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Phantom Menace The myth of American isolationism

By Peter Beinart

In an op-ed last year in The Washington Post, former Sens. Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl warned of “the danger of repeating the cycle of American isolationism.” That summer, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer heralded “the return of the most venerable strain of conservative foreign policy: isolationism.”

New York Times columnist Bill Keller then fretted that “America is again in a deep isolationist mood.” This November, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens will publish a book subtitled The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.

What makes these warnings odd is that in contemporary foreign policy discourse, isolationism—as the dictionary defines it—does not exist. Calling your opponent an “isolationist” serves the same function in foreign policy that calling her a “socialist” serves in domestic policy. While the term itself is nebulous, it evokes a frightening past, and thus vilifies opposing arguments without actually rebutting them. For hawks eager to discredit any serious critique of America’s military interventions in the “war on terror,” that’s very useful indeed.

TO GRASP HOW little basis today’s attacks on “isolationism” have in reality, it’s worth understanding what the term “isolationism” actually means. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the belief that a country should not be involved with other countries.” The Oxford dictionaries call it “a policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of … other countries.”

When critics decry isolationism today, they usually map that dictionary definition onto a particular historical period: the 1920s and 1930s. Warnings about isolationism almost always come with the same historical morality tale: America turned inward in the interwar years, and the world went to hell. That’s what makes “isolationism” scary. Like “socialism,” it’s a euphemism for “Hitler and Stalin are coming.”

The problem is that isolationism—as commonly understood—not only doesn’t fit American foreign policy today, it doesn’t even fit American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. There are plenty of valid critiques of how the United States comported itself on the world stage between World War I and World War II. But the claim that America detached itself from other countries is simply not true. In 1921, for instance, President Harding summoned the world’s powers to the Washington Naval Conference and pushed through what some have called the first disarmament treaty in history. In 1924, after Germany’s failure to pay its war reparations led French and Belgian troops to occupy the Ruhr Valley, the Coolidge administration ended the crisis by appointing banker Charles Dawes to design a new reparations-payments system, which Washington muscled the European powers into accepting. American pressure helped to produce the 1925 Treaty of Locarno, which guaranteed the borders between Germany and the countries to its west (though not, fatefully, to its east). In 1930, President Hoover played a key role in the London Naval Conference, which placed further limits on naval construction.

Dr. Seuss drew many anti-isolationism cartoons during the early 1940s. (PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss)

Dr. Seuss drew many anti-isolationism cartoons during the early 1940s. (PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss)

Again and again during the interwar years, the U.S. deployed its newfound economic power to shape politics in Europe. And this overseas engagement wasn’t limited to America’s government alone. Although the United States severely limited European immigration in the 1920s, Americans built the avowedly internationalist institutions that would help guide the country’s foreign policy after World War II. The Council on Foreign Relations was born in 1921. The University of Chicago created America’s first graduate program in international affairs in 1928. And during the interwar years, American travel to Europe expanded dramatically. To be sure, the U.S. in the interwar years was more comfortable intervening economically and diplomatically than militarily. But despite the Neutrality Acts meant to keep the U.S. out of another European war, the Roosevelt administration began sending warplanes and warships to Britain two years before Pearl Harbor. By early 1941, long before America officially entered the war, its ships were already hunting German vessels across the Atlantic.

The only sense in which the United States in the interwar years truly remained apart from other nations lay in its refusal to make binding military commitments, either via the League of Nations or through alliances with particular nations. America wielded power economically, diplomatically, and even militarily, but it jealously guarded its sovereignty. That’s why one influential history of the era dubs U.S. foreign policy between the wars “independent internationalism.” (The last prominent spokesperson for that form of independence was Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, who during the early Cold War opposed NATO because it required that America pledge itself to Europe’s defense, but who endorsed an all-out war with China to reunify Korea under Western control.) The popular “characterization of America as isolationist in the interwar period,” argues Ohio State University’s Bear Braumoeller in a useful review of the academic literature on the period, “is simply wrong.”

IF CALLING AMERICA isolationist in the 1920s and 1930s is wrong, calling America isolationist today is absurd. The United States currently stations troops in more than 150 countries. Its alliances commit it to defend large swaths of Europe and Asia against foreign attack. Recent presidents have dropped bombs on, or sent troops to, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. Last month, President Obama sent 3,000 American troops to battle an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And while Americans fiercely debate particular military interventions and foreign-aid programs, the general presumption that the United States should play a leading role in solving problems far from our shores is largely uncontested in the American political mainstream.

