Running head: Isolationism vs. Interventionism

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Running head: Isolationism vs. Interventionism

Isolationism vs. Interventionism

Eckerd College

Lorenzo Vazquez

Isolationism vs. Interventionism

The United States of America, a country that once stood alone as a global superpower both economically and culturally. But what happens when the United States isn’t alone as a super power, which is the case today. The U.S continues to tussle with its political structure and internal affairs, which in turn is causing the American people to worry about the stronghold that the U.S has on the world. The United States is slowly beginning to crumble from the inside and some suggest that it may be ime for it to take a step back from external affairs to deal with its own struggles. Although the U.S still has the most powerful and sophisticated technology in terms of a military standpoint and is considered to be a significant police force globally, its economic isn’t holding up as well. Internal problems such as poverty and government policies are major concerns that the American people want to see being solved. The majority of citizens in the U.S are moving towards the idea that their country should not be focusing on the political and social affairs of other countries; rather the U.S needs to center its activity on the complications within. The concepts of isolationism and interventionism have been lingering around the U.S for years now. Is it time for America to adopt it in order to maintain its identity as a flourishing country with a strong government or is it the idea of interventionism that has provided its success . If the U.S is truly running a democracy and the people of America are done with the idea of their country being a global police force, isn’t it the rulers’ job to fill the need of the people being ruled?

As stated in the introduction, the idea of isolationism isn’t one that has spontaneously manifested from indecisiveness of the recent U.S government or from the minds of the American people. In fact, from 1919-1941 the United States had advocated and entered a state of isolationism, thus limiting the extent of its intervention in foreign affairs. After WWI, as the memories of the tragic casualties were fresh, there also existed a strong push for isolationism amidst the American people. As recognized by, before his nomination, Warren G, Harding declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality...." These words embodied the feeling of the American citizens towards U.S foreign policy, wanting really nothing to do with other countries. During the 1920’s, Americas’ foreign affairs took a back seat, which became evident with the Unites States’ refusal to join the League of Nations and International court of Justice, as well as its refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. The US also detached itself in terms of trade by displaying such isolationist policies by placing restrictions European immigrants and raising tariffs on European goods.

In the 1930’s, isolationism gained a stronger essence in America due to the effects of the Great Depression. The president at the time was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man who didn’t see the practicality of isolationism for such an economically influential nation such as the U.S. However, his focus strayed away from foreign policy to address a matter that was seemingly more important, the Great Depression. He drew his attention towards alleviating the damages of the depression and created programs to overcome he problems of the declining economy. For these reasons America witnessed its peak in isolationism during the 1930’s. In the wake of the World War I, a report by Senator Gerald P. Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, fed this belief by claiming that American bankers and arms manufacturers had pushed for U.S. involvement for their own profit (American Isolationism in the 1930’s, n.d, para. 2). This resulted in the isolationist Neutrality Acts created from 1935-1939 designed to prevent the United States from being embroiled in a foreign war by clearly stating the terms of U.S. neutrality.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt originally opposed the legislation, but relented in the face of strong Congressional and public opinion. Roosevelt noted in 1935, we face a large and misinformed public opinion'. Stanford University historian, David M. Kennedy, in his book titled Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 writes, "The Depression had helped to reinforce an isolationism of the spirit, a kind of moral numbness, that checked American humanitarianism as tightly as political isolationism straightjacketed American diplomacy" (Interview-David M. Kennedy, 1999). In other words, due to isolationism, America had gained a sense of insensitivity to those outside of the U.S and a tradition of indifference to the rest of the world hardened into an active hostility toward the ideas of involvement with it. Roosevelt increasingly became wary of state that America was in and was convinced that isolationism was an unsustainable position for the U.S. He knew the United States needed to find a way to make its influence felt internationally. Despite the many attempts by Roosevelt to persuade the American people towards a foreign policy of interventionism, the passing of the neutrality acts only tightened the favoritism of American isolationism. It is not until about 1939 when war breaks out in Europe where the United States as a whole begins to slowly creep back towards interventionism, however this war was not what caused the United States to fully slip back into foreign affairs. Instead it was the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 [that] served to convince the majority of Americans that the United States should enter the war on the side of the Allies (“American Isolationism in the 1930’s, n.d, para. 4). Therefore by the end of 1941, the U.S became completely non-isolationist, and now the American citizens were in agreement that interventionist movements must be carried out.

