When I was very young, my understanding of the political system was, of course, very basic. However, I recall that one of the most infuriating things that I had ever heard at that time was the idea that nations should focus solely on their internal affairs. I am not referring to military intervention, as the parameters in which it is permissible are different from the more economic and diplomatic cases that I will write about. But to make an active effort to not engage with other nations in the two aforementioned realms is absurd. Isolationism is the most selfish and short-sighted way that anyone could view the world.
Isolationism might make sense on an extremely superficial level. After all, why should nations place themselves on a constantly shifting, perilous world stage? But removing yourself from the world stage does not mean the world stage will not affect you. Take the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whether or not a nation participates in the embargoes on Russian oil can completely influence how the nation might be seen by others. If you do participate, gas prices within a nation will skyrocket. If you do not, you lose an incredible amount of international standing for continuing to trade with an autocratic, expansionist regime. That latter option will likely have deep repercussions later down the line. Thus, when it comes to world events which actually matter, isolationist nations will always be impacted regardless of their stance. There is no way to become completely separate from world politics when you are a nation; not taking a side in a conflict can have the same impacts as taking one.
Moreover, isolationism throughout the post-Westphalian period (after 1648) has completely backfired for the vast majority of nations that embraced the concept. The easiest case to view is that of Belgium, in which their stance of continued neutrality did not save them from the two cases of invasion that they suffered in the early 20th century. Yet if you were to argue that speaking of such a case of isolationism is unfair due to the historic ties between Belgium and the Entente/Allies or that Belgium was simply a strategic objective rather than a political one, I can point out instead the failures of the United States’ isolationism. U.S. reluctance to become involved in the First World War did not save the U.S. from the destruction of commercial ships or from being targeted by the Germans through diplomatic means. If one were to argue that the Germans only did so because of our support of the British or because we were a major power, then I argue that our support of the British was critical, but even at its peak, still relatively minor in scale compared to what we could have sent. As for the latter point, at the very birth of our nation, we were dedicated to a very isolationist policy. But even without a great power status, we were targeted by Ottoman-sponsored Barbary pirates and shortly thereafter the British. Our sovereignty was continually violated. Therefore it is clear that isolationism—in theory, a reasonable way of preventing a state from becoming entangled in conflict—does not truly do so. Isolationism does not insulate you from the world, it just ensures that you strangle whatever input you might be able to have. It leaves you vulnerable to attack with its lull of false security, and, in reality, solves nothing. Never in our nation’s history has isolationism worked significantly to our advantage in a way that was not immediately and heavily counterbalanced by the strains of the system itself.
Isolationism proves to be so absurd because it does not solve the issues of the world; it simply ignores them and searches for others to correct them. Nations are not always better off on their own. There are times when foreign support is necessary for a nation to prop itself up, whether that be military, economically, or politically. Consider Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of 1979. An isolationist would argue that support shouldn’t be given to the Afghan people fighting off the Soviets because that would be ingraining ourselves firmly in a conflict. But that was a war for sovereignty. If you agree that the Afghan people have the right to defend themselves from a foreign invader, but don’t want to be the one to help them enforce it, aren’t you just passing along that responsibility to other members of the world? Therein lies the crux of the issue. It turns its back on all the world and says, “it’s not my problem.”
Interventionism is abominable, there’s no doubt about that, but acknowledging the dangers of both extremes of foreign policy is imperative. The U.S. does not have to completely withdraw from global politics, and, in fact, we shouldn’t. There simply needs to be a change in approach. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq largely over, we have a chance to actually intervene in non-militaristic ways that are reasonable and mutually beneficial to us and whomever we are dealing with. Somewhere in between isolationism and interventionism lies a balance that we can firmly grasp and utilize to pursue our national interests in ways that are not so imperialist as in years past.