Just how uncontested becomes clear when you examine the foreign policy evolution of Rand Paul, the man frequently held up as the leader of his party’s isolationist wing. As a Senate candidate in 2009, Paul mused about reducing America’s military bases overseas. In 2011, soon after entering the Senate, he suggested eliminating foreign aid. He has also repeatedly insisted that only Congress, and not the president, can declare war (a position that Barack Obama championed when he was in the Senate as well).

Even these views did not make Paul an isolationist. He has never questioned America’s membership in NATO, for instance, or its security alliance with Japan, the cornerstones of America’s post-World War II global role. But in Paul’s early days on the national political stage, his foreign policy instincts did diverge substantially from the ones that held sway in official Washington.

What has happened since shows just how hegemonic America’s globalist consensus actually is. For starters, Paul’s efforts to dial back American interventionism went nowhere. His Senate bill to end foreign aid to Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya got 10 votes. A later bid to reduce America’s overall aid budget from $30 billion to $5 billion garnered 18 votes. This at a time when, according to Bill Keller, America was in “a deep isolationist mood.”

Moreover, Paul’s own views have become markedly more conventional. After first saying that the U.S. should not “tweak” Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, Paul later called for imposing harsh sanctions on Moscow, reinstalling missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and boycotting the Winter Olympics in Sochi. On ISIS, Paul has followed a similar path. After expressing initial skepticism about the value of air strikes, he now says, “If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”

Were Paul really an isolationist, his approach to the Middle East would be straightforward: Extricate America from the region and stop giving its people reasons to hate us. But he has explicitly repudiated that view. “I don’t agree that absent Western occupation, that radical Islam goes quietly into that good night, ” he said in a speech last year. “Radical Islam is no fleeting fad but a relentless force.” Paul has even attacked Obama for “disengaging diplomatically in Iraq and the region.”

(PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss)

(PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss)

Instead, over the last year, Paul has developed an approach patterned on the internationalist thinking that influenced foreign policy elites during the Cold War. In a speech last February, Paul said the United States should contain jihadist Islam the way George Kennan envisioned containing Soviet Communism. For Kennan, containment represented an alternative to both isolationism and war. It required buttressing partners that could halt the expansion of Soviet power without trying to roll it back, since that would risk war. Whether one can usefully transfer the concept of containment to the current “war on terror” is questionable. But in invoking Kennan, Paul was expressing a preference for steady, cautious, long-term American engagement in the Middle East—hardly what you’d expect from an isolationist.

Besides containment, Paul’s other watchword is “stability.” “What much of the foreign policy elite fails to grasp is that intervention to topple secular dictators has been the prime source of that chaos,” he said last month. “From Hussein to Assad to Qaddafi, we have the same history. Intervention topples the secular dictator. Chaos ensues, and radical jihadists emerge. … Intervention that destabilizes the region is a mistake.”

Against both liberal interventionists and “neoconservatives” who support intervention to produce more democratic, pro-Western regimes, in other words, Paul wants the United States to support the Arab world’s traditional, comparatively secular autocrats, because at least they keep the region under control. His core argument with hawks such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham is not over whether America should withdraw from the Middle East. It’s over whether America should use its influence there to prop up the old order or usher in something new. That’s why Paul now peppers his speeches with quotes from Colin Powell, Robert Gates, and Dick Cheney circa 1991, policymakers who cut their teeth in the more risk-averse but still undoubtedly internationalist Republican Party of Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush. As Jason Zengerle recently pointed out in The New Republic, Paul’s foreign policy has become a fairly standard brand of realism, with some anxiety over unchecked presidential power thrown in.

Critics see this as cynical. Paul, as numerous articles have noted, has grown more hawkish as he’s courted the donors he needs to fund his likely presidential campaign. But the fact that Paul is, by necessity, drawing closer to a foreign policy consensus he once challenged is evidence not of that consensus’s weakness, but of its strength.

THAT CONSENSUS WITHIN the political class is not built upon big-dollar donations alone. There are certainly differences between how party elites want the United States to behave around the world and what ordinary citizens desire. But contrary to much media commentary, isolationism is not only largely absent from foreign policy discourse in Washington. It’s also largely absent from foreign policy discourse among the public at large.

Last December, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that, by 52 percent to 38 percent, Americans wanted the U.S. to “mind its own business internationally,” the largest gap in a half-century. The poll sparked a torrent of journalistic anxiety. “American isolationism,” fretted a Washington Post headline, “just hit a 50-year high.”

