In 1923, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes taught the US a hard-won lesson. At least he tried to. "Foreign policies," he said, "are not built upon abstractions. They are the result of practical conceptions of national interest arising from some immediate exigency or standing out vividly in historical perspective."
Today, as Americans debate the country's course of action in Syria, it is clear that the lesson did not stick. Thus we hear incessantly the reasons of abstract principle and doctrine that supposedly demand military intervention there. One such appeal is that the United States cannot afford to slip into isolationism. To be sure, the debate has subsided for the time being while the Obama administration considers Russia's proposal for to Syria to surrender its chemical weapons. But if negotiations break down or if, agreement in hand, Syria fails to meet its commitments to a degree that satisfies the United States, we may again find ourselves faced with calls for airstrikes and accusations of isolationism. So let us lay to rest, once and for all, this hopeless canard.
According to interventionists, to oppose US strikes on Syria is to embrace an intolerable philosophy. In his speech on Sept. 10, President Obama compared inaction on Syria to US hesitation during World War II, which the United States did not officially enter until December 1941. Secretary of State John Kerry labeled such supporters of inaction "armchair isolationists," a puzzling epithet extrapolated from the more useful idea of the armchair warrior. Isolationism, to the extent that it involves complacency, is invariably accomplished from a position of relative comfort.
There has been no clearer testament to the incoherence of the anti-isolationist position than Bill Keller's. The former New York Times executive editor turned executive scold also drew the analogy to 1940 -- a time, he says, when Americans collectively refused to take sides in Europe in spite of the carnage there, which was by then well known in the United States. Although, as Keller also notes in the very same article, in 1940 the U.S. government and public did take sides in Europe. The United States was already fighting Germany in the Atlantic before the declaration of war after Pearl Harbor and as early as 1939 was supplying airplanes to Britain and France. Defense appropriations at the beginning of 1940 amounted to $1.77 billion and rose to $10.5 billion by year's end, thanks to several requests for additional spending to arm the United States against Germany. To his credit, Keller is right that the United States was not resting on its laurels in 1940. It is a shame that he also, confusingly, denies this.
Such careless reading of history is common to the anti-isolationist position generally. Today's interventionists misleadingly configure their opponents as isolationist. Indeed, if history tells us anything, it is that those most emphatic about military intervention bear the greatest resemblance to isolationists of yore.
Isolationism, in the American context, usually arises in discussions of US foreign policy between the two world wars. American failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations, despite President Woodrow Wilson's ardent wishes, is taken by historians as the signal example of this isolationist tendency.
However, the situation is far more complicated than simply rejecting a treaty, as some scholars of US foreign policy keen to upset consensus views of history have pointed out in the years since World War II.
A majority of the Senate actually voted for the treaty, but parliamentary rules demanded an unwinnable supermajority. More important, the minority isolationists did not spurn Versailles because they opposed the deployment of American power or rejected a US role on the world stage. Just the opposite. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, one of Wilson's chief antagonists on the treaty, believed "the United States should dominate world politics," according to the historian William Appleman Williams. Lodge backed US intervention in Cuba during what became the Spanish-American War, supported US entry in World War I and sought to expand American influence by means of naval guns. No, the point of contention was not international involvement but involvement that constrained American flexibility. "The key to the defeat of the League treaty," Williams wrote in 1954, "was the defection from the Wilsonites of a group who declined to accept the restrictions that Article X of the League Covenant threatened to impose upon the United States." Article X would have obligated the United States to defend other League members from external aggression.
Today's interventionists share with the isolationists of the 1920s this commitment to unfettered American power. The White House and its congressional supporters have stated that the United States is unencumbered by international agreements and institutions like the United Nations and may act alone against Syria. Whereas internationalists, then and now, seek to restrain the power of individual states through the creation and enforcement of global rules, today's interventionists, like yesterday's isolationists, hoard that power and claim its free exercise as an unavoidable consequence of the international system of sovereign states.
Thus the true descendants of isolationism may be in the White House, where sovereignty is king and international law inert. But then, Obama, Kerry and their supporters do seem very concerned about the integrity of the chemical weapons ban and not much taken by Bashar al-Assad's own claims of sovereignty.
So which is it? Are the Syria hawks isolationists or internationalists? As Hughes suggested, the answer matters little and will only confuse the real issues at stake in the debate. That the administration and its followers have indulged in anti-isolationist rhetoric yet simultaneously contradicted it is enough to prove the value of Hughes' position.