Paul who want to reduce our overseas commitments. But Seib’s piece suggests that the inchoate neo-isolationist moment may already be coming to an end. A newly attentive American public will pay closer attention to foreign policy during the next presidential election cycle than it did in the last one, and will be less likely now to give a pass to politicians who want to withdraw within U.S. borders.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The USA has a foreign policy?

    • Genma+Saotome

      Yes. Take your pick: “A friend in need is no friend of ours” or “A Foreign Policy of manifest retreat based entirely on moral maneuverability and suppleness of principle”.

    • B-Sabre

      No foreign policy is still a foreign policy.

  • PKCasimir

    The problem is not “neo-isolationism.” The problem is that American foreign policy has, for the past six years, been run by an incompetent President, an incompetent Secretary of State, and an airhead National Security Advisor. Oh, and let’s not forget our foul-mouthed Vice-President – “Goofy Joe” Biden.

    • Fat_Man

      Word, Dude.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s a little more complicated that that. The Department of State is populated with people who, to be charitable, have no inkling as to what the national interest is. The uncharitable view is that they do know, and are intent on destroying the country.

  • Bruce

    This analysis is accurate but the conclusion is inaccurate. There is no evidence that people will pay attention to foreign policy unless there is an event that directly affects us. Watching Syria implode doesn’t matter to Americans, until terrorists trained there attack America. China and Japan blustering at each other changes nobody’s vote in the U.S. People don’t want Iran to have a nuke, but nobody has figured out how to prevent it and Americans won’t vote that issue at the ballot box. Even American Jews won’t. They will continue to vote Dem. Until something tangible affects America, the punditry that thinks Americans care about this will be talking to one another and Americans will vote based on domestic policy preferences. Is Hillary going to offer upgraded Obamaphones?

  • Anthony

    “No other power or constellation of powers is able to provide even a fraction of the global order provided by the United States. U.S. air and sea dominance preserves the peace, such as it exists, in Asia and the Greater Middle East. Ameican military force, reasonably deployed, is what ultimately protects democracies as diverse as Poland, Israel, and Taiwan from being overrun by enemies….” Neo isolationism, no, not so much; restraint in certain circumstances, yes, probably so. The attention remains unavoidable.

  • Jim__L

    I’ll believe it when I see our defense budget climb again.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …it always has, why wouldn’t it do so today?

      • Jim__L

        Actually, it hasn’t. Obama has reduced defense expenditures by double-digit percentages, and Hagel is bragging about cutting more.

        With trends the way they are, we’re on track to spend more on servicing the national debt than on national defense. We may be there already.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          No, Obama hasn’t “reduced defense expenditures by double-digit percentages”, that’s just flat out false.

          Here’s real data for his first term, where spending went up every year:

          http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/spending_chart_2000_2014USb_15s2li111mcn_30t

          The follow on years show a spending reduction, but that’s projected and you can bet it won’t occur. And this despite the fact that we’ve pulled out of Iraq and are supposed to be pulling out of Afghanistan (which won’t likely happen). That SHOULD save money, but it won’t. They’ve appropriated that cash, and they’re going to spend it SOMEWHERE, if not in Iraq/Afghan. They always do.

          Defense spending only goes up. You should already know that, if you understand US politics.

          And nobody cares about Hagel, or what he says. He’s just another Beltway muppet.

          • Jim__L

            I’m not sure where the website you cite gets their numbers from… they do not resemble any other numbers I have seen on the subject.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            That site is well used and well known throughout the innerwebs. You seem to be acknowledging that you don’t review budgetary statistics at all, if you aren’t familiar with it.

            You have provided absolutely nothing to support your statements, so as mentioned, they are just flat out false.

            But as ever, if you can provide data to support your assertions, have at it.

  • Pete

    “But Seib’s piece suggests that the inchoate neo-isolationist moment may already be coming to an end.”

    So? Who is Seib, the fount of all wisdom?

    And if Americans do take more interest in foreign affairs, who is to say they won’t decide that scaling back foolish commitments to freeloading ‘allies’ are not in order?

    The comment by Bruce is exactly right: “Until something tangible affects America, the punditry that thinks Americans care about this will be talking to one another and Americans will vote based on domestic policy preferences.”

  • rheddles

    Provoked by exhaustion over our adventures in the Middle East

    No one was exhausted by adventures in the Middle East. They calculated that the gains from the adventure did not justify the expenditure. The American people do not support stupid policies. Syria? How does one justify Americans dying to no end? All the while we ignore our own hemisphere? More stupidity.

    If we wish to avoid war, we should prepare for war. I’m with Jim_L. But I’d not spend resources to do nothing in Syria.

    And I think it is a non-interventionist moment, not neo-isolationist. The policy proposed is neo-colonial, picking up the white man’s burden and al that, eh.

    • Jim__L

      I’ve seen hints of a Russian train of thought set off by soul-searching after the fall of the USSR, that goes something like this…

      The Afghan adventure of the 80s led to the discredit of the militarists / hardliners within the USSR. Lack of hardliners sapped the unity of purpose and will of the government’s leadership, and prevented them from reacting with sufficient resolve to the forces and events driving the USSR towards disunion.

