Paragon of the new conservative isolationism: Republican Senator Rand Paul is a vocal opponant of America's foreign policy
The spectre of isolationism is stalking the Republican Party. It is still far from dominant, but we would be ignoring reality to underestimate the risks evident in today's turbulent political milieu. Ironically, Republican isolationism is in many respects attributable to Barack Obama. His palpable lack of concern for foreign and defence policy issues, and the public's false sense of security thereby generated, combined with his massive federal expenditures and consequent budget deficits that threaten the vitality of America's economic system, have created an unexpected and deeply troubling reaction among Republicans, heretofore America's national-security stalwarts.
A little recent history. In the late 1990s, many Europeans feared the United States was drifting back into isolationism. They worried that Republican victories in the 1994 elections, capturing control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1952, inevitably meant a reactionary, inward-turning America. George W. Bush's 2000 election as president only cemented their fears that, for example, Washington would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, erect a national missile-defence shield and leave Europe to fend for itself.
These European concerns, shared by the American Left, badly misinterpreted US history. While the United States certainly steered clear of European entanglements before World War I (or tried to), it was not for lack of interest in the rest of the world, but because of preoccupation with building what Thomas Jefferson called "an empire of liberty". While Europe's 19th-century empires have disappeared, America's successful imperialism is memorialised today in once foreign lands named Florida, Texas, California, Alaska, Hawaii and the like. One may find such success irksome, but what Europeans saw as "isolationism" was actually US unilateralism and exceptionalism at work. Of course, many of America's critics also detest those characteristics, but they are nonetheless conceptually and empirically very different phenomena.
George W. Bush's presidency made the differences between isolationism and unilateralism completely clear, contrary to the expectations of critics who feared the former and got the latter. Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, "unsigning" the Rome Statute (which created the International Criminal Court), scuttling a "verification" protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention, and refusing to negotiate a "small arms and light weapons" agreement violating the Constitution's Second Amendment, and more, appalled the "blame America first" crowd. Of course, what really sent them over the edge was dismantling the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime in Afghanistan, followed by regime change in Iraq without a new Security Council resolution granting humble supplicants from Washington permission.
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