Isolationism Returns to U.S. Politics

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 16, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- Until Patrick Buchanan entered the race, it was possible to argue that the Republican internationalist tradition was alive in the Bush administration and would survive. State and Defense Secretaries James A. Baker III and Dick Cheney, both internationalists, were potential challengers to Vice President Quayle for the Republican succession.

The Buchanan vote, limited though it is, guarantees that the Republican Party will placate its right-wing activists from now on, and that means Mr. Quayle will be the nominee in 1996, or someone equally of the isolationist right, but weightier and more aggressive. Mr. Buchanan, of course, intends to be the nominee. That possibility cannot entirely be excluded, certainly if the U.S. economic turnaround is feeble.

In any case, Mr. Bush has turned away from internationalism out of fear of conservative Republican criticisms. He and his administration have done next to nothing to support Soviet and East European reform efforts, and their attempts to appear to have done so have properly provoked the scorn of even former President Nixon. Mr. Nixon has always been a political animal, but certainly he is not a craven one, which Mr. Bush, under pressure, has proved to be.

And if a Democrat is elected? Foreign policy has scarcely been mentioned in the Democratic primary campaigns. No candidate, and certainly not Bill Clinton, knows anything about it, or seems to care, beyond the ritual commitment to all good things, mutually contradictory or otherwise. There will be -- there are -- packs of ambitious young international-relations academics willing to supply a foreign policy to a victorious Democrat. But the voters are not really interested. Democratic voters are protectionist, angry at Japan and Europe, aggrieved and confused by economic problems as well as by the social and racial tensions in the country.

Isolationism, of course, is a highly imprecise term. The old isolationism, before World War II, said the U.S. should hold itself aloof from Europe and its conflicts, while preventing any European intervention in the Americas (the Monroe Doctrine). From the 19th century on, however, there was a sizable American involvement in Asia through China missions and trade, and after 1898 an American Pacific empire was created by the seizure of Hawaii and the Philippines.

This was the tradition that produced the Republican isolationist minority led by Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio in the postwar 1940s, which opposed new U.S. military and political engagements overseas. The Cold War put an end to that, and in the years that followed most of the Republican isolationists turned into crusaders for the ''roll-back'' of communism in Europe, and then in Asia.

The ''neo''-isolationism of the 1960s was a reaction to that

crusading interventionism, which the new critics said was overwrought and counterproductive, leading the country into the catastrophe of Vietnam and other profitless Third World interventions. But they continued to support the Atlantic alliance, free trade, the institutions of international cooperation, etc.

The isolationism of the United States today is a combination of these two currents. Populist isolationism holds that America's allies have somehow taken advantage of the United States. Europe's and Japan's advance over the U.S. economy is thought unfair.

This is the Buchanan argument, and it produces a bullying nationalist reaction and protectionism. It says the ex-Soviet Union's troubles are entirely of its own making, and Eastern Europe remote, confusing, and of no direct danger to the U.S. International agencies are thought foreign-manipulated, spending American money and accomplishing little.

This populist isolationism could be reconciled with the militarized internationalism of the Pentagon -- its new ideas about institutionalizing American world hegemony -- were it not that hegemony costs a great deal of money. The populist isolationist is willing to spend on deterrence (Star Wars, strategic missiles) but is skeptical of power projection for political aims. Mr. Buchanan was against the Persian Gulf intervention.

The neo-isolationists -- liberal isolationists, I suppose one should say -- now mostly believe the U.S. overextended and in relative decline, badly in need of a period of concentration on industrial reconstruction and recovery, job development, reform of the abominable standards of American primary and secondary education, and measures to ameliorate racial crisis.

They are not against international political cooperation; indeed they are for it, but they also are willing to let other countries take the lead. It is not their priority. They usually defend free trade, but some of them blame others for America's economic troubles, or at least are willing to collect domestic political advantage from doing so. The Democratic candidates have shown that.

Is American isolationism a bad thing? In terms of domestic recovery it is a good thing if it concentrates the American mind on what needs to be done for society and the economy.

For international society it is a bad thing. We recently have seemed on the edge of a new kind of spontaneous cooperation among all the major powers on essential issues. The fall of communism really did seem to have opened the possibility of a new era in which the sense of common interest held power rivalries in check. An American retreat from cooperation jeopardizes that -- as, obviously, do notions of institutionalized U.S. hegemony.

The United States did more than any other country to bring the democracies to this moment of opportunity. It would be a great mistake were it now the one to reject it. But that seems the mistake it is ready to make.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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