Thursday, August 21, 2014
10

The Myth of Isolationist America

CAMBRIDGE – Is the United States turning inward and becoming isolationist? That question was posed to me by a number of financial and political leaders at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, and was heard again a few days later at the annual Munich Security Conference. In a strong speech at Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry gave an unambiguous answer: “Far from disengaging, America is proud to be more engaged than ever.” Yet the question lingered.

Unlike the mood at Davos a few years ago, when many participants mistook an economic recession for long-term American decline, the prevailing view this year was that the US economy has regained much of its underlying strength. Economic doomsayers focused instead on previously fashionable emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India, and Turkey.

The anxiety about US isolationism is driven by recent events. For starters, there is America’s refusal (thus far) to intervene militarily in Syria. Then there is the coming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. And President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia last autumn, owing to domestic political gridlock in the US Congress and the resulting government shutdown, made a poor impression on the region’s leaders.

Indeed, with Kerry’s time and travel focused on the Middle East, many Asian leaders believe that Obama’s signature foreign policy – strategic “rebalancing” toward Asia – has run out of steam, even as tension between China and Japan, evident in their leaders’ statements at Davos, continues to mount.

Particularly egregious from the point of view of “Davos” was the recent refusal by Congress to approve the reform and refunding of the International Monetary Fund, even though a plan that added no significant burden to the American taxpayer had been agreed years earlier by the G-20 under Obama’s leadership.

When I asked a prominent Republican senator why Congress had balked at keeping an American commitment, he attributed it to “sheer orneriness,” reflecting the mood of right-wing Tea Party Republicans and some left-wing Democrats. Further evidence of American isolationism can be found in a recent opinion poll taken by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations. According to the survey, fifty-two percent of Americans believe that the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” About the same number said that the US is “less important and powerful” than it was a decade ago.

The problem with these perceptions – both at home and abroad – is that the US remains the world’s most powerful country, and is likely to remain so for decades. China’s size and rapid economic growth will almost certainly increase its relative strength vis-à-vis the US. But even when China becomes the world’s largest economy in the coming years, it will still be decades behind the US in terms of per capita income.

Moreover, even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, projections based on GDP growth alone are one-dimensional and ignore US military and soft-power advantages. They also ignore China’s geopolitical disadvantages within Asia.

America’s culture of openness and innovation will ensure its role as a global hub in an age when networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power. The US is well positioned to benefit from such networks and alliances, if American leaders follow smart strategies. In structural terms, it matters greatly that the two entities in the world with economies and per capita income similar to the US – Europe and Japan – are both American allies. In terms of balance-of-power resources, that boosts America’s net position, but only if US leaders maintain these alliances and ensure international cooperation.

Decline is a misleading metaphor for today’s America, and Obama fortunately has rejected the suggestion that he should pursue a strategy aimed at managing it. As a leader in research and development, higher education, and entrepreneurial activity, the US, unlike ancient Rome, is not in absolute decline. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but we also no longer live in the “American era” of the late twentieth century. In the decades ahead, the US will be “first” but not “sole.”

That is because the power resources of many others – both states and non-state actors – are growing, and because, on an increasing number of issues, obtaining America’s preferred outcomes will require exercising power with others as much as over others. The capacity of US leaders to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of America’s hard and soft power. The problem for US power in the twenty-first century is not just China, but the “rise of the rest.”

The solution is not isolation, but a strategy of selectivity similar to what President Dwight Eisenhower advocated in the 1950’s. A smart power strategy starts with a clear assessment of limits. The preeminent power does not have to patrol every boundary and project its strength everywhere. That is why Eisenhower prudently resisted direct intervention on the French side in Vietnam in 1954.

Eisenhower was right about something else, too: America’s military strength depends on preservation of its economic strength. Nation-building at home is not the isolation that critics fear; on the contrary, it is central to a smart foreign policy.

A smart strategy would avoid involvement of ground forces in major wars on the Asian continent. Yet such prudence is not the same as isolationism. The US needs to combine its soft- and hard-power resources better.

As Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union address, “in a world of complex threats, our security depends on all elements of our power – including strong and principled diplomacy.” Eisenhower could have said that, and no one would accuse him of being an isolationist.

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (10)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedJason Gower

    I think this article is best summed up or could even have been written in this one sentence herein: " America’s military strength depends on preservation of its economic strength."

    Pre-crisis I don't remember any isolationist rhetoric in the US. It was only when growth slowed, deficits at all levels continued to swell and stubborn unemployment levels began to look more structural than cyclical that the America's role in the world (as "world policeman") came into question. Simply looking at US defense spending vis-a-vis the rest of the world and the crumbling infrastructure and declining education system, paints a pretty clear picture. While a convincing argument can be made that America's defense policy (or even ad hoc wars) is just protecting its economic interests, the fact is when the average voter looks at his/her situation they care about jobs, education and the infrastructure they see around them; they may not have the complete geopolitical picture in mind or may be easily influenced by media in any ideological direction but they understand these basic building blocks of future prosperity. That America has fought debatable wars and spends 2/3 of a trillion dollars annually on defense while these other seeds of future prosperity are neglected is the true cause of the rhetoric. Politicians exist for one reason and one reason only: to get elected or reelected! So, regardless of the reason, if defense policy becomes a salient issue to a large enough share of the voting population then we can expect policy to change (or at least the political rhetoric).

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I forgot to mention in my first comment below.

    A small group of top-level Chinese leaders met secretly last autumun. They arrived at three decisions.
    "First we will not start war with Japan. Second the Japanese do not have the guts to engage in war with us. Third we will continue to strike a divisive wedge in the US-Japan relations."

    The first and the second conclusion are praiseworthy and excellent. The third is bad becausre they are trying to do the impossivle. (I know why they continue entertaining this impossible idea, but I have no space and time for elaboration on this. )

    It would have been excellent if the third conclusion had been "We will not make war with the United States and it does not have the guts to take on us."

    Prof. Nye should write "The Future of nonguts" next time.

  3. Commenteddavid ursiny

    America. Has been stripped of its manufacturing foundations the economic foundations of the majority of Americans if fragile,low wage and debt, with conservative forces hell bent on destroying the government economically by restricting tax revenues and cutting the government middle class in half, to complete the subjugation of the globalist capitalists of wall streets global economic control and power, its all down hill from here free trade has been a mortal wound to America 30 million middle class jobs stripped with their middle class private sector healthcare polices, with millions dumped on government healthcare the people need a growing middle class and incomes to sustain a 2.6 trillion dollar yearly medical industrial complex, then there is the 2 trillion dollars a year public safety courts police prisons national states apparatus, whose costs are exploding do to free trade and no economic opportunities into the middle class its contracting, state government has an ever increasing low wage tax base that won't keep up. Then there is social security and Medicare a 1.5 trillion a year program that has forces working to destroy and privatize it into the hands of the capitalists of wall street who have already set engines of war at those gates by stripping the middle class jobs that where its foundations, then theirs the 1.5 trillion dollar a year defense and national security apparatus that has let the forces of the capitalist work to set there funding in jeopardy by the economic policies of free trade, by dumping trillions of dollars from our pockets into the hands of the Chinese government and their military so if that America 's defense and national security apparatus cost double again in the next 2 decades it won't be good when America is only an importer and they make nothing in their lives and homes, and all the capitalist's do is produced an ever amount of inflated paper securities to suck up the ruling class 's money into safety ha. That realm y looks bad but then surprise that damn technology comes along and a man shows up and teaches all mankind how to turn an axle in a new machine for free with no external costs or the need for fossil fuels in the age that's just been born , and that cause's all the ruling rich class to panic on earth and the biggest sell off of all that paper securities happens in the same hour what a firestorm leading to the bankruptcy of a global economic debt trading system that the nations have to start completely over, that's your future earthman

      CommentedPaulo Sérgio

      Some commentators have said America has been stripped of its manufacturing foundations. This is not true -- what is true is that the country has lost jobs in the sector over the last two decades. America has never previously produced the dollar value of goods it does now. At the same time, it has previously employed more in manufacturing than currently. The country is increasingly efficient at producing the goods it does. The energy revolution - however long it lasts - will give the country a boost in manufacturing over its major competitors, especially in high-tech manufacturing when combined with the country's advances in additive manufacturing (3D printing).

