Republican Isolationism Comes Back in Fashion

“For now it is not Iraq, a minor Middle Eastern power, that is in potential defiance of the U.N. system, but the mighty U.S. In effect, Bush has served notice that the painstaking logic of collective security, which the U.S. itself did so much to create 58 years ago, is to be junked.” So wrote Thomas Walkom in the Toronto Star on March 12, 2003.

The French are in Dutch again. The long upsy-downsy relationship between the United States and the Gallic Republic is in a drastic downsy phase. The call-in show patriots are as beside themselves as the loutish men and hoydenish women bubbling red, white and blue from the floor of Congress. After all we have done for the French, this is how they repay us.

No urban legend is more tenaciously held by Americans than that of American generosity and American altruism. Every other nation on the face of the earth merely lives to serve its own interest, but America is different. All flattery is insidious, but self-flattery is suicidal.

At this juncture, when Congress has changed the name of the French fries served in its cafeteria to “Freedom fries” and French kissing is about to be replaced by Spanish or Bulgarian osculation, it might help to set the record straight. The official reason for the United States’ entry into World War I was that German U-boats were sinking our ships. The American entry into World War II also had nothing to do with the French or the British or anti-fascism, for that matter; the Germans declared war on us. As for the Marshall Plan and other American money used to rebuild Europe-frequently cited in the recriminations against the Gauls-generosity had little to do with it. The American motive was fear of Communism, especially the real possibility in the 1940′s that the Reds would legitimately take power in France and other Western European nations by winning elections. So enough mewling about ingratitude.

Those are old wounds. The new complaint concerns the French threat to use its veto in the U.N. France does not use its veto often; the last time it did so was in 1976. The Christian Science Monitor reports that a “historical accounting of the UN veto scorecard, by Global Policy Forum, shows that France has used its veto 18 times, a distant fourth behind the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia, with 121 vetoes; the United States, 76 vetoes (often in support of Israel); and Great Britain, 32 vetoes. China has used it just five times.”

The White House, the Pentagon and the reactionary think tanks which provide them with such few ideas as they may have are acting as if the French veto, or the threat thereof, is a heaven-sent opportunity to mock and weaken the U.N. The neocons are having a high old time decrying the United Nations’ irrelevancy and the impotent unimportance of “old Europe.” George Bush, soon to be known as the Thief of Baghdad, has revealed himself to be not only a neoconservative, but also a neo-isolationist.

The nut meat of isolationism, old or neo-, is that the United States should be free of any and all international laws and the workings of any and all international institutions. There should be no lasting commitments. Hence, ancestor-worshipping Republican isolationists hold dear the sentence in George Washington’s farewell address which says, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” This is interpreted to mean that American national sovereignty must be unqualified and absolute; thus, the United Nations is Anathema Maranatha . More than 80 years ago, Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, used the concept of unalloyed national sovereignty to prevent American membership in the League of Nations. The League, without American membership, was crippled at birth and unable to be the instrument of collective security that might have stopped fascist aggression in the 1930′s. This is worth keeping in mind when the Bush neocons warn us that appeasement opened the road for Hitler. They do not discuss how the United States’ absence from the League destroyed the possibility of collective action and thus encouraged appeasement by nations left to act on their own.

History has given this stream of Republican thought the name “isolationist,” but it’s misleading, since it may suggest passivity in foreign affairs. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the neocon cries of “On to Baghdad!” testify. Even in the 1930′s, when Republican isolationism was dead set against any involvement in Europe, no such faintness of heart was displayed in the Pacific. War against Japan, for Chinese and Korean markets, would get no serious opposition from the well-heeled men and women who led the political struggle to let Hitler do what he would do.

Only at the end of the 1930′s did a significant group inside the Republican Party take on the isolationists, nominating Wendell L. Willkie (1892-1944) in 1940. Of the four Republicans to run against Franklin Roosevelt, Willkie came closest to winning, a performance that may have made it possible for him to become the template for the liberal Republicanism of the next quarter-century. Not only was Willkie a passionate internationalist but, while remaining a sturdy advocate of the free market, he was, next to Eleanor Roosevelt, the white political figure best known as a civil-rights crusader.

The isolationists in the Republican Party fought Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952. At the party’s 1964 convention, the two factions damn near killed each other, with the isolationists nominating Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller. Finally, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the isolationists had their man.

The neocon ascendancy in foreign affairs is embodied in the oft-quoted remarks of Charles Lichtenstein (1927-2002), once deputy ambassador to the U.N., who told the diplomats of other nations that if they weren’t satisfied with the way America treats them, they “should consider removing themselves and their organizations from the soil of the United States, and the United States will be at the dockside bidding … our farewell as you set off in the sunset.”

When we give up on international collective security and the hope that nations can govern themselves by a set of universally agreed-upon rules, what do we put in its place? Do we get anarchy, do we watch as Russia begins to build itself back into a frightening power and China does the same? What of India and Pakistan? What of the Israeli threat?

A few weeks ago, John Brady Kiesling, the American political counselor in Athens, resigned from the Foreign Service and sent a letter to his boss, Colin Powell, in which he said, “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known …. ” Mr. Kiesling asked Mr. Powell, “Has oderint dum metuant (‘Let them hate us as long as they fear us’) really become our motto?”

If it has, we’re not spending enough on the Army.