On April 14, the front-page headline of USA Today read, “More say U.S. focus should be home.”  The story cited a USA Today/Gallup poll that found that nearly half of Americans thought the United States “Should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own.”

Similarly, the New York Times ran a front-page story decrying U.S. isolationist and protectionist trends.

Did the readers of these articles stop to think about the fact that no one is really in favor of the type of isolation or protection the critics imply?  No one wants to throw up walls around the United States or stop all foreign trade and commerce.

Our interventionist foreign policies, however, have produced more anti-Americanism than any isolationist could ever have caused.  Back in 2002, William Schneider, in the National Journal (December 21), wrote:

Throughout the Middle East, anti-Americanism has grown along with U.S. influence . . . The United States is in a stronger position strategically and a weaker position politically.  The lesson: great power breeds great resentment.

His words are even truer today, except that they apply all over the world and not just in the Middle East.

Our internationalist trade policies have killed more U.S. industries and have resulted in more lost jobs than anything any protectionist could ever have done.  Even the neoconservative Ben Stein, in a recent column about the bankruptcy of Delphi, wrote:

It is a big company and its death knell tolls a whole new sad day for the American worker.  Free trade is great for college professors and consumers.  It is a stone killer for workers, and I feel badly for them.


Because we have sent so many millions of good jobs to other countries over the last several years, huge numbers of young people are now working as waiters and waitresses, going to graduate school, delaying the inevitable.  Many—even those who hold advanced degrees—are finding the good jobs are simply not there.  A young man who holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt recently visited my office; he works as a cook in one of Knoxville’s finer restaurants.

In mid-March, I spoke at a Development Districts of Appalachia meeting in a hotel near Reagan National Airport to a crowd of 300 attendees, including government officials from 13 states, from New York down to Georgia.  When I said that the first obligation of the U.S. Congress is to the American people, I was interrupted by applause.  No matter what the audience, this is the reaction I always get when I say we should start putting our own people first.

Today, you are labeled an isolationist if you opposed the war in Iraq, even though it was a very unnecessary war that has become one of the biggest foreign-policy mistakes in U.S. history.

Conservatives used to believe in balanced budgets and fiscal prudence and used to oppose deficit spending.  Now, some conservatives will label you as an isolationist if you believe that a nation that is over $8 trillion in debt should never have spent $300 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we have over the last three years.

You are considered a terrible protectionist if you are upset about our $700 billion trade deficit or all the jobs we have sent to other countries.  And you are considered a protectionist if you think it is unfair for foreign governments to take over our ports or for foreign businesses to get our most lucrative government contracts when those same foreign countries will not allow Americans to compete fairly or control businesses in their countries.

There is a better way.  It is not the ridiculous isolationism or protectionism critics scornfully and sarcastically describe.  Nor is it the no-borders global intervention of the neocons.  And it is certainly not a weak-kneed trade policy that lets the Chinese and others do anything they want while killing off one U.S. industry after another.

The better way is to have trade and tourism and cultural and educational exchanges with the countries that treat us fairly, and to help them out during humanitarian crises.  This would mean renegotiating trade agreements with any country with which our trade gets seriously out of balance.  We need to insist that, if we are to do business and trade with them, they need to find something they can buy from us.

The better way—indeed, the best way—would be a return to America-first policies, in both trade and foreign relations.  This means kicking our habit of intervening in so many religious, ethnic, and political disputes around the world—a habit that has caused so much resentment toward the United States.  We could still maintain the strongest military in the world, with a much smaller price tag, if we stuck to genuine national defense.

This better way would mean a foreign policy of friendship toward all countries, without calling for yearly expenditures of hundreds of billions of dollars that we do not have.  And it would mean taking positions of enlightened neutrality toward foreign disputes that are really none of our business.  And it would mean trade policies that show at least a little concern for, and support of, American companies and American workers.

Obviously, this is not the neoconservative way, or that of big-government conservatism (if there really is such a thing).  This is traditional conservatism, or what we used to call the American way.