Beware the ‘Isolationist Temptation’


It has been only a quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, but the U.S. is already in the midst of its second great foreign-policy debate of the post-Soviet era, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard N. Haass writes for The Wall Street Journal:

  • The first, which carried us from the administration of the first President Bush through the second, was over the appropriate extent of America’s global ambitions. It took place largely among foreign policy elites, between those who (roughly speaking) wanted to stabilize the world and decrease the chances of conflict, and those who sought to liberalize other countries, hoping to spread democracy and improve the lot of people suffering from tyranny and civil war.
  • The second debate, which is being played out today, centers on whether the U.S. should retain the leading international role it has held since the end of World War II. Unlike the earlier debate, this one is taking place among elites and non-elites. It pits internationalists of every stripe against those who are isolationists or very nearly that, holding to a minimal view of what the U.S. should be doing beyond its borders.

Failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the failed transitions of the Arab Spring have fostered disillusion and pessimism about prospects for advancing democracy, Haass adds. But, “the consequences of a lasting American retreat from the world would be dire,” he cautions:

Winning the debate, though, will take more than marshaling facts. Those who lose their jobs because of trade deserve assistance, both to tide them over and to train them for new jobs. Trade partners must be held to high standards when it comes to labor conditions, the environment and manipulation of currencies. The playing field must be level.

The cause of internationalism would also be helped by policies that increase economic growth, from infrastructure modernization to tax, entitlement and immigration reform. Populism and parochialism are much more likely to gain traction amid anxiety over jobs and stagnant or declining standards of living.

Dr. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order,” which will be published in January by the Penguin Press.


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