      ###

      I think the US needs to focus on its educational system at primary, secondary/high school level, and fix its social security programs to ensure long-term vitality of economic performance. I think those are the most pressing domestic issues. Those and the current Congress

  4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I know Prof. Nye is not talking about the isolationist myth only in its relation to China but since I live closest, among the eight peope who sent comments so far, to China's bird flu, sand storms, PM 2.5 and abusive invectives of all sorts, I will write a few words about China first.

    When Geoge F. Kennan exchanged views about China (China was already a headahe at that time,) with a small group of people of Kyoto University in 1964, a Japanese present there had a famous Sinologist, Jitsuzo Kuwabara. He said to Kennan, perhaps what he had heard from his father, "The Chinese despise flowers such as daisies; you look down and see them. They admire flowers (blossoms) that come out on a tall tree; you look up and see them."

    Some peope from the Chinese elite group have recently begun, should I say at last, to whisper confidentially to their intimate Japanese friends that they are having a hard time in finding a face-saving way out of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Isle issue. I would suggest that they read the Aesop Stories and then Mr. Xi Jinping could say, "We do not care for the sour isles."

    Kennan said to the Kyoto Univerity people that the manners and speech of the Chinese elite were refined but that we should not be deceived by it. We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by their high-handed manners and speech, either.

    The British theory of free trade in the nineteenth century was also a theory of international relations. Free trade would bring and hold the whole world together in peace. But the Freudian analysis tells us, as we all know, that the real motive was the desire for more money and still more money; and the peace theory was a psychological rationalization.

    It is hardly believable unless we look back in history that the United States was the most protectionist country in the 1930s. It was only after the World War II that it became a rather free trade nation in theory and practice.

    Free trade is not an impartial theory that brings everyone benefit. let alone an equal amont of benefit. Those who are to gain from it preach it. Regardless of who will gain and who will lose, there are always people and things that ought to and need to be protected in a society.

    What would be the sense in engaging in free trade when it brings wealth only to the 1 % and/or adds to totalitarian China's GDP while making the 99 % live cold and hungry on the street?

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Seemingly there are two contradictory movements here, on one hand the gradual decline of the presence and importance of the US as a global leader, global policeman, on the other hand their inability to retreat, become isolationist, to turn inwards.
    In truth both originate from the same root and are not contradictory at all.
    We have evolved into a globally interconnected and interdependent human system.
    In this system each and every individual and nation is tied to each other on multiple levels like cogwheels in a multidimensional machinery.
    In such an integral system each and every cogwheel has equal importance since even if the smallest cogwheels gets stuck or turns the wrong way the whole machine screeches to a halt.
    On the other hand none of the cogwheels has any possibility to "withdraw", isolate themselves or even decide which way they want to turn.
    In this system governance, negotiations, execution can only be conducted in a mutual and equal manner.
    Our whole concept of "freedom", "free will" is flawed in this system, the previous, especially American notion that I am a free, independent, unique individual that can do whatever he likes is falling apart as we speak, even with the slightest move of a finger each and every one of us influences and changes the whole system.
    Our true freedom comes from this recognition that the whole system depends on our positive benevolent and mutually complementing contribution. My uniqueness comes from my unique ability to put into the system exactly what it needs from me and without which the system is not complete.
    Each and every individual and nation is forced today to observe such a mutual responsibility and mutual guarantee that is unprecedented in human history.
    Since it is a totally new paradigm we all need to study the system, understand why and how it works, and we have to learn how to adapt to it.
    Since we are only cogwheels in this vast system we have no other choice, there are no appeals, shortcuts, tricks.
    It is like with the force of gravity. The natural law is a law, if we learn how it works we can "fly", if we ignore it we fall.

