Non-Interventionism is Not Isolationism

Americans who advocate a non-interventionist foreign policy are often referred to as "isolationists." Like "democracy" and "republic," the terms "isolationist" and "non-interventionist" have become synonymous. In actuality, there are substantive differences between the two terms and they should never be used interchangeably.

Isolationism dictates that a country should have no relations with the rest of the world. In its purest form this would mean that ambassadors would not be shared with other nations, communications with foreign governments would be mainly perfunctory, and commercial relations would be non-existent.

Isolationism is an impracticable worldview. It is important that the U.S. maintain relations with other countries especially when our direct vital interests are at stake. There are litanies of issues from logging rights to the abolition of nuclear weapons, to border disputes in which the U.S. must negotiate with its counterparts. Moreover, in order to achieve economic tranquility, commercial relations must be maintained and attenuated.

One-quarter of all U.S. jobs are dependent on exports. Severing commercial relations would likely lead the U.S. into another Great Depression. While some non-interventionists advocate tariffs and custom duties to protect American industries, few would seek the elimination of all foreign trade. A non-interventionist recognizes that the U.S. is interdependent on the global economy.

A non-interventionist supports commercial relations. In fact, in terms of trade, many non-interventionists share libertarian proclivities and would unilaterally obliterate all tariffs and custom duties, and would be open to trade with all willing nations. In addition, non-interventionists welcome cultural exchanges and the exchange of ambassadors with all willing nations.

A non-interventionist believes that the U.S. should not intercede in conflicts between other nations or conflicts within nations. In recent history, non-interventionists have proved prophetic in warning of the dangers of the U.S. entangling itself in alliances. The U.S. has suffered deleterious effects and effectuated enmity among other governments, citizenries, and non-state actors as a result of its overseas interventions. The U.S. interventions in both Iran and Iraq have led to cataclysmic consequences.

In 1953, the U.S. and the British sponsored a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq after he nationalized oil fields. The coup restored Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, the "Shah of Iran," to supremacy. Under the Shah’s iron-fisted rule, secret police tortured and killed political opponents. Fed-up with his oppressive rule, the supporters of fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in 1979. Still inflamed at the U.S. for its role in the coup, Iranian students took 52 American diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days. Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to excoriate the U.S. for its role in the coup, and the country celebrates "Death To America Day" on February 6 to mark the day the U.S. embassy was seized.

With this new Islamic Republic of Iran now an adversary of the U.S., the Reagan administration intervened on behalf of the truculent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. President Ronald Reagan subscribed to the strategically questionable philosophy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Adopting such a strategy, Reagan "de-listed" Hussein from the list of state-sponsors of terror, allowing Iraq to receive military and economic aid from the U.S. Subsequently, the Reagan administration approved covert transfers of howitzers, helicopters, bombs, and other weapons to Iraq in violation of the Arms Export Control Act of 1976. Concomitantly, the U.S. turned a blind eye toward the chemical weapons Hussein was using against the Iranians. In fact, Bell helicopters provided by the U.S. were used in the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja, leaving over 5,000 Kurds dead. The Reagan administration’s intervention prolonged the quagmire, which resulted in over one million deaths.

After the U.S. repelled Iraq’s incursion into oil-rich Kuwait in the 1990s, debilitating sanctions were placed on Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. This, coupled with the aforementioned U.S. support of Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, led to the unexpected acrimony the U.S. experienced when it invaded Iraq in 2003. In fact, a 2004 poll showed that anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr garnered a 67% favorable rating among Iraqis. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz deluded himself into thinking that U.S. troops would be greeted with "rose petals."

In 2003, non-interventionists warned about the potential blowback the U.S. could experience from an invasion and occupation of Iraq. While the jury is still out as to whether Iraq will become a constitutional republic in the cradle of civilization, in the long run, U.S. intervention might only be a pyrrhic victory. Al-Qaeda has been able to successfully use the secular occupation of a predominately Muslim country as a recruiting magnet.

Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated to be between 100,000 and 1,000,000. For every Iraqi killed in the crossfire, the U.S. risks their families and friends becoming at best hostile to the U.S. and at worst, suicide bombers trying to avenge for the deaths of their loved ones.

If the Iraq war is the central front in the war on terrorism, then even if the U.S. should win this battle, al-Qaeda can claim victory in a larger context by exploiting the U.S. occupation to galvanize their followers while concomitantly recruiting new ones.

A non-interventionist believes the U.S. must remain vigilant in enfeebling al-Qaeda and all who are trying to harm the U.S. But, a non-interventionist maintains that the U.S. should be cognizant of the problems and perils that our interventions abroad can cause. Currently, the U.S. has at least 761 military bases in 130 countries, and we continue to needlessly antagonize friends and foe alike. Non-interventionists have a profound respect for Thomas Jeffersons’ call for "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none."

There is an authentic and stark difference between non-interventionism and isolationism. Isolationism as a political philosophy or political strategy is not only impractical but probably suicidal. In a global economy, no industrialized nation can successfully sustain itself on the resources that it controls. Isolationism is a political philosophy that discourages relations with other countries. Alternatively, non-interventionism maintains that foreign relations should be encouraged, but that nations should not become so involved with each other’s affairs that they become entangled with each other. Non-interventionists assert that intervention into the affairs of counterpart nations all too often results in unintended deleterious consequences and blowback, such as the U.S. learned when it intervened in the Middle East.

Author: Rich Rubino

Rich Rubino of Marblehead, Massachusetts is the managing editor of  He holds a bachelor's degree from Assumption College in Worcester and a master's in broadcast journalism from Emerson College in Boston.