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

The wide angle

It was during the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, that I first contemplated writing a book about the history of isolationism. During that decade, Americans seemed to be losing interest in foreign affairs; coverage of international news in the media fell off a cliff. The terror attacks of 9/11 abruptly ended the nation’s inward turn and all eyes focused on the ensuing conflicts in the Middle East. But U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria produced little good even as they cost many lives and trillions of dollars. The American electorate justifiably soured on what appeared to be unlimited foreign entanglements. A book on America’s isolationist temptation was indeed in order. I embarked on the task in 2012. The topic became all the more relevant on January 20, 2017, when Trump laid out his America First doctrine in his Inaugural Address: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”

The more history I read as I researched this work, the more it became clear that my book would challenge the conventional wisdom on multiple fronts. Isolationism, despite the dirty name that it deservedly acquired during the interwar era, long dominated U.S. statecraft because it served the nation well. The avoidance of foreign entanglement cleared the way for America’s unmolested ascent during the nineteenth century—as George Washington and his colleagues had foreseen. Americans need to rediscover an enduring piece of wisdom handed down by the Founders: Under the right circumstances, standing apart from trouble abroad can constitute the best statecraft.

I also offer in the book a reinterpretation of American exceptionalism. Americans have long deemed their democratic experiment to be exceptional, obliging them to spread liberty to all quarters of the globe. Even before the country’s birth, the passionate advocate of independence from Great Britain, Thomas Paine, counseled American colonists that “we have it in our power, to begin the world all over again.” But for much of the nation’s history, most Americans envisaged changing the world only by the power of their example. They believed that preserving their unique experiment in political and economic liberty required standing aloof from the perils and corrupting influences that lay beyond the nation’s shores.

That all changed after the nation’s entry into World War II. Since the 1940s, belief in the unique character of America’s democratic experiment has served as the ideological foundation for foreign ambition. The United States is the “indispensable nation,” obligating it to project its power to all quarters of the globe in the service of spreading republican values and institutions and defending and expanding Pax Americana. This sense of messianic mission helped the country stay the course and prevail in the Cold War. But it also laid a foundation for economic and strategic overreach once the Cold War was over. The United States embraced an unfettered brand of globalization that worked to the advantage of too few Americans. Washington embarked on expensive and futile attempts to turn Afghanistan and Iraq into Ohio. These bouts of ideological overreach set the stage for an isolationist backlash and Trump’s America First brand of statecraft. As I note, “The United States seems to be coming full circle (...). How far back in the direction of isolationism the pendulum swings remains to be seen” (page 23).