Charles A. Kupchan


On his book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World

Cover Interview of February 24, 2021

In a nutshell

This is the first book to tell the fascinating story of American isolationism across the full arc of U.S. history. The United States that we know today has dominated global affairs ever since it entered World War II in 1941. But for much of its history, the nation steered clear of strategic commitments beyond North America. From the founding era until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans sought to run away from the world, not run it. They were avid international traders from the nation’s earliest days, yet apart from detours during the Spanish-American War and World War I, they shunned strategic entanglement outside their own neighborhood. In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington set the nation on a clear course: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Thereafter, isolationism had a virtual lock on American politics.

With the United States in the midst of a bruising debate about its role in the world, Americans need to better understand the enduring connection between the isolationist impulse and the American experience. Isolationism is part and parcel of the nation’s creed, and its citizens need to know much more about their long-running aversion to foreign entanglement. To be sure, President Donald Trump’s America First brand of statecraft constituted a sharp break with the recent past. Nonetheless, it had deep roots in the nation’s history and identity. Isolationism, unilateralism, protectionism, racism—these were all defining features of America’s approach to the world from the nation’s birth well into the twentieth century. Trump harkened back to these earlier traditions in American statecraft, sensing the electorate’s discontent with international overreach—too many wars in the Middle East, too much free trade, too many immigrants, too much focus on solving the problems of others. In short, too much world, not enough America.

Yet Trump overcorrected. He should have tapped on the brakes and eased off international ambition. But he took a wrecking ball to the world America made after World War II. He insulted and estranged allies; backed away from the international teamwork needed to address global challenges in the age of inescapable interdependence; launched trade wars that did little to benefit U.S. workers; and fostered nativism and intolerance at home and abroad.

Instead, the United States needs to undertake a “judicious retrenchment” that constitutes the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little. Americans cannot afford to let dangerous overreach turn into even more dangerous underreach. The nation learned the dangers of underreach the hard way during the 1930s. It was a passive bystander amid one of history’s darkest decades, running for cover in the face of spreading fascism and militarism in both Europe and Asia.

The United States cannot afford to repeat that mistake. Yes, Americans need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of both isolationism and internationalism, seeking to bring the nation’s foreign commitments back into line with its means and purposes. But the task ahead is to step back, without stepping away—to do less, but to still do enough.