But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Americans don’t actually want their country to “mind its own business” overseas at all. The same Pew poll that supposedly revealed Americans to be isolationists also found that, by a margin of more than 40 percentage points, they believe that “greater U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing.” Fifty-six percent of respondents told Pew the United States should “cooperate fully with the United Nations.” Seventy-seven percent agreed that, “in deciding on its foreign policies, the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies.” And a clear majority opposed the idea that “since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters.” In that same vein, a recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 59 percent of Americans want the U.S. to maintain its overseas military deployments at current levels. It also found that when told how much the U.S. spends on defense and foreign aid, Americans urge cutting the former but want the latter to go up.

(PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss)

(PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss)

How can a public that endorses greater economic globalization, far-flung military bases, extensive coordination with American allies and the United Nations, and higher foreign aid also say it wants the U.S. to “mind its own business” internationally? The answer lies in the way Washington elites have defined America’s international “business.” In recent years, America’s highest-profile overseas behavior has been its military interventions, either directly or via proxies, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and, at one point, potentially Ukraine. When Pew conducted its poll in late 2013, it was those interventions that Americans rejected, not international engagement, or even military action, per se.

The Chicago Council poll teased out the distinction. Like Pew, it uncovered an ostensibly high level of isolationism: Forty-one percent of respondents said it would “be best for the future of the country” if “we stay out of world affairs.” But when the council dug deeper, it found, “Even those who say the United States should stay out of world affairs would support sending U.S. troops to combat terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. However, many of the conflicts in the press today—for example, in Syria and Ukraine—are not seen by the public as vital threats to the United States.” It’s no surprise, therefore, that since September, when the ISIS beheadings convinced many Americans that the chaos in Iraq and Syria might threaten them, the percentage supporting military action in those countries has shot up.

In important ways, in fact, the standard claim that elites must overcome the ingrained isolationism of ordinary Americans gets things backward. When it comes to working through the U.N. or paying heed to America’s allies, the public is more sympathetic to international cooperation than are many Beltway insiders. In official Washington, for instance, it is virtually taken for granted that America must remain the world’s lone superpower. By contrast, ordinary Americans, according to Pew, overwhelmingly want America to play a “shared leadership role” with other countries. Only 12 percent want America to be the “single world leader,” the same percentage who want America to play “no leadership role” at all.

GIVEN THE OVERWHELMING evidence, both from politicians and the public, that isolationism in America today is virtually nonexistent, why do so many high-profile commentators and politicians depict it as a grave threat? One clue lies in a word that these Cassandras use as a virtual synonym for isolationism: “retreat.” If the subtitle of Bret Stephens’s forthcoming book is The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, its title is America in Retreat. In their op-ed warning of a new “cycle of American isolationism,” Lieberman and Kyl employ variations of “retreat” or “retrench” six times.

But “isolationism” and “retreat” are entirely different things. Isolationism has a fixed meaning: avoiding contact with other nations. Retreat, by contrast, only gains meaning relatively. The mere fact that a country is retreating tells you nothing about the extent of its interactions overseas. You need to know the position it is retreating from.

(Ed Hall)

(Ed Hall)

Herein lies the rub. In general, the isolationism-slayers are far more comfortable bemoaning American retreat than defending the military frontiers from which America is retreating. That’s because those frontiers, which reached their apex under George W. Bush, were both historically unprecedented and historically calamitous.

To realize how historically unprecedented they were, it’s worth remembering how much more circumscribed America’s military ambitions were under Ronald Reagan. He could not have imagined sending ground troops to invade Afghanistan or Iraq. For one thing, both countries were clients of the Soviet Union. For another, the bitter legacy of Vietnam made sending hundreds of thousands of troops to overthrow a government half a world away inconceivable. During his eight years in office, Reagan invaded only one foreign country: Grenada, whose army boasted 600 troops. In his final year in the White House, when some administration hawks suggested he invade Panama, Reagan adamantly refused. The idea struck him as far too risky.

Equally inconceivable was the idea of deploying American troops on former Soviet soil. One of the disputes that initially led hawks to label Rand Paul an isolationist was the Kentuckian’s 2011 opposition to admitting the former Soviet republic of Georgia into NATO, an issue that put him in conflict with fellow GOP rising star Marco Rubio. But if Paul is an isolationist because he opposes an American military guarantee to defend Georgia, what does that make James Baker, who in 1990 reportedly promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if Moscow allowed Germany to reunify, NATO would not expand “one inch” further east: not even into East Germany, let alone the rest of Eastern Europe, let alone the former Soviet Union itself.

