Ideology gone mad


December 24, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

Boston -- IN THE EARLY days of the 1992 presidential campaign one slogan has made its mark.

"Put America First," Gov. Douglas Wilder called his program when he started campaigning for the Democratic nomination in August. Pat Buchanan proclaimed, "America First!" when he announced his Republican candidacy.

Only in a country with so little historical memory would a politician use the phrase America First, for it was first used by the group that delayed this country's playing its full part in opposing Nazi savagery.

The America First Committee in 1940-41 was on the whole an idealistic movement. Some of its members were simply pro-German. Most, whether right or left politically, believed sincerely that America could and should be isolated from the troubles of the world.

However high-minded its motivation, America First's argument was disastrously wrong. Of that history leaves no doubt.

If America First had succeeded in blocking Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to aid Britain, Hitler would surely have overwhelmed Britain -- and then the Soviet Union. A Nazi colossus would have stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The notion that America could have gone happily on, untouched by such a world, is laughable.

"Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" is no more sensible an idea today. The world is a far smaller place than 50 years ago. The United States is much more dependent on international trade and economic interests abroad. Nuclear weapons give this country inescapable international security interests.

As a campaign slogan, America First has appeal. Many Americans feel, with reason, that President Bush has forgotten their economic plight in his fascination with foreign problems. The end of the Cold War makes it hard to justify an enormous standing army and vast commitments for new weapons systems.

Some of us have long believed that American globalism was overdue to be deflated. Our international pretensions have so far outpaced our economic base that we are in danger of following the old pattern of a great power's rise, overreach and decline.

But such concerns hardly mean that the United States can suddenly and totally withdraw from its international role. For a campaigner to suggest that it can is either cynical politics or ideology gone mad.

Think about some of the problems in the world today and ask whether it would be in the interest of the United States to walk away from them.

The collapse of the Soviet Union raises the possibility of hunger and chaos there this winter on an enormous scale. Would Americans really be ready to turn away from that suffering, to offer no help in reorganizing the republics' economies? Not the Americans I know.

One of the most significant U.S. contributions to the international scene in the last 20 years has been concern for human rights. Congress first raised the issue. President Carter made it a part of our foreign policy. Today the world cares about the state of human rights -- in Kenya, in Burma, in Yugoslavia, wherever. Pat Buchanan wants to forget all that. Will he persuade Americans to stop caring?

Then there is the Middle East, still a tinderbox, still the world's largest source of oil. The United States is the only power that can hope to lead Israel and its neighbors to peace. It would be not only irresponsible but against our own urgent interests to give up that effort.

It is not just Pat Buchanan and Douglas Wilder who suggest to campaign audiences that the United States can turn away from the burdens of the world. Sen. Tom Harkin, in his calls for the country to look inward, sounds close to isolationist.

Of all the competing Democrats, only Gov. Bill Clinton has given much attention to foreign policy.

The Democrats, whoever is nominated, will run to a great extent on domestic issues. Rightly so: A middle class impoverished by the voodoo economics of Ronald Reagan and George Bush is looking for new policies at home.

But promising to forget the rest of the world is another thing. The United States tried that in the 1920s and 1930s. We and the world paid a frightful price.

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