Forbes, October 10, 2013
“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address.
George Orwell once wrote that if “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” He derided his contemporaries for how their use and abuse of the term fascism emptied the word of any meaning. The subsequent inability to define fascism degraded it “to the level of a swearword,” and a slur for use against anyone or anything deemed undesirable.
The same holds true for the word isolationism, and its use in American foreign policy discussions. Proponents of American empire hurl the words isolationism and isolationist at their critics to tar them as ignoramuses and kooks. The neoconservative movement’s scion, super hawk Bill Kristol, has dismissed, the non-interventionist and possible 2016 presidential candidate, Senator Rand Paul as a “neo-isolationist.”
Charles Krauthammer was more explicit in a Washington Post op-ed on August 1:
“The Paulites, pining for the splendid isolation of the 19th century, want to leave the world alone on the assumption that it will then leave us alone. Which rests on the further assumption that international stability — open sea lanes, free commerce, relative tranquility — comes naturally, like the air we breathe. If only that were true. Unfortunately, stability is not a matter of grace. It comes about only by Great Power exertion… World order is maintained by American power and American will. Take that away and you don’t get tranquility. You get chaos.”
The specter of renewed intervention in the Middle East (attacking Syria) may have passed, but the slur remains. Neoconservative intellectuals, obsessed with American military might, have stamped non-interventionists and the war weary public alike as isolationists.
But in the history of American foreign affairs, isolation has never meant a lonely existence. Instead, it implied security. The “splendid isolation” phrase mocked by Krauthammer comes from late Nineteenth Century British statesman who viewed Britain’s interests as distinct from continental Europe’s. The English Channel separated British security concerns from the continent’s power politics and wars. This geographic isolation helped demarcate differences between colonial security interests, which Britain routinely acted on, and homeland security.
Something similar was true for the United States. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck put the matter well: “The Americans are truly a lucky people. They are bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors and to the east and west by fish.” The Founding Fathers agreed.
Americans had the geographic luck of distance from Europe and its conflicts. Out of this ability to avoid unnecessary wars that jeopardized life and liberty, came the Founders’ caution. Before Jefferson’s aforementioned quip, George Washington stated the matter bluntly in his Farewell Address. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
Such counsel contained a powerful strain of realism. Strict neutrality was the infant nation’s best hope for survival amid international turmoil. The global nature of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars threatened to ensnare and destroy the republic with one misstep or ill-fated alliance. President James Madison nearly did just that in the War of 1812 when British forces burned Washington D.C.
In the republic’s harrowing early years, one should note the impossibility of isolation or having no foreign contact. The world war meant the U.S. needed diplomatic relations and readiness for conflict. Sometimes the two overlapped, such as when hostilities began in 1812 over the repeated impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy. But, the key for the Founders was to comprehend foreign threats and respond appropriately.
Prescribed aloofness from European power politics never concerned diplomacy or trade. The Founders encouraged the latter, while the former became easier after Napoleon’s fall in 1815. Indeed, diplomacy was critical to bolstering U.S. security.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 did more than add land. It reduced the presence of France, and then Spain, in North America and secured American control of the Mississippi River. The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 built off of Jefferson’s work. It exchanged vague boundary claims in present-day Texas for Spanish Florida, and consolidated American control of land east of the Mississippi River. Moreover, New Spain (Mexico and Central America) became independent soon thereafter.
In 1823, President James Monroe warned European nations against re-colonizing Latin America. Such efforts would constitute a serious threat to U.S. security. Despite America’s inability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and whether by design or accident, Britain tacitly approved. Spanish re-conquest likely meant a reestablished mercantilist system. If the Royal Navy kept prospective colonizers out, those new markets would likely stay open. This overlap of British economic interests and American geopolitical interests benefited the United States immensely.
As Europe settled into peace, foreign crises abated and the market revolution began. Over the succeeding years, U.S. economic growth exploded, the restraints of weakness fell away, and politicians’ desire to exercise power grew. From 1815 to the Civil War, Americans made plenty of mischief abroad. The U.S. declared one war (against Mexico 1846-1848), threatened another with Britain over border disputes regarding Canada out west (1845-1847), and issued ultimatums to Spain about freeing Cuba (the 1854 Ostend Manifesto).
The justification for this belligerency may sound familiar, freedom. In July 1845, a young writer named John L. O’Sullivan published an editorial entitled “Annexation” in The United States Democratic Review. This piece mixed freedom with foreign policy, and turned a famous phrase. O’Sullivan opined about America’s “manifest destiny” to “overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
O’Sullivan did not mean territorial acquisition by force. Instead, the spread of free peoples and success of free institutions would exercise a gravitational pull. American energy and productivity would inexorably draw North America’s foreign territories into the Union. California, then part of Mexico, was a case in point.
“Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses. A population will soon be in actual occupation of California, over which it will be idle for Mexico to dream of dominion.”
Stated succinctly, freedom’s power lay internally. Americans’ success as free people marked them as chosen by God to show the way to a better future. Moreover, once the U.S. conquered North America, no European power would equal its strength. O’Sullivan concluded:
“Away, then, with all idle French talk of balances of power on the American continent [emphasis in the original]… And whosoever may hold the balance, though they should cast into the opposite scale all the bayonets and cannon, not only of France and England, but of Europe entire, how would it kick the beam against the simple solid weight of two hundred and fifty, or three hundred millions-and American millions-destined to gather beneath the flutter of the stripes and stars, in the fast hastening year of the Lord 1945!”
Others shared such sentiments, including the new president. In his first annual message to Congress in December 1845, President James Polk stated, “the expansion of free principles and our rising greatness as a nation are attracting the attention of the powers of Europe.” That attention brought about the threat of a “ ‘balance of power’ ” system imposed “on this continent to check our advancement.”
The solution was territorial acquisition. A trans-continental United States would, excluding British Canada, end European intrigue and mischief making in North America. If it came at the expense of others, then so be it. Such thinking was not confined to the younger generation. President Andrew Jackson said of Mexico’s breakaway Texas province in 1844: it was “the key to our safety” and would “lock the door against future danger.” Texas was duly annexed in February 1845, while the Oregon territory and California followed soon thereafter.
But ultimately, America’s exaltation of freedom did not stop with continental conquest. It turned outward after Reconstruction and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. While not inevitable, the transition from Jefferson’s “empire of liberty,” to an imperial power built off early expansionist impulses.
As European nations carved up Africa, Americans watched a horror show closer to home. In February of 1895, Cuba’s Spanish masters brutally suppressed an insurrection. Mass arrests, concentration camps, and destruction of property continually wracked the island. Such carnage, inflamed by mass media, attracted renewed American interest in obtaining Cuba. However, the reasons for annexation had changed with the times.
Early interest fit into O’Sullivan’s model of gravitational pull. As Monroe’s Secretary of State (1817-1825), John Quincy Adams labeled Puerto Rico and Cuba “natural appendages of the North American continent.” Once free, both could “gravitate only towards the North American Union.” His contemporaries and successors agreed: Madison tried to buy the island in 1810 and annexationists eagerly awaited its freedom in 1848 as revolution gripped Europe. Yet, Cuba stayed Spanish real estate.
With wealth and power by the end of the Nineteenth Century, American opinions on imperialism had changed. Given its proximity, Cuba was a logical target. Some, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, appealed to security concerns. He called Cuba a “necessity” to the defense of the Panama Canal upon its completion. Others, namely Senator Morgan of Alabama, thought the prior generations’ wisdom was obsolete. He unabashedly stated, “Cuba should become an American colony.”
While Cuba burned, jingoists kept agitating for colonialism on newer, and more expansive, grounds. In April 1898, with war declared on Spain, freedom’s forceful expansion reached its supreme perversion in a speech by Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana. “The progress of a mighty people and their free institutions” begun at the Nineteenth Century’s start was nearing its apex. “Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours.” This quest for an empire of trade wrested Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines from Spain in three months.
The turn from the past finished four years later in a faraway land. On July 4, 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt extended pardons to all those involved in the Filipino insurrection. This gesture came after roughly a million Filipinos died in a guerilla war against U.S. forces. Upwards of 75,000 American soldiers suppressed the rebellion, captured Aguinaldo (the rebellion’s leader), and solidified American control over the nation’s new Pacific trade post. All that remained was to “civilize and Christianize” the “little brown brothers.” While it might take a while, Governor-General William Howard Taft estimated “fifty or one hundred years,” the empire would endure.
The neocons’ chest thumping about American power relies on alleged international benefits, open seas, outweighing the negatives of expense or quagmires. They seemingly do not consider, or care about, domestic consequences; centralized power, distorted perceptions of the military’s role in protecting society, and intellectuals playing social engineers.
Some statesmen, in their humility, knew better. Eighty-one years before Roosevelt’s pivot to imperialism, John Quincy Adams channeled his father’s generation. On July 4, 1821, he issued as sublime a statement of U.S. foreign policy ever written.
“But she [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own… She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force [emphasis added].”
How prophetic. Yet, it seems the era of intervention that climaxed under President George W. Bush is at its end. Its foundational ideas are in retreat despite the bellowing of its loudest spokesmen. The next, and final, step for such bankrupt ideas and the isolationist slur is residence in the dustbin of history.
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