views updated


A recurrent debate at the center of U.S. foreign policy has pitted internationalists against isolationists. Internationalists favor an active role for the country in world affairs, including strong support for international institutions and a generally interventionist approach to problems in other countries. Many internationalists believe that America has a responsibility to participate in world affairs because of its unusual capacity to favorably alter global conditions. Other internationalists maintain that America simply cannot turn its back on a world in which it has become so deeply networked. Isolationists, by contrast, have consistently argued that overseas commitments can force the United States into actions best avoided, and that institutions such as the United Nations undermine American sovereignty. They contend that excessive attention to events in other countries both distracts from important domestic priorities and needlessly embroils the country in costly enterprises bearing little relation to the national interest. In the early 1950s the isolationist motto was "Fortress America." Neoisolationists differ from their predecessors in that they are up against an already existing internationalist foreign policy. The neo-isolationist rallying cry is "America first."

historical background

George Washington's Farewell Address was the first articulation of the isolationist stance. The outgoing president counseled against pursuing policies that tied American interests too closely with those of other nations. This advice, later famously expressed in Thomas Jefferson's warning against "entangling alliances," became the dogma of American foreign policy until 1898, when the United States took possession of Spain's former colonies after the Spanish-American War. The isolationist impulse remained prominent in some quarters and regained currency during the 1920s and 1930s, when some legislators became disillusioned with President Woodrow Wilson's unsatisfying settlement of World War I. Senator William E. Borah, a Republican from Idaho, and an overwhelmingly isolationist Congress kept the United States out of the League of Nations in the 1920s, and a dwindling band of isolationists obstructed for a time Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to lead the country into World War II. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor and Americans' subsequent recognition of the horrific nature of their Fascist enemies drastically undercut isolationism's appeal.

The Cold War (1946–1991) that immediately followed World War II seemed to render isolationism obsolete. According to the Cold War consensus, an omnipresent Soviet threat forced the country to maintain an active, vigilant presence around the world to prevent the spread of Communism. By the early 1960s, when the Cold War was at its peak, no creditable commentator seriously defended the virtues of isolationism. Beginning with the debacle of the Vietnam War, however, the consensus favoring American internationalism began to unravel. The end of the Cold War made the old appeal of isolationism seem suddenly attractive once again to some segments of both the public and the policymaking elite.


As with many compromises, the Versailles Treaty of 1919 that ended World War I left many parties unhappy. The goals of the Peace Conference were many and varied, including redrawing borders in the center of Europe and in the Middle East. New political and economic ideas abounded, with many ethnic groups petitioning the peace makers for their own interests. The Russian Revolution that brought Communism into existence concerned the leaders of many countries, who sought to consolidate power in organized governments. When U.S. President Woodrow Wilson negotiated an armistice with the Germans 1917, it was with the expectation that his Fourteen Points would be the basis of the new treaty.

Many German citizens, who optimistically that believed that Wilson would see that Germany would not be harshly punished for their role in the war, were disappointed when the final treaty—which was thrust upon them—stipulated a 13 percent loss of territory with a 10 percent loss of population, as well as the loss of foreign interests. The Germans focused their hostility against Article 231, which established German liability for reparations and to their mind established "war guilt." Other treaties with Austria and Hungary also included such a clause, but it was not perceived by the respective peoples as being an acceptance of guilt. German sociologist Max Weber publicly stated that "all great powers of Europe who were at war are guilty." The reparations were seen by the Germans as reducing them to slavery—as the cause of high prices, inflation, unemployment, low wages, and taxation.

The majority of French citizens viewed the treaty provisions as being adequate or too weak, while some British citizens, among them British economist John Maynard Keynes, author of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, believed them to be too harsh, for a economically crippled and militarily weak Germany would be vulnerable to Communism. Many Americans also viewed the treaty-creating process as disillusioning, because several important aspects of Wilson's Fourteen Points were ignored. Many wondered if American participation in the war was justified. When Germany later defaulted on reparations payments and began to rearm itself, neither the Europeans or Americans had the determination to enforce the treaty.

In America during the 1920s, Americans turned inward, expressing their nationalism through prejudice toward certain religious, political, and ethic groups that were not part of Protestant America. These groups included Roman Catholics, Communists, and immigrants. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan rose. When the Great Depression wreaked havoc with the U.S. economy and World War II erupted, this nativism was eclipsed by broader concerns.

contemporary neo-isolationism

The leadership role of the United States in world politics today raises a set of concerns different from those faced by isolationists prior to World War II. For example, unlike their 1930s counterparts, most neo-isolationists recognize that there is a connection between global events and American security. Hence most tend to favor a scaling back of overseas commitments rather than a complete renunciation of them. However, a conspicuous minority would favor a complete withdrawal of the country from world affairs on the premise that nothing that happens elsewhere can possibly be relevant to Americans. Among neo-isolationists are libertarians who resist internationalism primarily because it supports the increasing power of the federal government. Neo-isolationists want the United States to become less involved in a world that they see as making endless and costly demands of it. Some saw the removal of the Soviet threat in 1991 as providing an opportunity to bring our troops home from Europe. Neo-isolationists thus regarded interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo as unnecessary and wasteful.

political divisions

The neo-isolationist movement is divided among itself. Although 25 to 30 percent of Americans have tended since the early 1990s to argue that the Unites States should stay out of world affairs, their reasons differ widely and often reflect conflicting political philosophies. Senator George McGovern's liberal critique of American involvement in Vietnam, for example, finds contemporary expression among leftists who protest against global institutions, such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, that they regard as perpetuating systems of injustice.

Conservative neo-isolationists, most famously Patrick Buchanan, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations and sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, insist that internationalism encourages the government to defend the interests of foreigners at the expense of Americans. Neo-isolationists argue that American tax dollars would be better spent helping poor Americans than poor foreigners; they also stress that internationalist foreign policies result in the loss of American jobs. Buchanan and his followers have been attacked by leftists who argue that conservative neoisolationism has racist undertones, harking back to nativist beliefs. Finally, another branch of neo-isolationism argues that internationalism creates security challenges and provokes antagonisms to American interests and values that would never materialize if the United States declined to meddle in other countries' affairs.

foreign policy and the public

Americans overwhelmingly support foreign aid and involvement in international institutions. Nevertheless, Congress has tended to assume that the American public is more isolationist than it is. Some legislators, exploiting an interpretation of the public will as isolationist, have tried to obstruct presidents from pursuing interventionist foreign policies and participating actively in international institutions. Whatever its form or justification, neo-isolationism is a movement that reflects and spurs political debate and conflict about the proper shape and scope of American foreign policy.


Biden, Joseph R., Jr. "Unholy Symbiosis: Isolationism and Anti-Americanism." Washington Quarterly 23 (autumn 2000): 7–15.

Jentleson, Bruce W. American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Norton, 2000.

Kull, Steven, and Ramsay, Clay. "Challenging U.S. Policy-makers' Image of an Isolationist Public." International Studies Perspectives 1 (2000): 105–117.

Lacquer, Walter. Neo-Isolationism and the World of the Seventies. New York: Library Press, 1972.

Nau, Henry. At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Nordlinger, Eric A. Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Paul T. McCartney

See also:Antiwar Movement; Arms Control Debate; Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Goldwater, Barry; Hostage Crisis, 1979–1981; Nixon, Richard M.; NSC #68; Peace Movements; Reagan, Ronald; War Powers Act.