The isolationism debate burst into full view two weeks ago after the Senate's rejection of the nuclear test ban treaty, but the administration has been using the term for months. The following commentary by Benjamin Schwarz, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is a revised version of a longer one that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on April 21:
The Clinton administration, like the Bush administration before it, has been quick to brand opponents of its foreign policy as, in the words of Clinton's first national security adviser, "neo-know-nothing-isolationists." Hurling the dreaded "I-word" does little more than squelch reasoned debate on the future of U.S. foreign policy and mischaracterize a point of view embraced by many of America's wisest thinkers.
That vocal sector of the Republican right, which holds that the test ban treaty and the United Nations pose a serious challenge to U.S. sovereignty, is hardly "neo-isolationist." These Republicans, like the foreign policy establishment in both parties, believe that America must continue to be the foremost leader in international politics. Their view is therefore "triumphalist," and in its chauvinistic assertion of American power is the opposite of a neo-isolationist perspective.
Whereas Clinton has asserted that the conversion of the globe to America's economic and political system should be the central focus of our foreign policy, neo-isolationists resist the urge to make ourselves at home in the world by transforming it into America writ large. Indeed, since the Spanish-American War a century ago, "isolationists" have emphasized the limits of U.S. power, expressed wariness of a universalist conception of U.S. security interests, held to the conviction that America cannot and should not remake the world in its own image, and warned against excessive presidential power, secrecy and deception in the pursuit of foreign affairs.
Neo-isolationism is based on a grand tradition that embraces not only the views of critics on the left, but also a strain of thoughtful conservatism going back to John Quincy Adams in the early 19th century. Adams admonished America to go "not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," for in doing so "the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force; she might become dictatress of the world, she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."
After the test ban treaty's defeat, the London-based Economist magazine offered a European view of the new isolationism. An excerpt from its Oct. 23 issue:
Those senators who voted against [the treaty] have been condemned, not least by President Clinton, as isolationists. It is an epithet that flies round freely these days. But true isolationism no longer exists in the wired and globalised world of the end of the 20th century. Some of those who voted no were Gingrichian minimalists: believers in the least possible state intervention either at home or abroad. But most are better described as unilateralists: people who believe that one of the perquisites of power is untrammelled freedom of action on the world scene. And their influence is growing.
The case for turning towards the world, rather than away from it, is generally accepted in America. By contrast, the case for multilateralism is often far from self-evident. Multilateral institutions are often bureaucratic, ponderous and inefficient. So America from time to time bullies them, ignores them, refuses to pay its dues.
Multilateral treaties, such as most of those covering arms control, have the effect of tying down the signatories while rogue states roam free. So America balks. Smaller countries may appreciate the protection offered by multilateral instruments; for a superpower, they are drags on its independence.
If America refuses multilateral entanglements, it may be blissfully free; but it will also be alone. It will be a leader with no one to lead, in a world made unstable by its very isolation. This is sovereignty, all right. But a superpower should be bigger, and wiser, than that.
Did Berger's new isolationism speech last week overstate the case? Jim Mann, a foreign affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, took on that question. An excerpt from his Oct. 27 commentary:
To Berger's credit, he did not attempt to write off the Republican opponents of the test ban treaty as motivated by partisanship. Instead, he observed, accurately, that the vote reflected changing ideas in the Senate about U.S. foreign policy--in particular, an increasing reluctance to join in international treaties or to alter U.S. policy to take into account the views of our allies.
Some of Berger's criticisms were on the mark--such as the trenchant observation that Congress, in its drive to slash the foreign policy budget, now seems to be operating on the principle of "billions for defense, but hardly a penny for prevention." At the same time, Berger's attack on his critics was misleading.
He seemed to brand all the opponents of the test ban treaty as "isolationists." But among those who voted against the treaty were Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Charles Hagel of Nebraska. Joining them on the sidelines was former defense secretary James Schlesinger. All have been staunch proponents of a strong American role in the world.
It might have been closer to the truth to call such opponents "unilateralists." They don't believe America should retreat from the world, but rather that it should rely above all on its own strength rather than on working with other countries.
Berger now amiably concedes this point. "There are different words one can use," he said in an interview. "I think there are elements of isolationism and unilateralism [in the treaty opposition]." However, he said, "I think both schools of thought run aground on the same shoals--the idea that the United States, by its strength, can go it alone, either by withdrawing or by acting unilaterally."
Berger clearly believes in the wisdom of his campaign against the "new isolationism." The danger is that the administration will carry out this campaign in such a way that it becomes increasingly isolated, both from Congress and from the American public it needs to persuade.