      CommentedCraig Stevenson

      Actually, to free will and freedom, quite the opposite, it is merely notions that posit, accentuate a certain baseness, or that require others ti heighten their "perspective", "wisdom", "feelings", and similar above another; or as fara as the post-modernist subterfuge, under guises of anti-idealism, that they themselves aren't merely accentuating another ideal, in their themeless juxtapositions bound up in Marxian (Money), Freudian (sex) and Anti-Imperialist (power) dogmas that are dying. If anything, the hype around decline or isolation highlight the thinness of the scholarship, and much of the sociological project overall.

      We are interconnected and interdependent, to greater and lessor degrees, based upon all the indicators that are reviewed, but global governance requires far more participation and far less free-riding where the world trends toward much greater dysfunction. There is no equality without responsibility and commitment of resources. Recent actions by the African Union are welcome movements in that direction.

      Notions that guests will dictate how the corn is cooked, or whether the meat should be well-done, medium rare or rare, without commitment of time, resources, and a long-term participation in such are well, not realistic. Short term extrapolations of multiple decade trends, even if recent scholarship, or journalists have just picked up upon the trends that were predicted decades ago, without concomitant participation, and such over an extended period of time, should result in very little change by those who have long supported the systems instiutions that have both supported global peace, cooperation and development. If one were to participate, it should be understaood, as in any relationship, that develops over time, and signs of commitment are exhibited by actions, not recent linear extrapolations of trends, and the editorial perspectives of commentators, especially where those who are hoped to participate have most of the real and material challenges that are hoped to be overcome by their cooperation with regional antagonists. This is politically, morally and realistically the likely evolution of greater cooperation. Not mere conceptions.

      complex adaptive systems do evolve, or devolve, dependent upon the goals of the system as reviewed by observers. New elements, forces, attributes and inter-relations can cycle the system to a different place. This can be higher or lower, dependent upon the goal. Despite a great deal of useful scholarship. were one to return to the 1960's or 1970's, and look at previous trends, and future forecasts, most of them have been wildly under-Representative of the gains that have resulted from the system that was developed after WWII. this despite the ongoing rise in global population, which of course can have the effect of relegating large portions of the globe to retrenched poverty, if the peaceful applications of science and technology have advanced material standards of living considerably, if such poorly translates to statistics and indicators currently reviewed.

  6. CommentedStelios Zachariou

    In the 21rst century the traditional term "isolationist" or "isolationism" is no longer a viable strategy for nation states with a significant nternational presense. It is higly unlikely that the United States, in an age of global trade and communication, will call for a Monroe like doctrine and implement a foreign policy through a myopic domestic agenda. Furthermore, Eisenhowers Administration, should not be associated with the current administration. Eisenhower, "massive retaliation" doctrine, is a far cry from current foreign policy strategy which is an intetwined web of building alliances, applying sanctions encouraging reform, supporting human rights initiatives and promoting nuclear disarmament [Russia & Iran]. The circumstances that dictated Eisenhowers foreign policy were defined by the Dulles Brothers (Secretary of State, and Head of the CIA respectively), as well as Eisenhowers deep understanding and concern of the "politico-military complex" The world in the 1950s was an increasingly bypolar one, unlike the highly complex world we live in today.
    Advocating that America is on a slipery slope to isolationism, would be a mistake. Without alliances, compromises and prudent strategy the U.S. will not be in a possition to compete in a multipolar environment. It is unlikely that any administration would be willing to give up all of the hard earned priviledges of the Cold War only to revert to isolationism.

