Will the elections revive U.S. isolationism?

Will the elections revive U.S. isolationism?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

As the country settles down now to a smaller slate of presidential candidates, voters on Super Tuesday and thereafter seriously need to consider how important foreign policy and national security issues might be for them as they ponder their choices in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. 

Specifically, for those concerned about the role of the United States in the Middle East in general and U.S.-Israel relations in particular, it would be prudent to analyze the candidates’ overall foreign policy orientation and not exclusively their campaign rhetoric. 

For example, supporters of any candidate who has prioritized cutting federal spending and reducing government programs need to understand that, in the eyes of many voters, foreign assistance and military aid are generally seen as the classic example of unnecessary and wasteful government spending. Despite the fact that no remaining candidate has advocated cutting U.S. aid to Israel — which Rand Paul had suggested — the Republican leaders have all seemed to suggest the need for the nation to look inward and care for its own problems, i.e., cut spending. 

Since the days of George Washington, there has been a debate as to whether the United States ought to be concerned about problems outside its immediate borders or which do not directly affect American interests and American lives. Washington was wary of foreign entanglement and set precedent by insisting on neutrality in foreign affairs. By contrast, President James Monroe, in an effort to keep Europe and Russia from colonizing the Americas, declared in 1823 that the U.S. would intervene if they threatened its closest neighbors.

It was President Woodrow Wilson who took the United States into World War I and declared his commitment to make not only the United States but the world safe for democracy. His dream to create the League of Nations foundered largely due to the Republicans in the U.S. Senate who refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty and commit the U.S. to a role in preventing world conflict.

This event was the harbinger of the period of most intense isolationism in this country’s history. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Congress repeatedly passed neutrality acts to keep the United States out of the developing war in Europe. The America First movement — to which Ted Cruz has referred in some of his campaign speeches — emerged in this period. This desire to focus on the home front challenged FDR as he sought to persuade the Congress to pass the 1940 Selective Service Act, the Destroyers for Bases Agreement in 1940, and the Lend-Lease bill in 1941. 

In a recent article in Commentary, conservative commentator Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that the election of either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz would repudiate Republican foreign policy on free trade, a strong military (including long- and short-term intervention), defending our allies, and supporting human rights. 

Boot, a Marco Rubio adviser, holds views of internationalism that differ from those of President Obama and follows the Ronald Reagan tradition. He worries that Trump and Cruz are committed to a “new kind of Fortress America” — that is, they prefer “to withdraw behind our homeland defenses while intermittently and violently lashing out at enemies abroad.” In doing so, he writes, Trump and Cruz would be abandoning “the full-throated assertion of America’s role as a champion of freedom and democracy, a pillar of military strength, and the leader of the Free World.”

The conflict over foreign policy is not strictly a Republican issue. Sen. Bernie Sanders has not paid much attention to foreign affairs and national security policy, except when asked directly in a debate. Given Sanders’ progressive, populist records, he frequently sounds very much like a leading progressive-Republican isolationist of the 1920s and ’30s, Sen. Robert La Follette. In emphasizing domestic priorities, Sanders does not appear to be an isolationist, but someone just not especially engaged in these issues, unlike his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

Israeli Prime Minister may be wishing for a Republican reboot of U.S.-Israel relations. In fact, the time could come when Netanyahu — despite his rough sailing with Obama — soon may wish Obama were still the president. Whatever were their personal differences, Obama has been engaged actively in foreign policy. Obama never waffled in his support of Israel. As the list of candidates grows shorter, so, too, does the number of candidates who appear ready to engage in the challenges and opportunities beyond our borders.

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