      At least one Russian commentator looked at the fall of the NeoCons after the US’s own Iraq adventure (and perhaps the increasing polarization of this country — on VM itself there has been talk of secession or “divorce” between Red and Blue, in the comments on recent posts!), and concluded that the US could collapse like the USSR did.

      I don’t know if Putin believes that, but I suspect that he has watched the fall of the NeoCons and the rise of the soft “power” types with great interest. He is now asking the West, “What are you willing and able to keep?”

      … and the answer seems to be, “Not as much as we’re currently trying to hold”.

  • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

    Ultimately, the US public will never accept the idea that foreign religious courts claiming jurisdiction over the US pass death sentences on US citizens. The only reason that this issue is not front and center is that neither the GOP or the Democratic party internationalists have explained that this, indeed, goes on and that it’s a pretty common occurrence to be under a fatwa like this. The majority of the people reading this are, unknowing, already under such judicial sanctions.

    Ironically, the politicians most likely to treat this situation seriously are the so called isolationists.

  • Gene

    Neo-isolationist, non-interventionist, whatever you want to call it, “this moment” is most definitely not over. It can and probably will last much, much longer. Some very ugly things will no doubt come of it, and hopefully a few people will realize that the world they thought they were going to get from our new approach was a fantasy. Even so, I’d bet we’re facing at least a full generation of this before big changes occur.

    And while I’m what many commenters would probably consider an “interventionist,” as long as Obama’s in office I want him to do exactly nothing, as I consider this administration utterly incompetent to do anything right … even the right thing.

    • B-Sabre

      That sort of sums up my feeling – I was opposed to intervention over Syria’s use of chemical weapons mostly because I did not see anyway that the current administration could not screw it up, and the shenanigans that erupted in the days prior to Obama’s back-down amply confirmed my supposition.

  • amcalabrese

    Non-interventionism is different from isolationism. I think the real moment is non-interventionism. Jefferson said it best — “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations . . . entangling alliances with none.”

    • Genma+Saotome

      This is a good point. Non-intervention decisions can be made for all sorts of reasons, anything from it’s none of our business to we got other fish to fry today.

      Isolationism tho is a long term view based on a moral judgement of which world actors are fundamentally decent and which are not. That view does not change over night.

  • bittman

    We cannot afford to intervene any more. We are in worse economic shape than Greece in terms of GDP to national debt. The tax dollars that must be used or borrowed to pay for entitlements do not allow intervention. We simply have to borrow money or have the Fed electronically create money to pay for any intervention these days. The days of our dollar being the exchange currency for the world seem to be very limited (especially since over 30 national banks have agreed to use the Chinese currency instead). We will have a $20 trillion national debt when Obama leaves office. The COST of Obamacare which was sold to the American people as not costing a penny over $1 trillion IN ONLY FOUR YEARS HAS INCREASED TO $2.3 TRILLION. Yet, the Dems claim it does not matter at all how much we have overused our “credit card.”

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    As long as the weakest President in history Obama is in office, the US will suffer from Authoritarian overreach. Nature abhors a vacuum and Obama’s weakness has created a power vacuum.

  • Curious Mayhem

    The answer is yes, it’s over. But it won’t transition to something different until both Obama and Kerry are out of office. The full wake-up will take the rest of the decade, like so much else, in this age of “no change and no hope.”

  • stefanstackhouse

    We don’t need hawks and we don’t need doves. What we really, REALLY need are owls. Wise ones, with wide open eyes.

  • Breif2

    “A newly attentive American public will pay closer attention to foreign policy during the next presidential election cycle”

    If I were cynical, I might comment that a fair portion of the chattering classes will urge us to attach more importance to foreign affairs. After all, who do you want in charge, Hillary with her vast foreign experience, or some inexperienced Republican? Stop talking about Obamacare, you ignorant hicks, don’t you realize that the world is about to blow up?

  • Genma+Saotome

    I don’t agree.

    Isolationism is simply a set of policies designed to support a particularly negative moral judgement about various actors in world affairs. For many years the “creeps” were Europeans and their Imperial Game. The policies that followed from that view were designed to keep the U.S. out of European issues… to protect and preserve the “Good Guys” — the U.S.

    It takes a really big event to change a large number of minds about moral judgments.

    For 40+ years the hard left in the United States has held a very negative judgment about the U.S. The “creeps” are the rest of us who don’t see things that way, and the “Good Guys” are the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter whether it is military affairs, economic affairs, environmental affairs, education issues, religion, how we spy, or how we conduct diplomacy, the U.S. is the morally corrupt actor in the world and everyone else needs to be protected from us.

    Over these decades that point of view went from marginal to mainstream.

    I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon… if fact there is no hope for change so long as the Boomers continue to reflect upon their protests of the Vietnam War — it’s with the death and / or Alzheimers of that (my) generation that might begin the cure.

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