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The Mises Review

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Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy For a New Century

Eric Nordlinger

3 1996
Volume 2, Number 3


The Return of Anti-Imperialism

Fall 1996

ISOLATIONISM RECONFIGURED: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY FOR A NEW CENTURY
Eric A. Nordlinger
Princeton University Press, 1995, x + 335 pgs.

Ever since World War II, the traditional American foreign policy of nonintervention in foreign affairs has had a bad press. Isolationism, it is alleged, helped cause the Second World War, with all its appalling destruction and massacres. Fortunately, America learned her lesson during the war; and, when the battle with the Axis came to an end, we were prepared for a new struggle. Only the repudiation of isolationism enabled the United States to prosecute the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

Eric Nordlinger, a distinguished political scientist who unfortunately died shortly before Isolationism Reconfigured appeared, has braved the perils of nonconformity. He advocates what he terms a "national" strategy for the United States, which largely, though not entirely, corresponds with traditional isolationism. In making his case, he challenges his opponents on their supposedly strongest ground, the onset of World War II. Not content with this singular act of iconoclasm, he also questions the necessity of the Cold War.

The basic argument for Nordlinger's brand of isolationism rests on a simple premise, combined with a fact of manifest importance. (Nordlinger, I regret to say, presents his simple case in a needlessly complicated and jargon-filled style; but this is by the way.)

Nordlinger's starting point is that a national security strategy should be judged "by way of two encompassing questions. How do the alternative security strategies compare in protecting America's security, its highest political, material, and survival values, from any and all external threats. . . how do they stack up in promoting America's extrasecurity values at home and abroad, material and ideal, political and economic" (p. 3)?

What happens if the answers to these two queries conflict? Suppose, for example, that an isolationist strategy best protected America's security, but some other scheme did better at promoting American extrasecurity goals. One might think the answer obvious; since security is of the first importance, the strategy that most successfully promotes it ought to be adopted.

But are no tradeoffs to be allowed? Does any amount of the security goal outweigh any amount of the extrasecurity goals? What if a strategy were slightly less good than another in protecting security, but much better at promoting nonsecurity goals? Must it without further thought be cast aside? Unfortunately, Nordlinger does not address issues of this sort. Fortunately, this omission does not hurt his case. He maintains that an isolationist strategy (at least taken with his modifications) best promotes both sets of values.

Another aspect of Nordlinger's starting point requires attention. Although he phrases his questions in a general form, he addresses himself exclusively to the American case. He is not concerned to argue that for any nation, anywhere, an isolationist strategy is best. Rather, his contention is that isolation is the indicated course for the United States.

Though limited in this way, our author's thesis is not the narrowest possible. Not only does he think that isolation is the best course for the United States now; he<%-4> adheres to the traditional view that isolation served us well during the period 1789 1917. More controversially, he does not think that the abandonment of isolation by Woodrow Wilson, continued by U.S. involvement in World War II and the Cold War, was a necessary, if distasteful, interruption of our customary foreign policy. In the style of revisionists such as Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, he supports isolation during these events as well. And, nothing if not consistent, Nordlinger has no use for Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein.

During most of the long historical period that Nordlinger covers, one fact has remained constant; and this is the linchpin of his case for American isolation. Because of our geographical position, natural resources, and military strength, the United States since the early 19th century has always been in a position to resist invasion without difficulty. To do so of course requires a strong defense capacity: Nordlinger does not argue his case on pacifist grounds. But, given military technology that equals or surpasses that of rivals, the advantage lies naturally with the defense.

"A national strategy does not entail any less of a commitment to research and development than strategic internationalism," he writes. "Without it there is no knowing how science and technology can make for yet greater security, and it is the only way to guard against others forging beyond us in ways that would detract from our security" (p. 49).

One advantage of isolation should excite little controversy. It is much cheaper than a policy of "entangling alliances," as Thomas Jefferson aptly termed interventionism. Like Earl Ravenal, one of the few "defense intellectuals" to support isolation, Nordlinger maintains that the drastic cuts in the defense budget under isolation would redound greatly to the advantage of our economy, through lowering the deficit and releasing funds for private spending and investment.

But this of course does not suffice to make the case for isolation, as opponents of the policy will be quick to point out. How does Nordlinger defend his principal thesis, viz., that isolation can better promote American security than interventionism? He does so, in large part, by an ingenious reversal of an influential argument for intervention of worldwide scope.