Although the United States seemed to be isolationist through the 20’s and 30’s, it wasn’t completely being run on isolationist policies. Throughout 1919-1941 the United States continued to engage in international affairs and persisted to be interventionist on some issues such as the signing of the Four Power Treaty with Britain, France and Japan and the Nine Power Treaty with China in 1921 (“The Washington Naval Conference, 1921-1922”, n.d, para. 3). In presenting these examples of Americas interventionism during its time of isolationism gives support to the main argument at hand and to what Franklin D. Roosevelt had understood about the concept of isolationism. Though it claimed isolationism, The United States foreign policy allowed for the unchecked and inevitable return interventionism. This is because isolationism isn’t a practical policy for a country like the United States. One can clearly identify that interventionism is needed in determining the influence of the United States and it is my contention that the United States cannot be isolationist in the current global economic and geopolitical situation today.

Some may argue that this day and age is the time to re-embrace isolationism and integrate it back into the foreign policy of the U.S. Recent surveys carried out by CBS and CNN show that Americans are becoming increasingly opposed to foreign intervention. As recently as 2011, the CNN poll showed 46 percent of Americans saying the United States should be “ready and willing” to use military force; now it’s 34 percent. And the 72 percent who opposed overthrowing dictators in the CBS/NYT poll was slightly higher than it was in 2011, 2008 and 2007, and much higher than it was in 2003 (Blake & Sullivan, 2013). More statistics that support this notion was presented by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. The research center noted that 46 percent, nearly half of Americans say the country should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own, which is one of the highest measures of isolationist sentiment since the question started to be ask (Desilver, 2013). Pew Research Center Founding Director Andrew Kohut concluded, “the public feels little responsibility and inclination to deal with international problems that are not seen as direct threats to the national interest” (Desilver, 2013). Clearly it seem that the citizens of American are increasingly looking towards isolationism once again and want some type of disengagement from conflicts such as the Syrian conflict, as well as the conflicts with Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kohut brings up the point of the national interest which is essential to the argument between intervention and isolationism because what exactly are the interests of the United States? It is safe to say that our nations interest involves the protection of its citizen’s liberties, freedoms and well being while maintaining a sustainable economy along with a stable government. The best way to do is not by resulting to isolationism, but instead by having an involvement on foreign affairs while simultaneously addressing the issues within the U.S. Sure if the U.S becomes isolationist once again it can focus solely on is domestic issues such as poverty, unemployment rates, or education, but this would put our country’s safety at stake. One reason why the United States cannot revitalize isolationism in its foreign policy is due to the fact that it is “surrounded” by hostile countries such as Syria. The renewal of isolationism may increase the danger of miscalculation by potential adversaries who might believe that Americans would be reluctant to respond to threats of attacks (Halloran, 2013, pg. 1). The point that I am arguing here reflects the tragic example of Pearl Harbor. Yes the enemy underestimated the extent of which America would react, but more importantly America’s stance on isolationism allowed for the attack. Vigilance and military agreements with other countries will guarantee continued existence, as has been proven true in the case of Israel.

Another reason why the Untied States is not in the state to result to isolationism is because of the need to prevent a growth in strength by a potential example such as, one again, Syria or China. For example after the war in Europe the UK and France embraced the idea of isolationism in order to rebuild from within, but failed to realize and stop Hitler in his ventures to restore the political and military strength of Germany. President Obama who assured that the United States wouldn’t be acting as the “world’s policemen” in Syria also stated, “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” he said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional” (Blake & Sullivan, 2013). President Obama is essentially stressing the need to intervene when the dangers are threatening the very democratic system that we value, because even more than interests, countries are bound by shared values.

