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


I hope that Isolationism leavens the global conversation that needs to take place about the nature of U.S. statecraft moving forward. Given the outsized role that the United States plays in global affairs, Americans as well as many other peoples affected by U.S. policy need a better understanding of America’s role in the world across the longue durée of the nation’s history. And we need to learn the right lessons from that history, drawing on both isolationist and internationalist traditions to find a sustainable brand of statecraft that constitutes the middle road between overreach and underreach.

I lay out a strategy of “judicious retrenchment” as a means of arriving at that middle road. I hope that the book and the debate it provokes help build intellectual and political support for this strategy. Judicious retrenchment entails ending the forever wars in the Middle East and pulling back from the region militarily—while maintaining America’s main strategic commitments in Europe and the Asia Pacific. The United States continues to have an overriding interest in managing great-power competition in Eurasia. Russia and China both pose expansionist threats to their neighbors, which means that the same objective that guided U.S. strategy during World War II and the Cold War—preventing the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power—still applies.

Less reliance on wars means more reliance on diplomacy. Judicious retrenchment entails restoring America’s role as a team player that works with other nations. Only through joint international action can we effectively address the paramount challenges of our time, including managing a globalized and interdependent economy, arresting climate change, shutting down terrorist networks, countering nuclear proliferation, promoting cybersecurity, and advancing public health. Such joint action will often require U.S. leadership to get off the ground.

And judicious retrenchment entails reclaiming America’s exceptionalist calling as a beacon of democracy. Nonetheless, the United States must return to its original conception of exceptionalism and seek to spread its republican experiment by example rather than by more forceful means. Knocking off unsavory regimes usually causes more harm than good. Russian and Iranian influence may be increasing in the Middle East as the United States pulls back from the region. But it is Washington’s foolhardy penchant for toppling regimes, not its self-restraint, that is the root cause of the inroads being made by Moscow and Tehran.

Reclaiming the nation’s original conception of exceptionalism requires more than exercising restraint and coming to terms with the reality that the United States cannot solve all the world’s problems. It also requires putting America’s own house in order. The United States cannot serve as a model for other nations when its political landscape is so deeply polarized and its institutions so dysfunctional. The first priority is to tackle the sources of the nation’s political ills, including the pandemic, inequality, racial injustice, and the profound sense of economic insecurity that pervades much of the electorate.

Exceptionalism is inseparable from the American creed. And with illiberalism and intolerance on the march globally, the world urgently needs an anchor of republican and pluralist ideals—a role that only the United States has the power and credentials to fulfill. But the exceptionalist narrative has for way too long been an excuse for doing too much abroad. Given the dilapidated state of the American experiment, the renewal of the nation’s unique calling must start at home.