Sunday, September 26, 2010


It’s always interesting to talk to people during a difficult economic time in the United States.  At some point during most conversations, someone will make a reference to how the US might do better on its own, rather than worrying about the rest of the world’s issues.  While these statements are usually presented as jokes, they speak to a very interesting and significant aspect of US history—isolationism.  In case you’re worried you don’t know nearly enough about something this historically important, never fear!  I learned a great deal about this topic in one of my favorite undergraduate classes, Domestic Politics and US Foreign Policy, and now will pass it along to you.

From achieving its independence until the First World War, America’s foreign policy was defined by isolationism.  One of the largest reasons for this, of course, is that its neighbors were all relatively weak countries who posed very little threat, allowing the US to maintain a high level of security without a large standing military.  This was a huge contrast to other large powers at the time, most of which were located in Europe where the distance to another large and potentially threatening power was small.  To give some perspective on how little the US focused on security, its army was the 17th largest in the world at the outbreak of World War I.  This put it behind countries like Portugal and Romania, whose populations were only a small fraction of the US population.

On top of this, the US could maintain an isolationist standpoint because its interests in the world were largely protected by another power—Great Britain.  Because of Britain’s location close to the European mainland, it recognized the need to keep a balance of power between the other nations in the area and devoted considerable time and resources to this goal.  This meant that the US did not have to do so, leading Americans to conclude that Europe was unimportant to their affairs.  In class, the thought process behind this conclusion was summed up so:

Britain maintained balance of power à Balance of power did not matter to US à European affairs did not matter to US à Europe could not affect US

In fact, this view was so widely held that George Washington codified it in his farewell speech, proclaiming a policy of neutrality for the United States and steering the country away from permanent interests or alliances in Europe. 

The prevalence of this perspective, however, does little to change the fact that it was wrong.  Like all other nations of the time, America was heavily dependent on the balance of power; it was merely separated from this reality by the intervention of Great Britain.  To illustrate this, my professor made the assertion that American independence was gained as a result of the European balance of power.  He supported this by saying that the French did not get involved in the Revolutionary War to help the Americans gain freedom (as we idealistically like to believe) but rather to weaken the British, their historic rivals.  This can be seen in the fact that they chose not to enter the war until after the Battle of Saratoga, when the American army proved that it could avoid defeat long enough to weaken the British.  They didn’t prove they could win—they just proved that that wouldn’t lose embarrassingly quickly, and that was enough for the French to grant their support, as anything other than a short conflict would negatively impact Great Britain.

On top of this, and perhaps most relevant to current allusions to isolationism, the United States has never been economically isolated, just militarily and politically.  Because it was a series of colonies first, the US economy was based heavily on trade from the start, particularly with Europe.  This characteristic has never gone away and is, in fact, probably more pertinent in the modern era than during any other.

So while it’s nice to think that there might be some easy way to improve the state of the American economy, I’m afraid looking to isolationism is not the way to go.  While it might have been the dominant paradigm for over a hundred years, it was never completely realistic to begin with and was also pretty roundly shattered by those two World Wars, if nothing else.


  1. While maybe Washington's version of isolationism is impossible and impractical in modern times a form of isolation is not. How I like to frame it is that instead of us having troops in many countries over seas we remove all out troops. Overall having a large military stationed over seas does not seem to make us safer and in many ways seems to cause more problems. So instead of, as Washington put it, having a total form of isolationism why not try to have a military form. Keep our troops here. I do understand this is not perfect for situations like North/South Korea but outside of this one example it is hard to think of anyplace where are troops should be stationed. Just another take on the idea of isolationism in modern times.

  2. I'm glad you brought that up, Tim-- I suppose I neglected to mention military isolationism in my discussion of modernity.

    That question gets into a whole separate analysis of political theory that would have made this post unmanageably long. For instance, a political realist would argue that keeping troops overseas helps maintain a balance of power and American hegemony on a global scale. Other schools of thought have different arguments, including yours.

    I can't pretend I know the answer, especially since I don't do a lot of foreign affairs analysis anymore, but I appreciate your input. I'd love to see if other people agree with you or not!