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Isolationism Isn't a US Option

The Hill

There are growing concerns that the Republican Party’s MAGA wing wants to return to isolationism, defined as “a national policy of avoiding political or economic entanglements with other countries.”

Isolationist tendencies were prudent when George Washington warned against entangling alliances. And isolationism was widely embraced at the beginning of both World War I and II. But there are several reasons why U.S. isolationism isn’t an option in today’s interconnected world. 

It’s not just states, there’s territories. Isolationist thinking tends to focus on the 48 mainland states and how far removed the U.S. is from the frequent disputes and saber-rattling in Europe, Africa and Asia. But that’s too narrow a view of the United States. 

There’s Alaska, which at its closest point is only 53 miles from Russia. And Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

Plus, there are 16 U.S. territories, with five of them populated with U.S. citizens — two (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) in the Caribbean and three (American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianna Islands) in the Pacific. The other 11 territories are also in the Caribbean and Pacific and are considered uninhabited, but still part of the United States.  

Then there are joint security agreements, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and there are U.S. military bases in several counties, many of which are in or near areas where authoritarian governments are looking to expand their influence and control.  

In short, the U.S. has citizens, land, obligations and responsibilities in many parts of the world, not just the mainland, and the U.S. cannot easily ignore or abandon them. 

Freedom of the seas. Since World War II, the U.S. has been the primary guarantor of the “freedom of the seas,” ensuring all countries’ access to shipping lanes and the right to travel in international waters. As the U.S. Navy explains, “This principle’s legacy is that it has continued to remain a tenet of U.S. foreign policy, as evidenced by the Navy’s conduct of operations to uphold its primacy throughout the world in the decades since [WWII].” 

But some countries bent on expansion are threatening that right. China, for example, has been building islands in the South China Sea in an effort to make territorial claims over what have always been international waters. And to enforce that claim, China has now built the largest navy in the world and is looking to expand its overseas bases. As CNN reports, “In recent years it [China] has launched large guided-missile destroyers, amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers with the ability to operate in the open ocean and project power thousands of miles from Beijing.” 

If the U.S. and its allies don’t pushback against such expansionist challenges, the freedom to navigate the seas will decline.  

Trade and supply chains. Freedom of the seas is important in part because of international trade, which some expansionist countries seek to limit or control. Besides China, Iran is funding the Houthis in Yemen, who have been targeting shipping passing through the Red Sea. The result is that many cargo ships have diverted and are going around the tip of Africa, costing both time and money. 

The U.S. depends on many countries to supply the raw materials and products that drive the U.S. economy. While both President Joe Biden and Donald Trump seek to reduce that dependence — Biden by handing out hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to favored industries to manufacture here and Trump by imposing across-the-board tariffs on imports — the U.S. economy will always need large quantities of foreign-developed raw materials, products and services.  

Large immigrant populations. Another major challenge to isolationism today is the growth of politically active immigrant communities. You can see it in the response of Palestinian-affiliated communities. They are putting pressure on Washington to end Israel’s military efforts in Gaza. And, of course, Ukrainian communities in the U.S. want Washington to continue funding Ukraine’s war efforts. 

The point is that many immigrant communities want the United States to be involved in the affairs of other countries, making it harder for the U.S. to move toward isolationism. 

The world is smaller. Thousands of miles of intervening water have helped Americans feel somewhat removed from other countries’ problems. But technology has changed all that. Communications are instantaneous. Hypersonic and ballistic missiles can cover thousands of miles in a flash. And hackers can infiltrate U.S. communications, financial institutions and infrastructure without leaving the comfort of their chair.

The world is a much smaller place today, which makes isolationism more difficult. Just because we don’t want to interfere with other countries doesn’t mean they don’t want to interfere with us. 

That doesn’t mean the U.S. has to be the world’s policeman or stick its nose in every country’s business. We might adopt what I call “reluctant interventionism,” avoiding entanglements when possible, but recognizing that some interventions are necessary. But in today’s interconnected world, a strident isolationism isn’t just bad policy, it’s dangerous.