What is Isolationism?

Isolationism was the term used to describe the traditions of America’s decision to refrain from involvement or intervention in foreign wars, especially those engaged between the powers of Europe. The essential theoretical construct behind the adoption of an isolationist ideology was built upon the widespread belief that the interests and values embraced by the United States were profoundly different than those interests and values of the Europe. As far as spreading the concept of democracy, isolationism was built on the precept that it could better lead through example than military intervention. Clearly, isolationism is not the ideological centerpiece of our foreign policy that it once was.

Isolationism is usually misunderstood in terms of actually isolating the United States from the rest of the world. At no point in American political history was this the basis for the adoption and implementation of isolationism as American policy. Nor, for that matter, did isolationism hinder or impair the imperialist aims of the Monroe Doctrine or Manifest Destiny. Isolationism, in fact, was almost completely aimed toward keeping America out of the historical series of European wars. On the other hand, the Americas and even the Orient became fair game for ideological intervention, especially following the election of William McKinley and the ascension of Theodore Roosevelt following McKinley’s assassination.

The foundation of American isolation was poured during the early colonial era by the settlers who carved out a new home for themselves to escape the persecutions of the European powers. From practically the moment of landing at Plymouth Rock there was an implicit assumption hope that this New World would be the place to start fresh and toss off the shackles of European failure. The Atlantic Ocean was viewed as a concrete example of the symbolic expanse separating America from the mother continent. The overriding central component of this separation from Europe had to do with moral transgressions perceived or otherwise. Freedom from the religious dogma and demagoguery entrenched in the psyche of Europe was at the forefront of the hope for America to be a place unencumbered by historical ties a continent fervently believed to have lost its way.

It would be George Washington in his Farewell Address who would be the chief spokesman behind the traditions of American isolationism. In that address Washington explicitly noted that the European powers had primary interests that were not shared by America and he went on to advise future leaders to avoid the trap of falling into a permanent alliances with any European power.

Over the course of the next two centuries American isolationism has had to adapt to the changes in geopolitics and the expansion of the global economy. Perhaps there is no real place for Washington style isolationism, but the oppositional view that has become the tradition over the last hundred years is clearly not the answer, either. Time will only tell if the abject failure of the Bush policy of economic interventionism will stir a necessary reassessment of the wisdom of rejecting every single principle adopted by the founding fathers. Embracing a new 21st century style of isolationism is not the same thing as protectionism or not addressing the problems of the world. A new sense of isolationism would actually protect our own interests against the selfish interests of leaders who take their election as a charge to defend the rights and narrow interests of the owners of big industry who have contributed the most to their campaigns.


Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation by Edward N. Saveth; 1965

Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History by Albert K. Weinberg; 1935