Isolationism vs. Internationalism in the United States

The United States is shrinking. It happens every so often. The country has a longstanding drive toward isolationism that began with George Washington and occasionally reemerges. “Mind your own business” is as North American a phrase for this as possible.

Barack Obama is moving in that direction. He came to power determined to end two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), which had begun to bog down his country. He has almost achieved that mission (with the praise of the majority, it should be said). The warlike enthusiasm of North Americans is like a television series: it lasts three weeks.

According to a study published by the Heritage Foundation, when Obama leaves office in 2017, the Army will have at most 450,000 soldiers ready to fight in 30 combat brigades. It will continue to be the most important military force on the planet, probably invincible, but it will be 20 percent smaller than it was when Obama became its commander in chief.

Before finishing his term, Obama wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and return those military facilities to Castro. His new Cuban policy consists of unilaterally eliminating any trace of militant hostility toward the dictatorship, even if Cuban democrats are sacrificed. That means eliminating the “regime change” mission.

His agreements with Iran are moving in the same direction. The White House does not mind weakening its relations with Israel to the point of collapse in exchange for an end to the conflict with the ayatollahs. The White House is not even overly worried that the Saudis, Egyptians and Turks could develop Sunni atomic bombs to oppose the Shiites, ones that Tehran will inevitably make.

This isolationist tendency is established in the self-perception of the ruling class of the United States. For the Founding Fathers, the “American people” (the whites, of course) were defined by a society composed of peaceful people dedicated to work in the fields and to business. That was Thomas Jefferson’s vision: a sweet, rural Arcadia. He thought that his country should exert great international influence through the example of its Republican virtues, not by force.

However, there were other visions. In the first half of the 19th century, the idealists gained a foothold within the English political philosophy of the era. These North Americans believed that the United States had a different role to play. To them, the country was a unique nation chosen by providence to improve humanity. The country was called to lead the world to development, democracy, law and liberty.

In 1839, a journalist coined the term “Manifest Destiny.” The United States was to civilize the planet. The slogan justified the annexation of Texas and the northern part of Mexico. It also dealt with racial responsibility. White people were to bear the burden of that civilizing work. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote a few verses in defense of the greatness of the conquest of the Philippines by the United States, taken from Spain, in a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” Teddy Roosevelt considered it a bad poem but an excellent political alibi.

Shortly before, in 1893, the North American colonies together with religious missionaries had undertaken an unjustified, although bloodless, military coup to try to overthrow the Hawaiian queen Liliuokalani, also a writer and composer. U.S. President Grover Cleveland was horrified, and refused to support the military uprising. It was his successor, William McKinley, who incorporated the archipelago into U.S. territory and extended citizenship to its inhabitants.

However, it was not until 1959, two years before Obama was born, that Hawaii became the 50th state of the nation. I have always thought that the Hawaiian factor must have weighed heavily on the president’s understanding of the history of his country and his own role within that story. What does a biracial Hawaiian, son of a Kenyan, who passed through Indonesia, have to do with John Adams or with Andrew Jackson?

In Hawaii, you are not raised to celebrate the nation but rather to bitterly commemorate the original imperialist sin. The territory is distant and different from the stereotypical United States territory: the ethnic composition is different, neither slavery nor the Civil War ever existed here, and the general rule is fusion. Until Pearl Harbor, it was a state without battles or glorious heroes; it was full of people who preferred the hula to military marches.

Under those circumstances, it was predictable that Obama would lean toward isolationism, like half the country does today. Of course, eventually, the pendulum will swing in the other direction, and other leaders will ensure that the mission of the United States is to defend the world’s liberty, just as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy did during the Cold War. The light of internationalism has not permanently burned out. It is just turned off for the moment.

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