  7. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Indeed, Mr. Nye, according to the poll, over 50% of Americans want their country to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Yet the Americans have a dualistic view of how they want their country to be and interact with the world - strong, while keeping a low profile; engaged economically but pursuing self-interest; working with the international community, while always ensuring US security priorities take centre stage.
    America has still not yet recovered economically. After two senseless wars, that had cost trillions of dollars war fatigue is wide-spread. There is a sense of disillusionment, after all the blood and treasure wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many had lost their jobs and homes. So they are much more pre-occupied with what is going on at home, rather than worrying about the threat of Islamic extremism in the Middle East.
    President Obama conducts his foreign policies - protection from terrorism, preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction - after careful deliberations. He adopted Winston Churchill's wisdom "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war". He had also discovered the win-win strategy of "leading from behind", and let President Putin bask in success for negotiating a deal with Syria to destroy its chemical weapons and finding a solution to ending the civil war.
    The fear of being less powerful, less important, less respected does come back to haunt many Americans. So 56% of them embrace the idea that the US should still remain the world's only military superpower and have more involvement in the global economy (77%). That China might soon become the world's most powerful economy urges the Americans to look inward and focus on bringing their economy back on its feet. After all, "America’s military strength depends on preservation of its economic strength".

  8. CommentedPUNDALIK Kamath

    The ideas expressed by the author are nothing new . They have been expressed by various writers and thinkers, statesmen around globe at different times.
    Prof. Nye has put them together with his own and articulated extremely well. He is absolutely honest when he says, "...The problem for US power in the twenty-first century is not just China, but the “rise of the rest.”, -“....American era” of the late twentieth century. In the decades ahead, the US will be “first” but not “sole"... Etc.

    As far, I am concerned, I am ready to learn Chinese language and history, but how to kow-tow.

  9. Commenteddavid ursiny

    If your looking for America to save and support the world by consumption forget it, the rich corporate powers have stripped the American middle class in half in one generation by stripping the manufacturing base, and those incomes to leave America a majority. Low wage nation where most people need to go into debt for the basics, the rich class has grown destroying the middle class, but there is not much demand for products in this class ,they use their money for paper securities,that's what has grown low taxes has given the rich the power to buy paper securities to inflate a false value on paper until a bubble pops in an asset sector from to much money to show it true value, we have made a world economy that creates paper securities, instead of products ,demand, and incomes to sustain it . All held up by manipulated assets across the board, by the money gods of financial centers like wall street, holding huge amounts of private debt made from low wages based on a primitive fossil fuel foundation and the need for high energy prices to sustain the payments of the producers and private debt to the tune of hundreds of trillions of dollars, when placed in the same baskets with paper inflated securities, that spells your economic doom right their, all you need is a catalyst to burn it all down, and that's the danger your in because technology can do that in spades, one invention. If someone came to the seen of this mess and taught man how to make electrical power without the need for fossil fuels you would be unable to stop the worlds largest sell off of all that inflated paper securities leaving that big debt and world bankruptcy, and that technology. Is called the permanent fields assemblies,inducted high voltage fields/field compression motor. It uses permanent fields for motion thru repulsion and inducted high voltage fields to perpetuate that motion its a field that you can charge and discharge to change a field assembly pole face at the speed of light, its big big trouble for a flawed criminally designed economic system make plans to feed your people because the markets and wall street won't,

      CommentedCraig Stevenson

      Resiliency, DIY, the Makers movement is on the rise. the downturn has the dual effect of moderating material desires and fostering creativity and resiliency; and education and innovation. the future is carbon fibre and green. Material sciences and nature. the movement can be seen by the obtuse anger of the Tea Party and the inane idealism of Occupy. Just look at the TV, the shows, from Science to manufacturing, Robots to Alaskan Gold, Surviving in the Wilderness to Simple living and inventiveness. This is on the rise, the bling of Hollywood and Rap on the decline. As are their business models.

      Technology has resulted in an advance of ever cheaper higher standards of living. Medical tests that took hundreds of dollars per test get replaced by a 6 cent test created by a 15 year old high school student. Expensive materials, found able to be used in ever more efficient ways, collapsing costs, this is the real untold story.

      Most countries, even very populous, largely poor, hyped in the media countries are on the verge of post-industrialism. Recent success of the Asian Development Model, cheap capital (Money Creation and Asset Bloat), and large workforces, will need to alter to enable more broad-based global development, more demand will have to be captured within advanced countries, and much more cooperation is required to get hte world to understand and alter direction to foster greater global devleopment and modernization and further post-feudal gains in human welfare and freedom.

Featured