Is It Really "Isolationist" Not To Risk A New Mid-East War Today?
By William Boardman
So said Jefferson, echoing Washington. by [antiwar.com]
American contradictions are an old story in which Syria is a new chapter
During this lull in the Syria tsouris, we're hearing way too many beltway blowhards bloviate about something they're calling "our new isolationism" or "the post-American world" or some other extreme label designed to push a personal agenda. Everyone needs to chill out and get a little perspective. What we're now doing about Syria is better than what we were about to do, and a whole lot better than what we've done to too many other countries over the years.
It should be immediately obvious that the United States, with 700 foreign military bases (compared to Russia's 11), is not exactly isolationist, and won't be any time soon. What follows is an attempt at a longer reassurance that no apocalypse is at hand just because we're not bombing Syria or otherwise being exceptionally American.
In the Beginning there was Common Sense, and the Declaration
Originally, during the late 18th century, American exceptionalism included a determined sense of isolationism (and non-interventionism). At the same time, many of these isolationists also articulated the fight for American freedom as a fight for the freedom of everyone in the world. That exceptional American contradiction remains vividly alive in public discourse more than 200 years later.
Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" (1775), best known for making the case for American freedom from British rule, argued that one benefit of independence would be that America would no longer be forced (as a colony) to support European wars irrelevant to American interests -- a benefit to be protected by a policy of isolationism. Even before the United States existed, American revolutionaries were wary of an alliance even with a supportive France. The Second Continental Congress eventually allied the nascent nation with France largely because that seemed to be necessary to win the Revolutionary War.
George Washington, in his carefully re-written Farewell Address (1796), famously articulated his country's isolationist policy (without actually using the phrase "entangling alliances"):
"The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."
In his inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson crystallized this American policy in more familiar words, promising: "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."
Protecting a revolution in a counter-revolutionary world, and promoting it
Besides being emotionally appealing, the ideas of independence and isolation defined an extremely practical, protective policy for a country that was relatively small, poor, and weak. Avoiding entanglements with others was really more about hoping to keep other more powerful states from getting entangled with us, and the tactic was mostly successful. The less powerful were another matter entirely.
But even as American revolutionaries chose a protective isolationism for their state, they promoted their revolution as a universal benefit. The Declaration of Independence (1776) is rooted in the universal right of all people to establish "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." From the beginning, the exceptional American "right of one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another" was established as a global entitlement -- but not one without internal contradictions.
This evangelism of freedom remains one of the strongest themes in the idea of American exceptionalism, serving as both inspiration and/or excuse for the international entanglements we at first set out to avoid. Early on we saw ourselves as leading by example, as Jefferson articulated in his farewell address (1809), calling the United States an "empire of liberty," a governmental model for others to imitate:
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