Between Reagan’s presidency and Obama’s, America’s military frontier advanced to fill the gap left by the collapse of Soviet power. Aspects of that expansion turned out well. George H.W. Bush reestablished Kuwait’s sovereignty in the first Persian Gulf War; Bill Clinton helped stabilize southeastern Europe by waging war to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s rampage through Bosnia and later Kosovo; countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have prospered under NATO protection.

But in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s forward march turned catastrophic. More than twice as many Americans have died in those two wars than in the September 11 attacks that justified them. A 2013 study by Linda J. Bilmes of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government estimates that they will ultimately cost the United States between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. As a result, she argues, their financial legacy “will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.”

Obama has made mistakes in his retreat from those wars. (I’ve been particularly critical of him for disengaging diplomatically from Iraq while Nuri al-Maliki was pushing his country’s Sunnis into the arms of ISIS.) But the notion that Obama should not have retreated—that he should have defended a historically unprecedented military frontier in wars that were causing America debilitating long-term fiscal damage and snuffing out thousands of young American lives, against insurgencies that posed no direct or imminent threat to the United States—is hard to forthrightly defend. Which is why hawks rarely defend it. Instead, they equate retreat with isolationism and isolationism with a fictionalized account of the 1920s and 1930s. And, presto, Obama becomes a latter-day Neville Chamberlain while they become heirs to Winston Churchill rather than to a guy named Bush.

Hawks worried that Barack Obama, or Rand Paul, or the American people have not defended American interests forcefully enough in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, or Iran can make plenty of legitimate arguments. Calling their opponents “isolationists” isn’t one of them. It’s time journalists greet that slur with the same derision they currently reserve for epithets like “socialist,” “fascist,” and “totalitarian.” Then, perhaps, we can have the foreign policy debate America deserves.

Peter Beinart is is  an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.

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An Isolationist United States? If Only That Were True
Tim Reuter

Forbes, October 10, 2013

“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”  Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address.

This image depicts the Territorial acquisitions of the United States, such as the Thirteen Colonies, the Louisiana Purchase, British and Spanish Cession, and so on.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This image depicts the Territorial acquisitions of the United States, such as the Thirteen Colonies, the Louisiana Purchase, British and Spanish Cession, and so on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

This article is available online at:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/timreuter/2013/10/10/an-isolationist-united-states-if-only-that-were-true/

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Hoy tengo el gusto de reseñar el trabajo de un compañero bloguero, Oscar Segura  Heros, titulado ¿El fin de la era americana?, que  aparece publicado en la edición de julio-septiembre de 2009 de la revista peruana Qué hacer. Segura Heros, padre de la bitácora  Real Policy, es periodista y analista de temas de seguridad, derechos humanos y relaciones internacionales.

El ensayo de Segura gira en torno a una pregunta fundamental: ¿son los Estados Unidos tan influyentes como hace veinte años? La respuesta del autor es un claro y rotundo no. Para llegar a esta conclusión el autor se embarca en una análisis directo de los rasgos de la decadencia del poderío de los Estados Unidos.

Capitan-America

El primer tema que toca  Segura Heros es el militar, subrayando el costo que conlleva el mantenimiento de cientos de bases y miles de soldados alrededor del mundo –tema que examinamos al reseñar el ensayo de Immanuel Wallerstein. Mantener su imperio de bases militares le cuesta a los norteamericanos miles de millones de dólares en momentos que su economía está “exhausta”.  Los fracasos en Irak y Afganistán también son una muestra clara de los límites crecientes del poderío norteamericano. A pesar  de su vasta capacidad militar y los  miles de soldados desplegados en ambos países, los Estados Unidos no han podido imponerse en sus dos intervenciones más costosas.  Pero no sólo no han podido imponerse, sino que en el caso afgano parecen avocados a una derrota.

Al tema militar, Segura añade el económico, subrayando la crisis por la que atraviesan los Estados Unidos en la actualidad, la peor desde 1929. Según el autor, la quiebra de General Motors es el símbolo más patente de la caída del poderío económico estadounidense y una prueba de que “el lugar de Estados Unidos como potencia económica es más una interrogante que una certeza”.  Además, la extensión mundial de la crisis económica ha llevado a una revaluación internacional del neoliberalismo defendido por Wall Street casi como una credo. Como resultado, la percepción mundial de la economía norteamericana ha sufrido daños severos,  generando desconfianza en el capitalismo estadounidense como modelo económico. Todo ello, a su vez, socavó, la legitimidad que tradicionalmente había disfrutado Washington para definir la agenda económica mundial.

