The 2016 Presidential election has seen the revival of anti-globalist and even isolationist sentiment in the United States. Two of the most popular candidates in this cycle, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, succeeded in no small part due to their opposition to America’s current levels of global engagement. Trump, now the candidate of a major political party, has repeatedly questioned the value of free trade, immigration, and America’s global network of allies and partners. Moreover, recent surveys indicate that a plurality of Americans believe the United States does too much to solve world problems.
We believe the rhetoric of retrenchment and uncertain attitudes towards America’s global role is dangerous. U.S. leadership has contributed to international peace and prosperity for the past seven decades and in an increasingly interconnected age, it is more important than ever that America remains engaged.
The history of isolationism should give pause to anyone advocating for a greatly restrained U.S. foreign policy. Between World War I and World War II, isolationist and protectionist sentiments in the United States and elsewhere permitted the growth of totalitarian powers in Germany and Italy, as well as an aggressively imperialist Japan. U.S. economic nationalism was best embodied in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, a highly restrictive tax on imports. Economists look back on the tariff as having had a devastating impact on international trade, employment, and economic prosperity. Combined with a U.S. foreign policy of obstinate neutrality, Japan was given a free hand to expand in the Far East and Germany was allowed to occupy much of Europe with little fear of American intervention. Once America finally shed its isolationism, only a catastrophic world war was sufficient to cast away the dark pall of the Axis powers.
Following World War II, Europe’s strength was depleted and the world was exhausted, but the United States stepped up to the plate and created the international order which it continues to lead, and we enjoy, today. This system is marked by international stability, economic prosperity, and freedom. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this liberal order was extended beyond the West to the entire world. As G. John Ikenberry argues about the world America made:
“Markets and democracy have spread. Societies outside the West are trading and growing. The United States has more alliance partners today than it did during the Cold War. Rival hegemonic states with revisionist and illiberal agendas have been pushed off the global stage.
The system is not self-sustaining however. Securing this order requires continued American leadership and, in the words of Robert Kagan, “keeping a lid on things.”
There are certainly plenty of threats for the United States to keep a lid on. Russia is explicitly engaging in nuclear brinkmanship with European nations for the first time since the end of the Cold War. China is using military coercion to settle maritime disputes with U.S. treaty allies. ISIS has established a terrorist state in the Middle East and is demonstrating an increasingly global reach. Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea continue to challenge U.S. interests and allies as they develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, support international terror groups, and engage in gross human rights violations against their own populations.
America is the only country able to exert the international leadership necessary to address these challenges. As Georgetown University professor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has argued, the United States is the world’s “indispensable power.” Neglecting its responsibility to be a world leader, on the other hand, will only lead to the further disintegration of the world America built, perhaps beyond repair.
The international system has become so accustomed to America’s central role over the past seventy years that it is difficult to imagine the world without it. But one can foresee the sudden withdrawal of American power leading to major power wars in Europe and Asia and worldwide economic calamity.
Or consider what could happen in the Middle East in the absence of American power. The probability of a nuclear Iran increases exponentially, likely triggering an arms race in the world’s most volatile region. Terrorist threats in the region would advance largely unchecked.
The consequences of retreat should give us all pause.
Beyond its other shortcomings, true isolationism may no longer even be feasible. Technological change and globalization have made the world more interconnected than ever before. ISIS has already inspired killing sprees on U.S. soil from its safe haven in the Middle East. And iconic “American” commercial products, such the iPhone, would not exist if it were not for easy access to global supply chains and international markets.
This is not to say that the United States is perfect or that its foreign policy has not been without its share of mistakes. But, as we have seen in Syria, the only thing the rest of the world dislikes more than too much American power, is too little of it.
Preserving the U.S.-led international order, therefore, is in the interest of the United States and the rest of the free world. Isolationist and protectionist foreign policies are not a cure for what ails us, but rather a recipe for disaster. Let us all remember that as we consider the future course of U.S. foreign policy for the next four years and beyond.