In claiming that each of us is a part of the whole, John Donne was not criticizing King James I for his isolationist foreign policy. Donne’s reflections on human unity were spiritual, not political—though how each man’s death diminishes me is something I do not at all understand. It is a long stretch from mankind’s spiritual unity in Christ to the forcible unification of the globe under one super-state, and attacks on political isolationism illustrate the danger of applying a Christian concept (in this case, human brotherhood) to anti-Christian conditions (U.S. global hegemony).
In the early 1920’s, “isolationism” began to be applied as a term of abuse to members of Congress (mostly Republican) who got in the way of Woodrow Wilson’s fantasies of world government. Many of the Republican leaders (e.g., Henry Cabot Lodge) were not isolationist at all, but economic imperialists who thought the League of Nations might obstruct the expansion of American business interests. Even principled “isolationists” like Bob La Follette and Burt Wheeler disliked the term and always insisted they were not arguing for American withdrawal from the world but only for a just and responsible foreign policy.
But what is wrong with being an “isolationist”? To some, the image conjures up a medical ward where patients infected with plague or tuberculosis are isolated from the rest of the hospital. But the basic meaning of “isolation” is to be in the condition of an island. When Sir George Foster told the Canadian parliament in 1896 that the British Empire “stands splendidly isolated in Europe,” he was praising the mother country’s self-sufficiency and rugged independence. No one in his right mind would accuse England of withdrawing from the world or of sticking its head in the sand.
If isolation was good enough for the British Empire, it ought to be good enough for American republicans. Some isolationists have proudly spoken of America as an island fortress, and the symbol could still be a potent political talisman. Islands engage in trade and diplomacy, send and receive visitors, and—in the case of Britain—even fight aggressive wars (though the British post-colonial experience should be enough to discourage even a Kristol from imperialism). What intelligent islanders do not do, however, is engage in risky and profitless adventures around the world.
Twenty-five years ago, the United States—in an act of cowardice and betrayal worthy of the Kissinger who orchestrated it—turned its back on the Vietnamese people it had dragged through war. We have learned nothing from that experience. What Eugene McCarthy observed in 1969 is a perfect description of our current dilemma: “America is more isolated than it has been since the heyday of isolationism, not by our withdrawing from the world but by the withdrawal of most of the world from us.”
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