Los Estados Unidos también parecen estar perdiendo la batalla “del conocimiento  y la innovación científica”, dos de los pilares de su superioridad económica y militar. De forma muy atinada el autor identifica una de las causas más importantes, pero menos mencionadas, de este problema: la paranoia post 11/9  llevó a la aplicación de restricciones migratorias que cortaron el flujo de cerebros procedentes de otras regiones del planeta. Sin los ingenieros, químicos, físicos, matemáticos o biólogos procedentes de América Latina, Pakistán, India, China o Europa del Este que no pudieron o dejaron de emigrar a los Estados Unidos, la nación norteamericana perdió importantísimos recursos que no pueden ser sustituidos por los egresados estadounidenses de un sistema educativo fragmentado, desigual e incapaz de llenar las necesidades de profesionales cualificados de la economía norteamericana. (Sobre los problemas de la educación, en los Estados Unidos puede ser consultado el artículo de Paul Krugman que aparece en la  edición de la revisa Sin permiso del 11 de octubre de 2009.)

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Seguras también da en el blanco al señalar que uno de los problemas actuales de los Estados Unidos es su tendencia al encierro. En el pasado no tan remoto, el gobierno estadounidense buscaba que otros países se abrieran comercial, cultural y tecnológicamente. Hoy, víctimas de un creciente conservadurismo,  los Estados Unidos optan por cerrarse. Yo añadiría,   y a excluirse, pues se han mantenido al margen de esfuerzos y mecanismos internacionales con un amplio apoyo mundial. En otras palabras, en temas ambientales, armamentistas y de derecho internacional los Estados Unidos ha tendido a ir contra la corriente en un unilateralismo que ha ayudado muy poco a cambiar la imagen que millones de seres humanos tienen  del país.

Segura lanza una crítica que me parece muy pertinente: el poco apoyo que la política exterior estadounidense da a temas sociales. Según el autor, los Estados Unidos no asumen “la lucha contra la pobreza y los temas sociales como una prioridad de su política exterior”. Este “error”  ha permitido que opciones radicales, autoritarias y antinorteamericanas “ganen espacio y que el discurso democratizador pierda sustento.” Concuerdo con Segura, pero igual me pregunto si la lucha contra la pobreza ha sido una prioridad de la política doméstica del gobierno estadounidense. Los ecos liberales de los años 1960 con la Gran Sociedad a la cabeza dejaron de ser hace mucho una prioridad nacional, por qué tendría que ser internacional.

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Segura concluye que el futuro de un mundo unipolar con los Estados Unidos a la cabeza es cada vez más remoto. Según él, los norteamericanos seguirán ejerciendo un papel importante  dado su poderío militar y su influencia política, pero que “intervenir permanentemente fuera de sus fronteras ya no será una prioridad”.  En otras palabras, que el aislacionismo regresará con fuerza a definir la política exterior de los Estados Unidos.

El autor cierra su interesante ensayo advirtiendo a quienes celebran el eventual fin de la hegemonía estadounidense  que ésta no producirá necesariamente “un mundo multipolar armonioso”. Por el contrario, un mundo libre de la hegemonía estadounidense podría estar dominado por la anarquía, el individualismo estatal y la violencia.

Este corto ensayo analiza de manera clara y directa lo que parece cada vez más evidente: la decadencia del poderío norteamericano. Su lectura puede resultar de gran utilidad para aquellos interesados en entender las causas y los rasgos de este proceso histórico, cuyas consecuencias están aún por verse.

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El unilateralismo abierto y franco, el militarismo agresivo y el fuerte tono ideológico de la  política exterior de la presidencia de George W. Bush, provocaron en los Estados Unidos un intenso e interesantísimo debate académico en torno a la naturaleza imperialista de la nación norteamericana. En los último ocho años, autores como Chalmers Johnson, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan, Max Boot, Francis Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson, Amy Kaplan, Noam Chomsky, Charles S. Maier, Michael Ignatieff, Howard Zinn, James Petras y Patrick K. O’Brien  (entre otros) se embarcaron en una intensa producción académica  (decenas de libros, artículos, ensayos, reportajes noticiosos y documentales) que giró en torno a una pregunta básica: ¿Son o actúan los Estados Unidos como un imperio? Tal interrogante ha estado directamente asociada con temas como el de la hegemonía norteamericana, el unilateralismo, el  neoconservadurismo, la guerra contra el terrorismo, el uso de la tortura, el choque de civilizaciones y otros.

