Long Live ‘Isolationism’!

How many times has the Pew Research Center for People and the Press come out with a poll showing that the American people are going "isolationist"? I’ve lost count. The latest poll results show that:

"The public’s skepticism about U.S. international engagement – evident in America’s Place in the World surveys four and eight years ago – has increased. Currently, 52% say the United States ‘should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’ Just 38% disagree with the statement. This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the US ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.

"After the recent near-miss with US military action against Syria, the NATO mission in Libya and lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about half of Americans (51%) say the United States does too much in helping solve world problems, while just 17% say it does too little and 28% think it does the right amount. When those who say the US does "too much" internationally are asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention."

Aha! The dreaded "isolationist" troglodytes are on the rise – again! Oh, but not so fast:

"This reticence is not an expression of across-the-board isolationism. Even as doubts grow about the United States’ geopolitical role, most Americans say the benefits from US participation in the global economy outweigh the risks. And support for closer trade and business ties with other nations stands at its highest point in more than a decade."

For years the Pew folks have been yelping about "isolationism." They’ve been telling us it’s on the march – except among the elites – with the strong implication being that this is not a Good Thing. But do they know what the heck they’re talking about?

One has to wonder what extending peaceful commercial links with other nations has in common with invading them, meddling in their internal politics, or otherwise bullying them around. Indeed, establishing voluntary non-coercive relations with other nations – otherwise known as international trade – is the polar opposite of military and/or political intervention in their affairs. The American people know this. The Pew folks – not so much.

The bias of the Pew Center is evident in every line of the report, and also in its structure: the Pew Poll is really two polls, one a survey of the hoi polloi (you and I), the other a poll of members of the "internationalist" Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the elite foreign policy group founded by Elihu Root and dominated by the Morgan banking interests from the get-go. The gulf between us plebeians and the Very Serious People in Washington (and New York) has been growing for years, but today it is a vast chasm: The CFR types are aghast at the "isolationism" of the rest of us, and ascribe to this various causes: "war fatigue," the costs – and of course our narrow plebeian "isolationist" anti-cosmopolitan country-bumpkin outlook.

While 51 percent of normal Americans say we’re pushing our weight around far too much, the exact opposite opinion is held by the Washington-New York know-it-alls: "By contrast, about twice as many CFR members say the US does too little internationally as say it does too much (41% vs. 21%); 35% say the US does the right amount." While us Normals were overwhelmingly opposed to US intervention in Syria, the CFR’ers were for it 2-to-1. Yes, they’re wrong about practically everything, including what it means to be an "isolationist" – a creature that has never existed and could not exist outside of North Korea.

I don’t know of a single American political figure or ideological movement that advocates isolating the US from the rest of the world: even the trade protectionists on both sides of the political spectrum admit the utility of some form of international trade, albeit one hobbled by tariffs erected by special interests. And the leading anti-interventionist political figures, such as Ron Paul, have always advocated free trade. But in the elite-CFR taxonomy of political ideas, the idea of commercial relations with our trading partners and US military and political intervention abroad are inextricably linked.

Why is that?

The answer is because the "internationalism" espoused by the CFR, the WashingtonNew YorkLondon axis of arrogance, and the editorial board of the Washington Post has always been self-interested. That is, in spite of whatever ideological or moral window dressing are invoked in any specific instance, the War Party has always had economic motives, dating all the way back to the administration of Grover Cleveland, as Murray Rothbard points out:

"The great turning point of American foreign policy came in the early 1890s, during the second Cleveland Administration. It was then that the US turned sharply and permanently from a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention to an aggressive program of economic and political expansion abroad. At the heart of the new policy were America’s leading bankers, eager to use the country’s growing economic strength to subsidize and force-feed export markets and investment outlets that they would finance, as well as to guarantee Third World government bonds. The major focus of aggressive expansion in the 1890s was Latin America, and the principal Enemy to be dislodged was Great Britain, which had dominated foreign investments in that vast region."

A serial devoted to the subject of securing export markets was featured in Bankers Magazine at the time, which declared the absolute necessity of "wresting foreign markets from Germany and Britain." That was the theory put into practice when the House of Morgan took over the US State Department:

"Long-time Morgan associate Richard Olney heeded the call, as Secretary of State from 1895 to 1897, setting the US on the road to Empire. After leaving the State Department, he publicly summarized the policy he had pursued. The old isolationism heralded by George Washington’s Farewell Address is over, he thundered. The time has now arrived, Olney declared, when ‘it behooves us to accept the commanding position… among the Power of the earth.’ And, ‘the present crying need of our commercial interests,’ he added, ‘is more markets and larger markets’ for American products, especially in Latin America."

