Throughout the history of American foreign policy, individuals and movements have advocated isolation from world affairs. They argue it is not the United States’ place to “interfere” in global events. They argue we must put “America First” and the international order second.
Isolationism usually comes from an earnest, well-intentioned desire to avoid unnecessary wars and prevent the loss of human life. Good intentions notwithstanding, there are numerous problems with the isolationist school of thought.
For starters, isolationists consistently underestimate threats to American interests and national security. In their view, occurrences half a world away matter little to American security, and national interests would be better served by ignoring them.
This was not true in the past, and it is not true today.
In the 1930s, isolationism grew increasingly popular in the United States. Despite ominous signs from Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan, political leaders in the states argued that the United States had to put “America First.” Taking action to contain fascism would mean entanglement in foreign affairs, and the United States’ military strength and geographic isolation would protect her from danger.
The “America Firsters” fundamentally misunderstood the threat of fascism. The ideologies of Germany, Italy, and Japan were totalitarian and expansionist. The European fascists would not just stop in Europe, and Imperial Japan had a far more ambitious strategy than just conquering Asia. These armies of darkness would, if left unchecked, march across the entire world.
In his 1934 speech, “The Threat of Nazi Germany,” Winston Churchill described Nazi Germany as “a nation which has abandoned all its liberties in order to augment its collective strength. There is a nation which, with all its strength and virtue, is in the grip of a group of ruthless men, preaching a gospel of intolerance and racial pride, unrestrained by law, by parliament, or by public opinion.”
In that same speech, Churchill warned the British people that “Submission will entail at the very least, the passing and distribution of the British Empire, and the acceptance by our people within and under a Teutonic domination of Europe of whatever future may be in store for small countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland.”
Churchill was a lone voice in the political wilderness, a veritable Cassandra. By the time the Britons woke to his alarms, it was already too late, and the fascist military machine overran Europe.
“America Firsters” said the arm of tyranny was not long enough to stretch to North America. They claimed Hitler was a potential partner for peace and the Japanese threat was largely exaggerated.
What the isolationists did not understand was the ideological commitment of the Axis Powers to world domination and the Total State. They learned all too late that when brutal ideologues gather strength, they intend to use it to remake the entire world.
Today, America faces a similar threat. Ideologues motivated by radical Islam seek to terrorize the West. Learned imams and scholars of Islam issue fatawa, claiming that the Western ideas of ordered liberty and republicanism are dangerous infidel doctrines, tools of imperialists and the enemies of Allah.
Islamists have made themselves very clear. They seek nothing less than the death of Western civilization. They seek nothing less than total submission. This is what Jihad is to the radicals fighting for Iran, ISIS, or Al-Qaeda.
The Islamist grand strategy for war on the West differs from the fascist grand strategy. While the fascists favored conventional militaries, the jihadists prefer suicide vests and random shootings. But this does not mean there is no grand strategy for the jihadist vanguard.
Sebastian Gorka, a professor of military theory at the Marine Corps University, explained this strategy in his 2016 book, Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.
“Since the only target that matters in war is the soul of the infidel, [the jihadist] concludes that the most effective weapon in war is terror,” Gorka said. “The enemy’s belief system must be utterly destroyed, and terror is the most effective way to do that… It is the highly symbolic suicide attacks, the crucifixions, the beheadings, the bombing of civilian crowds, and the videos of immolations that will destroy the will of the infidel to go on.
Much like in the interbellum period, the United States today has its fair share of “America Firsters.” They still argue that the Republic ought to focus its attention and resources on domestic issues and that withdrawal from the Middle East is in the country’s best interest.
These latter-day isolationists fail to understand that radical Islam presents an existential threat to the American way of life. The leaders of Islamist groups across the spectrum are intelligent, learned, and ideologically committed to total jihad. Some, such as ISIS, believe that jihadist violence will usher in the end times.
This war will not stop until the United States, and the West more broadly, takes a more aggressive stance against these barbaric ideologues.
Isolation from the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East will not prevent terror; it will only empower it.