Como he señalado anteriormente, éste no es un debate nuevo y hasta se podría plantear que es un proceso cíclico que responde a periodos o eventos traumáticos en el desarrollo de las relaciones exteriores de los Estados Unidos (por ejemplo, la guerra hispano-cubano-norteamericana o la guerra de Vietnam).  Estos periodos o  eventos traumáticos forzaron en su momento un análisis crítico de la política exterior estadounidense que llevó  a algunos analistas norteamericanos reconocer el carácter imperialista de ésta.  Lo novedoso del debate desarrollado en la primera década del siglo XXI es no sólo la fuerza con que la naturaleza imperialista de las acciones estadounidense ha sido reconocida por historiadores, sociólogos, politólogos y otros analistas estadounidenses, sino también cómo algunos de éstos vieron esas acciones como un proceso necesario. En otras palabras, como  algunos de estos analistas justificaron la “transformación” de los Estados Unidos en un imperio como un paso necesario para el bienestar de la nación norteamericana y la estabilidad y paz mundial.  Es necesario subrayar que un grupo significativo de estudiosos condenó las acciones norteamericanas, especialmente en Irak, y subrayó sus terribles consecuencias a corto y a largo plazo.

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Andrew J. Bacevich

Uno de los participantes más importantes de este debate lo es el historiador conservador Andrew J. Bacevich. Bacevich es un exCoronel del Ejército de los Estados Unidos, graduado de la Academia Militar de West Point, veterano de la guerra de Vietnam, que posee un Doctorado de la Universidad de Princeton y que actualmente se desempeña como profesor de Historia en la Universidad de Boston.  Además, Bacevich tiene el triste honor de haber perdido a su hijo, el Teniente Primero Andrew J. Bacevich, en Irak en mayo del 2007. Escritor prolífico, Bacevich  es  autor de los siguientes libros: American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2002); The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2003); The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005); The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II (New York, Columbia University Press, 2007); y The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2008).  A través de sus libros, artículos, ensayos y presentaciones públicas, Bacevich ha desarrollado una incisiva y sistemática crítica de las acciones y de las bases ideológicas y culturales de la política exterior estadounidense.  Ello resulta realmente admirable dada su orientación ideológica (pues se le considera un historiador conservador) y, sobre todo, por su transfondo personal y profesional.

En su edición del 28 de abril de 2009, TomDispatch.com incluyó un corto, pero valioso ensayo de Bacevich titulado “Farewell, the American Century Rewriting the Past by Adding In What’s Been Left Out” (publicado en español por Rebelión.org bajo el título “Adiós, siglo estadounidense”). En este trabajo, Bacevich reacciona a una columna de Robert Cohen titulada “Moralism on the Shelf”, que fue publicada en el Washington Post el 10 de marzo pasado. En su columna, Cohen reacciona a comentarios del presidente Barack Obama rechazando la  posibilidad de negociar con los talibanes moderados y propone que el llamado  “American Century”  (“siglo norteamericano”) ha llegado a su fin. Bacevich usa la columna de Cohen como excusa para hacer una reflexión crítica del significado (y limitaciones) de uno de los conceptos más importantes de la segunda mitad del siglo XX y de paso hacer un examen crítico de la política exterior norteamericana de los últimos sesenta años.

