Whatever happened to American isolationism?
I have just recently finished reading Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. The book is definitely worth reading if you want to understand American foreign policy over the past two centuries. The big surprise for me -- and it should surprise just about everyone -- is that America has never been isolationist.
I repeat: America has never been isolationist.
If this is true, then what American foreign policy has been misunderstood as one of isolationism? Easy . . . if you've read McDougall. It's American unilateralism.
What has long been called isolationism was really American unilateralism. George Washington's famous "Farewell Address" in 1796, in which he warned against entangling alliances, has been often cited:
"Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
What McDougall shows is that this warning did not mean that America sought to isolate itself from the world. From its very beginnings, the United States was engaged with foreign issues and events, but in almost all cases -- prior to the 20th century -- American foreign policy was unilateral.
In this sense, our current American president is well-grounded in American precedent.