A third reason isolationism might not be in the best interest of the U.S is due to the geopolitical situation it is in today. The United States, being a powerful country that possesses a lot of global influence, is in a contest with other countries such as Russia, Britain, and China. These countries such as China are experiencing rapid growth in its economy and its technological advances both in its society and military. “Most want the US to remain the preeminent military power; 57 percent held that view and only 29 percent said it would be acceptable if China or another country became as powerful,” the Pew report said (Halloran, 2013, pg. 2). The people are obviously split in their decision but still the majority remains that America should intervene in international relations when necessary and convenient to the progress of humanity and the U.S as a nation. If the United States were to cut off friendly ties with other countries and cut off support around the world, it will not only be resented but the U.S would suffer economically, militarily and politically. In support of this claim, the example of the arms race between the US and the USSR expressed the benefits of interventionism. Both countries were in competition to become a world superpower, which was determined by the amount of allies each country had. This contributed to the increase in military, political an economic power.

Despite the appeal of isolationism, the goals of the U.S public include protection against terrorism, preserving jobs and stopping the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Therefore means of intervention is imperative in relation to the goals set by the U.S public. The U.S cannot afford to close itself off and ignore the threats of up and coming countries or the dangers or chemical warfare. Isolationism can be related to a person sheltering themselves from their external problems and not engaging in them. While this person is dealing with the struggles internally, the external problems only manifest into bigger ones and eventually become overbearing. The U.S needs to retain its power that it currently possesses and engage in international affairs when necessary. I do agree that it shouldn’t consider itself as the global police force, but it does need to keep its image as the most powerful country military wise in order to avoid any miscalculations by the potential adversaries. “American power underpins the most prosperous global order the world has ever seen. The American umbrella of protection allows other nations to remain secure while focusing on economic growth, driving global prosperity while minimizing the destabilizing impact of arms races” (Morrison, 2011. para. 2). The United States should be able to rebuild from within while sill engaging in foreign affairs. The nations best interests are valued through non-isolationism and the priorities of the U.S seem to be aimed towards just that.

This is truly a new age where the U.S is definitely not the only country that has superpower potential, There are multiple countries that are endowed with the ability to be considered a superpower in some aspect, therefore I argue that indeed the U.S should dial down in intervention and let other countries have a more active role. I am not advocating a complete stagnation of U.S intervention, but urging that it maintain its ability to intervene while not jumping at every opportunity to do so. Because as history shows and what is evident in this paper, interventionism is a key proponent in the determination of the destiny of the Untied States.

Reference List

American Isolationism in the 1930s. (n.d.). Office of the Historian . Retrieved November 16, 2013, from 

Blake, A., & Sullivan, S. (2013, September 13). The Fix, Team America no longer wants to be The World's Police. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 17, 2013, from 

Desilver, D. (2013, July 29). Americans want to mind their own business. Pew Research Center RSS. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from 

Halloran, R. (2013, July 19). Americans becoming isolationist. - Taipei Times. Retrieved November 17, 2013, from 

Interview - David M. Kennedy . (1999, June 10). Interview - 99.06.10. Retrieved November 16, 2013, from Isolationism. (n.d.). Isolationism. Retrieved November 16, 2013, from

Morrison, C. (2011, August 12). America: The Stabilizing Superpower. The Foundry Conservative Policy News Blog from The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved October 25, 2013, from

O'Hanlon, M.,E., & Avant, D. (2004). Expanding global military capacity for humanitarian intervention. International Journal, 59(3), 742-744. Retrieved from

The Neutrality Acts, 1930s. (n.d.). Office of the Historian. Retrieved November 16, 2013, from

Warren G. Harding. (n.d.). The White House. Retrieved November 16, 2013, from

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