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Henry Luce

Mi objetivo es reseñar el ensayo de Bacevich, pero antes es necesario hacer un poco de historia. A principios de 1941, la segunda guerra mundial llevaba un poco más de un año de iniciada y Alemania parecía invencible.  Tras aplastar a Polonia y noquear a  Francia, Hitler logró en menos de un año lo que las tropas imperiales alemanas no alcanzaron durante toda la primera guerra mundial, la conquista de Europa occidental continental.  Con Francia fuera de la guerra, Gran Bretaña resistía, casi sola, las embestidas del expansionismo nazi. En los Estados Unidos, el Presidente Franklin D. Roosevelt hacía todo lo que estaba a su alcance para ayudar a los británicos, pero sus esfuerzos se veían seriamente limitados por la apatía y el aislacionismo reinante en el Congreso y en sectores de la opinión pública estadounidense.
En febrero de 1941, el publicista norteamericano Henry Luce publicó en la revista Time un  corto ensayo titulado “The American Century” que se convertiría en uno de los documentos más importantes de la historia de los Estados Unidos en el siglo XX. Henry Luce era hijo de misioneros presbiterianos,  lo que explica que naciera en China en 1898. Graduado de la Universidad de Yale, en 1923 Luce  funda la revista  Time,  que sería la base para la creación de un imperio publicitario que incluiría publicaciones como Fortune y Life. Preocupado por la situación mundial, Luce escribió “The American Century” para llamar la atención de sus compatriotas ante la amenaza nazi.  En su breve escrito, Luce resaltó la responsabilidad de los Estados Unidos ante los eventos mundiales, pues según él, eran “la nación más poderosa y vital del mundo”, y como tal, debían hacer sentir su influencia y poder. Para Luce, era necesario que los norteamericanos entendieran que los Estados Unidos ya estaban involucrados en la guerra mundial y que sólo la nación estadounidense podía “definir de forma efectiva los objetivos de esta guerra.” Hijo de su momento histórico, “The American Century” buscaba luchar contra el aislacionismo sacudiendo a quienes se negaban a aceptar que los Estados Unidos debían intervenir en la guerra mundial para dar vida al “primer gran siglo norteamericano”. De esta forma, Luce anunció la hegemonía norteamericana de la posguerra.

Bacevich reconoce que aunque el chauvinismo, la religiosidad y la grandilocuencia de los argumentos de Luce no caen bien hoy en día, “The American Century” caló hondo en la mentalidad norteamericana, pues promovió la idea de los Estados Unidos  como “la fuente de salvación” del mundo, como el guía espiritual de la humanidad que sirvió de justificante ideológico-cultural de las políticas norteamericanas de la segunda mitad del siglo XX.  En otras palabras, Luce capturó en un frase la esencia de un momento histórico y aportó así un nuevo elemento a lo que el crítico cultural estadounidense  John Carlos Rowe denomina el “repertorio de métodos de dominación” del imaginario imperialista de los Estados Unidos.

Para Bacevich, la idea –él le llama mito– del siglo norteamericano tiene dos problemas básicos: primero, exagera el papel de los Estados Unidos y, segundo, “ignora y trivializa  asuntos en conflicto con el relato  triunfal” en el que ésta está basada. Con ello se perpetúa lo que Bacevich llama una “serie de ilusiones” que no permiten a los norteamericanos tomar conciencia de sí mismos, y que obstaculizan “nuestros esfuerzos para navegar por las aguas traidoras en las que se encuentra actualmente el país”.  La idea  de un supuesto siglo norteamericano perpetúa, por ende, una versión mítica del pasado estadounidense que no le permite a los norteamericanos entender los retos y problemas actuales.

Bacevich no tienes dudas de que el siglo XXI no es el siglo norteamericano, pero está conciente de que el pueblo y, en especial el liderato estadounidense aún permanecen bajo la “esclavitud” de esta idea. Por ello le combate demostrando su falsedad. Lo primero que hace Bacevich es reconocer que los Estados Unidos no derrotaron a la Wehrmacht, sino lo soviéticos. Segundo, Bacevich niega que los norteamericanos ganasen la guerra fría, pues según él, el imperio soviético fue víctima de la ineptitud de su liderato, no de las acciones de los norteamericanos. Tercero, Bacevich examina varios “errores cometidos por los Estados Unidos” que, según él, permiten ver la verdadera naturaleza del llamado siglo norteamericano: Cuba en 1898, la bomba atómica de 1945, Irán en 1953 y Afganistán desde la década de 1980.  Veamos cada uno de estos errores:

