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Which Way for US Foreign Policy?

BANGALORE – When US President Barack Obama recently spoke at the United Nations about countering the Islamic State, many of his critics complained that he put too much emphasis on diplomacy and not enough on the use of force. Comparisons were made with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria’s civil war; and, with the US presidential election campaign shifting into high gear, some Republican candidates accused Obama of isolationism.

But such charges are partisan political rhetoric, with little basis in rigorous policy analysis. It is more accurate to see the current mood as a swing of the US foreign policy pendulum between what Columbia University’s Stephen Sestanovich has called “maximalist” policies and “retrenchment” policies.

Retrenchment is not isolationism; it is an adjustment of strategic goals and means. Presidents who followed policies of retrenchment since the end of World War II have included Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and now Obama. No objective historian would call any of these men isolationists.

Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 because he opposed the isolationism of Robert Taft, the leading Republican candidate. While Nixon believed the US was in decline, the others did not. All of them were strong internationalists when compared to the true isolationists of the 1930s, who bitterly opposed coming to the aid of Britain in WWII.