Not long after, Washington proceeded to send the US Navy to Rio de Janeiro harbor to put down a British-backed rebellion, and the Marines were dispatched to Nicaragua in order to secure plans for a proposed canal backed by American investors. Warships steamed into Santo Domingo to bully the French away from poaching on territory claimed by a consortium of New York bankers. The US and Britain almost went to war over a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana: the conflict, which had been festering for decades, came to a head when the Venezuelans granted gold franchises to American investors in the disputed territory. Suddenly, Great Britain was the Great Satan, and President Cleveland railed against the "British threat." London eventually backed down and acceded to a compromise border adjustment: they had bigger problems in South Africa at the time. And lest anyone think the Americans were simply defending the Monroe Doctrine and the independence of Venezuela against British imperialism, Rothbard notes: "Insultingly, the Venezuelans received not a single seat on the agreed-upon arbitration commission."

The political class in this country has a far different view of commercial relations between nations than the Average American. To the latter, it is simply Good Old American Free Enterprise, albeit engaged in overseas. The former are not so naïve: they realize it is all about buying political influence, and, failing that, using the US military to guarantee the safety, security, and profitability of American investments abroad.

Viewed through this lens, American foreign policy since 1890 takes on a whole new dimension, which Rothbard’s Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy reveals in scintillating detail. The One Percent have been utilizing the US military as their private security force ever since that time: indeed, every war we have fought – yes, including the Good War – was fulsomely supported by the economic elite and their journalistic camarilla against the overwhelming desire of the American people to stay out. The political class has deliberately conflated commercial contacts with military and political intervention into the affairs of other nations – because, for them, the two are synonymous.

According to the mindset of the Pew Center and their good buddies at the CFR, "isolationism" has to mean commercial isolation. While this may puzzle the average person, look at it from the perspective of a professional thief: without the threat of US sanctions and the ultimate bludgeon of US military intervention, how else will the big banksters and their sycophants enforce a "world order" that exists so they can make a fast buck off the sweat of Chinese coolies, Eurasian oil workers, and Mexican maquiladores?

The "internationalists" who inhabit the CFR and the thinktanks of Washington invented the bogeymen of "isolationism" as a scare word to muddy the issue of war and peace and convince the public that our prosperity depends on America’s role as the "leader" of the world. The same Pew poll asks if America is more or less "important and powerful" than it has been, and the answer is one they expected to get: no. They don’t get very specific: they don’t say important to whom, and for what – just "important" and "powerful." What kind of power are they talking about, if not military power?

The general impression given by the Pew results is that Americans think this country is in decline – largely because we aren’t intervening enough. Never mind that Americans don’t want us to intervene: what the Pew-sters are saying is that Americans are just fine with decline. This makes no sense, but it gives the "internationalists" ammunition and a reason to write headlines like this one from the Washington Examiner: "Poof: Public says America’s world leadership has tumbled to 40-year low." The real story, however, is "Poof: Public has had quite enough of political class pretensions to ‘world leadership.’"

"Decline" is a loaded word, in this context: has Japan gone into "decline" because it hasn’t invaded a single country or pushed its weight around on the world stage since World War II? Military and political hegemony aren’t necessarily linked to economic prosperity, as Secretary Olney and his intellectual heirs would have us believe. Indeed, the former may make the latter impossible, as our military expenditures threaten us with bankruptcy and resources that should have gone into the real economy are instead diverted to the nonproductive government sector.

The questions about international trade in the Pew poll were inserted into a survey on popular attitudes toward US foreign policy in order to buttress the view that "isolationism" means not trading or dealing in any way with other nations. But since no one advocates this, or has ever advocated it, the real purpose of this amalgam is to tar anti-interventionists with the brush of economic illiteracy and depict them as archaic reactionaries opposed to "progress."

However, for better or for worse, the "isolationist" epithet has been in circulation now ever since the Great Debate over US entry into World War II, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. So anti-interventionists, instead of denying their "isolationism," should instead embrace it: rather than explaining what they aren’t they should go on the offensive and define the other side.

We want to isolate the American people from the wars, the trials and tribulations, the feuds and internecine conflicts that have been going on for thousands of years and show no signs of stopping no matter what we do – they, on the other hand, want to plunk US troops smack dab in the middle of every ethno-religious snake pit on earth, meddling and pushing our way into every dispute and blowing it up into a Major Deal.

Are we isolationists? You bet we are!


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].