•    Cuba: En 1898, los Estados Unidos pelearon una guerra con España para, supuestamente, liberar a Cuba, pero la isla terminó convertida en un protectorado norteamericano, preparando así el camino hacia Fidel Castro y la Revolución Cubana, el fiasco de Bahía de Cochinos, la crisis de los misiles y Gitmo.
•    La bomba nuclear: Bacevich enfatiza la responsabilidad de los Estados Unidos en la creación de uno de los principales peligros que amenazan a la Humanidad: la proliferación de armas nucleares. Los Estados Unidos  no sólo crearon y usaron la bomba, sino que también definieron su posesión como “el parámetro de poder en el mundo de la posguerra” mundial, dejando a las demás potencias mundiales en una posición desventajosa. En otras palabras, la ventaja nuclear estadounidense obligó a las demás potencias a desarrollar su propio armamento nuclear, fomentando así la proliferación de las armas nucleares.
•   Irán: Bacevich reconoce que los problemas actuales de los Estados Unidos e Irán no se originan en la Revolución Iraní de 1979, sino en el papel que jugó la CIA en el derrocamiento, en 1953, del primer ministro iraní Mohammed Mossadegh.  En otras palabras,  el pueblo iraní fue condenado a vivir bajo la dictadura del Shah para que los norteamericanos pudieran obetener petróleo. Bacevich llega inclusive a reconocer que el anti-norteamericanismo que llevó a la toma de la embajada estadounidense en noviembre de 1979 no “fue enteramente sin motivo.”
•    Afganistán: Bacevich considera necesario reconocer el rol que jugaron los norteamericanos en la creación de los talibanes. Los gobiernos de Jimmy Carter y Ronald Reagan enviaron armas y dieron ayuda a los fundamentalistas afganos que libraran una guerra santa en contra de los soviéticos. En ese momento se creía que la política norteamericana era muy inteligente, pues les causaba serios problemas a la Unión Soviética. Sin embargo, el tiempo demostró que la política norteamericana en Afganistán  alimentó un  cáncer que terminó costándole muy caro a los Estados Unidos.

Bacevich reconoce que nadie puede asegurar que, por ejemplo, si a principios del siglo XX los Estados Unidos hubiesen enfocado el tema cubano de una forma diferente, Cuba no sería hoy un enemigo de los Estados Unidos. Lo que sí le parece indiscutible es que las acciones norteamericanas en Cuba, Irán y Afganistán lucen hoy en día como acciones y políticas erradas.  Además, demuestran la falsedad del mito del siglo norteamericano y subrayan la necesidad de reconocer los errores de la política exterior estadounidense. Según el autor, “sólo a través de la franqueza lograremos evitar repetir estos errores”.

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Pero no basta con reconocer los errores, los Estados Unidos deben pedir disculpas, deben hacer un acto de contrición.  Según Bacevich, los norteamericanos deben pedir perdón a los cubanos, japoneses, iraníes y  afganos (yo añadiría a los guatemaltecos, a los chilenos, a los vietnamitas, a los camboyanos, a los salvadoreños, a los palestinos, a los angoleños y a otros pueblos que sufrieron los efectos del “siglo norteamericano”) sin esperar ni pedir nada a cambio.  Bacevich es muy claro:

“No, les pedimos perdón, pero por nuestro propio bien –para liberarnos de los engreimientos acumulados del siglo norteamericano y para reconocer que Estados Unidos participó plenamente en la barbarie, locura y tragedia que definen nuestra época. Debemos responsabilizarnos por todos esos pecados.”

Bacevich concluyen que para resolver los problemas que enfrentan los Estados Unidos, los norteamericanos tienen que verse a sí mismos tal como son, y para ello es imprescindible dejar a un lado “las ilusiones encarnadas en el siglo norteamericano”.

Debo reconocer que la franqueza y dureza del análisis de Bacevich me dejo muy impresionado.  Su deconstrucción del mito del siglo norteamericano es muy efectiva, aunque no incluye elementos como la guerra filipino-norteamericana, la guerra de Vietnam, el conflicto árabe-israelí y las intervenciones en América Latina (Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc.) Concuerdo plenamente en que es necesario que el gobierno y el pueblo norteamericano hagan un examen crítico y honesto de su política exterior. Para ello necesario dejar atrás varios elementos  ideológicos que han servido de base y justificante moral, cultural y política para las acciones norteamericanas desde el siglo XIX. No se trata sólo de superar el mito del siglo norteamericano,  es también necesario examinar críticamente ideas como el excepcionalismo, el sentido de misión, la doctrina Monroe, el puritanismo social, la doctrina del pecado original, el espíritu de la frontera, etc. En otras palabras, no basta con reconocer el carácter mitológico del llamado siglo norteamericano, pero sería un paso importantísimo.  La mentalidad que ha predominado en la política exterior de los Estados Unidos en los últimos sesenta años (por lo menos) es muy compleja y responde a patrones culturales muy enraizados en la historia de los Estados Unidos.  Superarlos no será fácil, pero yo quiero pensar que es posible.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, Ph. D.
Lima, 24 de mayo de 2009

Las  traducciones del inglés son mías

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