We have just had an important two-night debate, during which we heard some of America’s most prominent journalists put questions to potential presidents. Most of the analyses describe who won and who lost, who struck blows and who parried them. But if you were listening outside the United States, as I was, something else was far more arresting: the near-total absence of the rest of the world. There was no Europe, no China, no Venezuela. The glancing references to the Middle East mostly involved posturing about the past — specifically about how the candidates did or didn’t support the Iraq War more than 16 years ago.
Nor were there enlightening discussions of international trade. Andrew Yang did point out that robots and artificial intelligence are now a greater threat to U.S. jobs than Chinese factories, but no one talked about the money that Americans earn from foreign trade and foreign sales — for example, Midwestern farmers. No one talked about the material benefits of the peace in Europe, ensured for three-quarters of a century by an American presence, or how that might be threatened by an American departure. Although New York Mayor Bill de Blasio flagged it, nobody even talked much about the possibility of an imminent war with Iran. Even if your main concern is the economy and jobs, you have to concede that a crisis in the Persian Gulf, with the implications that has for the oil trade, might well have some knock-on effects in the American heartland.
I don’t blame either the candidates or the questioners. Clearly, no one feels that these issues concern the electorate, and maybe that calculation is correct. Race, immigration, culture wars — these are the topics that 2½ years of the Trump presidency have thrust into the center of everyone’s minds. Since 2016, the United States ceased being an ambitious country with bold ideas about how to shape the world: America is a country at war with itself, a country re-litigating familiar battles about national identity.
The United States is also a country that is returning to an older political tradition. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationism was an important, even dominant strand in U.S. politics. After the Second World War, this strand disappeared, smothered by the widespread and bipartisan conviction that the United States needed to stay engaged with the world to prevent future crises. We now have a president whose views — inherited, I suspect, from his father — belong squarely in the pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist tradition. But now he has reanimated that tradition, and I suspect that this tradition will not disappear along with him. Will President Elizabeth Warren, President Bernie Sanders or President Kamala D. Harris squarely reject isolationism? I don’t think so. Even President Joe Biden will have to appease the growing isolationist sentiments inside his own party.
Of course, isolationism will not keep America isolated. Americans might not want to intervene in the outside world, but the outside world will still want to intervene in America. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 both brought foreign conflicts onto U.S. territory; Russia sought to shape the 2016 election, and will do so again. Chinese decisions about where to purchase soybeans will shape the economy of Iowa. Presumably, the new isolationists will try to ignore or fend off these kinds of interventions from abroad instead of trying to shape the world to prevent them — but that, of course, is already a very different United States from the one any of us can remember.
This is a very useful, educational moment. Non-Americans reading this, especially in allied countries, are now warned: There will be no automatic return to the status quo ante. Americans are now reminded: The Trump presidency may turn out to be not a blip we can ignore, but the beginning of a long period of disengagement that will not end in 2020 or 2024. And, if we don’t like that scenario, then it will be up to us to demand that our politicians debate a different one.