Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing

The debate over naval policy planning and strategies for managing the commons continues into yet more rounds, with excellent entries from Jon Rue at Gunpowder and Lead and Raymond Pritchett at Information Dissemination. This is not a full response to either post, but does touch on one of those IR history topics I think is worth exploring: the dreaded label of isolationism. Some controversy erupted over Bryan McGrath describing the “Security of the Commons” approach as an isolationist one, to which Jon Rue retorted that offshore balancing was a realist strategy, not a neo-isolationist one. Pritchett, in turn, countered that the dichotomy between realism and neo-isolationism was a false choice.

This is one of those cases where I think everybody is getting something right. For example, Pritchett is absolutely correct that there is indeed a false dichotomy between isolationism and realism. While realism is certainly a policy planning perspective and a method of arriving at foreign policy decisions, isolationism is more a policy outcome, like hegemony, that can be arrived at through a variety of different theoretical and policy-making traditions. Consider that among the isolationists, there was in fact a wide variety of perspectives at play, and not just across domestic political divisions but across foreign policy orientations.

Isolationism, in the sense of abstaining from “foreign” (and it really does matter what we define here as foreign, but more on that later) military commitments except in self-defense, is an international posture, a set of policy outcomes, arrived at through the policy planning perspective at hand. First, to dispel the notion that isolationism is inherently realist, we should look at the wide diversity of political thinkers who embraced isolationism in the United States alone. It’s taken as a given that the United States was pursuing an isolationist policy during the 1920s and 1930s, but this posture was hardly the product of cutthroat realism. Consider also the Nye Committee, which concluded that American entry into World War I had been driven by desires to profit off of war and to ensure that Britain could make good on the billions in loans it received from the United States. Liberal and idealist revulsion at war and the notion of gaining from it, rather than purely rational policy decision-making, were important components of isolationism. A moral component also pervades isolationism. In some interpretations, American exceptionalism meant the cultivation of virtuous society in the United States relied on avoiding the pathologies of war and realpolitik in the Old World. They feared the consequences of war for American democracy, and were willing to put democratic principles above power political interests (though supposed realists, many isolationists spoke of power politics with the kind of scorn more common to liberal internationalists and neoconservative critics of realism today). Continue reading