Isolationism is bad politics

Pratik Chougule Contributor
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Americans of all political stripes are turning inward. Public support for American global leadership, U.S.-backed military alliances, foreign aid, and free trade are low. Majorities now oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Libya.

But politicians — especially those with national aspirations — ought to think twice before embracing isolationism.

The post-WWII consensus behind American supremacy has endured through periods far more difficult than today’s political climate. Popular opinion in favor of American retrenchment was high after Democrat and Republican presidents alike failed to win decisive victories in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. After the Cold War, political figures from Ted Kennedy to Jeanne Kirkpatrick — Reagan’s hawkish ambassador to the U.N. — advocated severe cuts in the defense budget to spend more at home. Yet overall support for American engagement in the world has remained steady through Democrat and Republican administrations and Congresses. From Thomas Dewey to John McCain, Republicans have consistently nominated internationalist hawks. On the Democrat side, presidential winners — even after the near break-up of the “Cold War consensus” — never veered too far to the left.

True, the limited foreign policy records of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suggested far-left views. But look who they picked as running mates. Al Gore — one of the few Democrats who supported the Gulf War — lambasted the Bush 41 administration during the 1992 campaign, asserting that “coddling tyrants is the hallmark of the Bush foreign policy.” And elder statesman Joe Biden proved to be one of the most sensible defenders of the Iraq War — advocating regime change even without buying into the preemption rationale.

Once in office, the Clinton and Obama administrations expanded NATO; pursued free trade agreements; promoted democracy and human rights; and deployed military force in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.

Perhaps we are at a moment when the internationalist consensus genuinely is breaking. But politicians should be wary of betting their futures on the country turning towards the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and Dennis Kucinich. While fading enthusiasm for American internationalism is real, it is not obvious that the current isolationist rhetoric on the right represents anything more than political opposition to the Obama administration. And though Obama’s unexpected hawkishness has made the administration less susceptible to attacks from the right, polls still tend to favor the Republican Party on national security. Democratic candidates may not be immune from charges of weakness even as the Obama administration deftly manages the politics of foreign policy.

It may not be feasible in the short term for candidates to campaign as full-fledged hawkish internationalists. Here are some tips on how politicians can avoid the isolationist temptation in a politically expedient way.

— Give voters a choice. Candidates need not campaign as American imperialists. It may suffice for candidates to present themselves to voters as more responsible, knowledgeable, and statesman-like on foreign policy than their isolationist opponents.

— Invoke the limited foreign policy powers of elected offices. Most elected positions short of the presidency have few ways of influencing foreign policy. Members of Congress, for example, should be forthright about the practical choices they face. It is easy to bash the president for reckless interventionism. But are voters comfortable with their representatives cutting off funding for troops in battle?

— Criticize strategy and tactics instead of the overall mission. The Obama administration has fought the wars in Afghanistan and Libya half-heartedly. It has failed to explain the missions convincingly to Congress and the public. But strategic and tactical errors do not undercut the rationale behind these interventions. Isolationism is not the only alternative.

— Advance foreign policy initiatives of importance to key domestic constituencies. For example, few issues enjoy the same degree of bipartisan consensus as does the cause of Israel. Evangelicals are concerned about the religious freedom of Christians around the world. Attention to the plight of women and unions abroad may play well with those activists at home. And with minority groups such as Hispanics and South Asians growing in clout, support for stronger ties with key democracies like Mexico, Brazil, and India could yield political dividends. Bureaucrats in the executive branch tend not to be visionaries on these issues, so a jolt from Congress and the American people could have an important impact. Special interests in the aggregate could form the basis of an enduring internationalist consensus.

— Emphasize issues on which the American people are more hawkish than the political class. Two issues are especially salient. Despite the fact that China’s currency manipulation is costing the country jobs and destabilizing the international economy, recent presidents have been loath to get tough. And polls have consistently shown that the American people are ready for serious action against Iran’s nuclear program.

— Defend arguments for foreign engagement in terms of economic costs and benefits. The notion that the U.S. cannot afford an assertive foreign policy due to deficits and anemic economic growth is gaining traction. Yet the reality is that the U.S. protects global commerce, contains China, prevents arms races in Europe and Asia, and galvanizes international coalitions against terrorism and other collective problems — all by spending less than 5% of GDP on defense. Foreign aid represents less than 1% of the budget. Is it worth accepting the myriad costs that would surely arise from American retrenchment?

Now may be a tough time to be an internationalist. But it is the right thing to do. And in the long run it has the benefit of being politically advantageous.

Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration.