This may sound like nonsense in the age of globalization, but think a minute. Globalization is the physical manifestation of interdependence, the fact that everything is related, that actions taken in one part of the globe have unpredictable repercussions in other parts of the globe. It neither precludes nor invites isolationism, which is the avoidance of military interventions in other countries. We can conduct military operations in other countries while acknowledging economic and ecological interdependence. Alternatively, we could cooperate with the rest of the world without intervening in the affairs of other nations. Isolationism grew out of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 which informed the powers of the Old World that the Americas were no longer open to European colonization, and that any effort to extend European political influence in the New World would be considered by the United States as “dangerous to our peace and safety."
In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt extended the Monroe Doctrine to include the right of the United States to intervene to stabilize the economic affairs of small states in the Caribbean and Central America if they were unable to pay their international debts. This led to systematic intervention in the affairs of Latin America. In fact, it was the Monroe Doctrine that led to our first colonial war, that in the Philippines and Cuba, ostensibly part of turn of twentieth century efforts to eject Spain from the New Continent, and known as the Spanish-American War.
When in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, still believing in the Monroe Doctrine’s assertions of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries, most Americans were against joining the fight. After the armistice of 1918, America again reverted to isolationism. It is widely believed that President Roosevelt allowed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to proceed in order to convince the American public of the need to join the struggle against Nazi Germany, and its ally, Japan.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. America rose to become the dominant power of the world, and after a seventy-odd year run, the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of internal and external pressures. By that time (1991), the world had been largely decolonized. While the French maintained several client states in Africa, the United States eventually left the ex-French colony of Vietnam to its own devices and largely ignored Africa.
Meanwhile, as Americas remained in thrall to President Nixon’s 1972 historic trip to China, that marked the reestablishment of normal relations after more than 20 years, China quietly made its way into the modern world. By the time Americans woke up to the fact that their massive debt was in Chinese hands, China had the second largest economy after ours, contributing an equal amount to global warming, and initiating important projects in both Africa and Latin America.
The small but significant detail that has been omitted from this account is the conflict in the Middle East. As the benefactor of the state of Israel created in 1948 by the United Nations, America has gone from being a distant on-looker to the travails of the “old continent”, only reluctantly entering the fray, to being the main player in a region that combines most of the world’s oil wealth with a societal struggle over modernity.
The Monroe Doctrine has long been forgotten, but a new doctrine outlining America’s role in the world has not been drawn up. President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for tentatively making peace and denuclearization the core of his foreign policy. Yet as a result of decisions taken by his predecessor, American soldiers are dying in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, leaving Obama’s preference for diplomacy between a rock and a hard place.
With a little help from the military-industrial complex, 9/11 replaced isolationism with a frantic obsession with security, in which fear of Islamic terrorism piggybacks on a century-old fear of socialism. Moderates want the United States to disentangle itself from the civil wars of the Middle East and Southeast Asia (where Afghanistan and Pakistan lie), replacing isolationism with cooperative resolution of world problems that would allow it to improve education and health care at home. Such a foreign policy allows a countries’ resources to be beneficially divided between the needs of their people and those of the outside world.
After standing superbly apart from the travails of the world, then shaping it to suit its own needs, that is where America must ultimately place itself.