According to the view Nordlinger combats, a state's security depends on its credibility. The world of nations is one of constant struggle for power; and to maintain its existence amidst this strife, a country must acquire a reputation for resolve. If it is known to fulfill scrupulously its commitments, other nations will be deterred from threat or invasion.

"The more frequently the United States undertakes and fulfills defensive obligations," proponents of this view allege, "the greater its current credibility. Insofar as the fulfillment of defense commitments involves major efforts and great sacrifices, the other side will be all the more convinced of our high resolve" (p. 116).

As Nordlinger notes, the distinguished economist Thomas Schelling has probably been the most influential supporter of this argument. He went so far as to claim "that most of the globe is central to our security for subjective, political reasons" (p. 117).

To enable a state to secure credibility, Schelling and other theorists have devised elaborate models detailing how states should threaten and respond to threats. Nordlinger confronts the models with an elementary fact. The intentions of others are very difficult to gauge. But the strategic minuets of move and countermove devised by defense specialists depend on accurate perceptions of intention: if what was intended as a gesture of conciliation is judged a threat, e.g., trouble obviously looms. Why then engage in such futile exercises?

One might in part reply to Nordlinger that not all strategic analysis does in fact depend on knowledge of intention. Some strategies dominate others; i.e., following them makes one better off regardless of what others do. But in the main our author is clearly right. To judge that because a nation has kept its commitments, it will be likely to do so in the future is precisely to assess intention.

If, though, we take Nordlinger's advice and abstain from the strategic duels of Schelling and company, does not disaster threaten? If we do not make commitments, we shall not obtain credibility; and then other nations will not hesitate to threaten us. Here exactly lies the point at which Nordlinger executes his remarkable reversal of the credibility argument.

It is not, he says, by constant commitments that one best builds credibility. Quite the contrary, a nation that maintains a strong defense capability but refrains from foreign entanglements has made its intentions crystal clear. Since, almost by definition, a nation places extreme value on its territorial integrity, no problem exists of convincing others that it will fight if attacked. And there is no need to fight for others in order to enhance a credibility that was not first laid on the line.

An isolationist, then, is not a player who always concedes the point to an opponent, but rather someone who does not play the game of international power politics at all. In making this distinction, Nordlinger deftly avoids a common accusation against isolationists: they are, it is charged, appeasers who ignore the lessons of Munich.

Not at all. Isolation, to repeat, entails disengagement from world politics, not participation in them in a particular fashion. "It was Britain and France, not a disengaged America, that pressured Czechoslovakia to concede much of its territory to Hitler at Munich. Without being at all bellicose, isolationism does not involve significant concessions to opponents, with whom there are few interactions and few political-military treaties and agreements" (p. 5).

With this defense, though, our author appears to have walked directly into the line of fire. Surely World War II suffices by itself to cripple Nordlinger's thesis. Had America not become involved in the war, would we not have faced an invincible foe, in control of all of Europe and poised to strike?

Nordlinger rises to the challenge. No matter how powerful a Nazi Germany triumphant in Europe, it is extremely doubtful that it would have been in a position to invade America. Members of the America First Committee, the leading organization that opposed the United States' involvement in the war, "were duly impressed with what Germany could not do. Despite its control of most of Europe by 1940 it was still unable to breach the narrow English Channel to attack England" (p. 56).

And it is eminently doubtful that America's entry into the war was needed to prevent German conquest of Europe. Relying on an argument by the Yale political scientist Bruce Russett, Nordlinger maintains that Hitler's gamble to seize control of Europe had failed well before Pearl Harbor. The Luftwaffe could not defeat the British Royal Air Force; and "by late 1941 Germany's early advantages [in the invasion of Russia] had lost their sway: outright Soviet superiority in troops, tanks, and planes became dominant" (p. 58).

Opponents of the America First Committee charged that its purpose was to further the cause of fascism; but, Nordlinger insists, this is a baseless canard. "The great majority of isolationists held no brief for Nazi Germany. . . . Senator Robert A. Taft detested every one of the German government's actions after Hitler assumed power" (p. 188). Quite the contrary, the isolationist case rested on a careful analysis of America's security needs. And, as Nordlinger abundantly shows, that case remains valid today. "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

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