Charles A. Kupchan is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and like Gordon served as a national security official in the Obama administration. But as a professor of international affairs at Georgetown, Kupchan has one foot firmly planted in academe. “Isolationism” is a scholarly book, albeit written by a scholar keen to influence the formulation of basic policy.
Kupchan sets out to “provide readers a go-to volume for understanding American isolationism.” His overarching purpose, “to refurbish isolationism and rehabilitate its reputation,” will strike many readers as quixotic. After all, the very term evokes an intensely partisan response, hardly conducive to reasoned discourse.
For establishment liberals, isolationism is synonymous with feckless irresponsibility, an abiding sin to which the American people are said to be prone. Whenever isolationism rears its ugly head, it must be denounced and resisted. On the other hand, dissenters on the radical left or anti-interventionist right classify isolationism as a fiction, devoid of value in describing actual behavior. Viewed from this perspective, the idea of isolationism serves chiefly as an excuse to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths.
Kupchan stakes out a third position: Even before achieving independence and continuing to Pearl Harbor, American leaders consciously pursued a “grand strategy of isolationism” and it proved to be a whale of a success. During that time, the United States expanded territorially and commercially, brutally pacified the Native American population, fought several wars, built a dynamic industrialized economy and acquired a maritime empire of colonies and protectorates. This extraordinary set of developments, which Kupchan recounts in exhaustive detail, qualifies as isolationism in his estimation because as the United States was busily accruing wealth and power, policymakers steered clear of European quarrels.
Until 1898, Kupchan writes, “Americans repeatedly turned their backs on opportunities to expand beyond North America.” While nominally true, that claim glides past the large fact that within North America, the United States was seizing a vast expanse stretching from sea to shining sea. After 1898 came a lunge into the Caribbean and a leap across the Pacific. If Washington’s policymakers were indeed pursuing a coherent strategy — as opposed to simply demonstrating a knack for opportunism — that strategy’s defining feature was not isolationism but a shrewd preference for plucking low-hanging fruit.
“Americans pursued such expansion in the service of isolation,” Kupchan writes. But this confuses posture with purpose, akin to interpreting President Trump’s occasional nods toward Jesus as evidence of genuine religiosity.
Several factors combined to facilitate America’s rise to power: security that cost nothing, weak neighbors, abundant resources, political leaders with a keen eye for the main chance and, when required, utter ruthlessness. Attaching a label of isolationism to that narrative of ascent serves no purpose.