Ashlee Lolkus/U.S. Army
World News /23 Apr 2012

Isolation and Hegemony: A New Approach for American Foreign Policy

In modern foreign policy, the United States faces a complicated irony. In a bid to ensure national security and maintain global primacy the U.S. spends a large quantity of blood and treasure on interventionist policies that may actually compromise national security and the future of American hegemony. The culmination of these exercises in grandiose foreign policy has been the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, at the combined cost of between three and four trillion dollars. While it is possible to argue that the invasions have been successful in preventing further terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, such a counterfactual proposition is difficult to prove.

What is clear, however, is that such expenditures are unsustainable given a national debt of over $15 trillion. As the country debates the potential for military action in the Middle East in both Syria and Iran the necessity of a levelheaded understanding of the costs of such interventions, and their potentially fatal consequences for American standing in the world, cannot be overstated.

Given the costs of large-scale foreign interventions and the disproportionate share of the funding of organizations such as NATO and the United Nations that the United States carries, it is readily apparent that an isolationist foreign policy would present a prudent fiscal alternative to the current state of affairs. Given the historical and ideological connotations associated with the term “isolationism,” it is important to clarify its intended meaning here. By “isolationism” I am advocating for a steady devolvement from foreign commitments and military involvements while maintaining economic and diplomatic ties, as well as overall U.S. military might, in order to preserve the long-term future of American hegemony.

Here it might be argued that the concepts of isolationism and hegemony are antithetical. It would appear impossible to be both isolationist and hegemonic. At the same time, however, nothing could be further from the case. Hegemony can be understood in a variety of ways but is perhaps best explained as an informal influence that one state enjoys over another. While it is often supposed that hegemony stems primarily from material influences, such as military, economic, or other coercive forms of power, there are also nonmaterial bases of hegemonic power.

While an isolationist foreign policy might, therefore, contribute to an initial decrease in material hegemonic power, it is still possible to wield nonmaterial hegemonic power through ideological clarity and moral integrity. While there may be initial drawbacks to this new course in American foreign policy, over the long term they become limited to the point where they become irrelevant. Furthermore, an isolationist foreign policy does not require ceding claims to American exceptionalism or moral authority, one of the chief reasons given for an aggressive foreign policy in the first place.

The argument that the United States needs to withdraw from foreign commitments in order to regroup and stabilize both its domestic and foreign affairs is not a new one. Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald, for instance, strongly advocated for a policy of “retrenchment” in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. While I agree with many of the conclusions that Parent and MacDonald reach, my argument differs substantially from theirs in its positing of the United States as retaining hegemonic status even as it becomes more isolationist. I furthermore disagree with their conclusions surrounding the efficacy of shifting the burden of collective defense onto U.S. allies and the proposed benefits of what they term the “retrenchment dividend.”

Rather than seeing economic recovery in the United States coming from a State sponsored reshuffling of public capital, I see it as ultimately driven by the flowback of private capital from U.S. corporations and assets held overseas. Unlike Parent and MacDonald, I am also less optimistic regarding the short-term consequences of a new isolationist U.S. foreign policy. They write that “The modest decline of U.S. power, combined with a relatively benign international environment, has provided the United States with a unique opportunity to reduce its foreign policy commitments in a measured manner.” Such calm statements diminish the very real prospects for violence and conflict in the aftermath of any U.S. disengagement from foreign affairs.

As it stands, the current path of U.S. foreign policy is unsustainable. Not only do current interventionist policies breed ill well and animosity within the international community, the fiscal realities of running the U.S. government following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lingering impacts of the global financial crisis of 2008, mean that the U.S. cannot afford to continue on this path. These new realities are at the forefront of the most recent U.S. statement of defense policy and strategy, published in January 2012.

In the document, which illustrates the guiding principles that the armed forces will follow in crafting a national defense, President Obama opens his remarks by stating that “Our Nation is at a moment of transition.” He goes on to respond to the fear that the new fiscal environment will dangerously erode U.S. military might by noting “the fiscal choices we face are difficult ones, but there should be no doubt—here in the United States or around the world—we will keep our Armed Forces the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped fighting force in history.”

U.S. soldiers patrol around Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. (Alex Flynn/U.S. Army)

Such rhetoric is intended to inspire, and may or may not accurately reflect the truth of the fiscal situation that the U.S. faces. The only other mention of new fiscal standards occurs in the introduction to the body of the document, where it is explained that the strategy was brought about “in light of the changing geopolitical environment and our changing fiscal circumstances.” At the same time, it is not specifically clear as to how these fiscal realities will be translated into the practice of foreign policy. While the document speaks of “building partnership capacity elsewhere in the world” and “sharing the costs and responsibilities of global leadership” it is hard to see these statements as being anything more than empty platitudes.

The theory of collective security as going hand in hand with isolationism or devolvement from global affairs has a long history and one which the U.S. has tried to ascribe to with only limited success. The international organizations which in theory will share the burden of providing security, along with the costs, are disproportionately funded by the United States. In 2012, for instance, the United States will provide 22% of the general funding for the budget of the United Nations. This is far and away the highest amount contributed by any nation. As of 2010, the U.S. provided between 22 and 25 percent for three main NATO funds: the civil budget, the military budget, and the security investment program.

Why then does the United States stay involved with the UN and NATO? The root lies both in the inability of the United States to easily forgo its historical obsession with the paradigmatic liberal endeavor of the UN and because the U.S. believes, rightly or wrongly, that it gains something from the UN. A perhaps more pessimistic reading is that the U.S. cannot help itself from just wanting to be in control. Another reason is the simple fact that the United States sees itself as a moral force for good in the world, and should, therefore, exercise its power justly. These reasons form the bulk of the argument in favor of an internationalist foreign policy. They also, however, will prove inadequate to sustain a robust and flourishing United States in the foreseeable future due to their accumulated costs. Even well intentioned internationalist policies, for instance, embarked upon out of purely altruistic motives, are both costly and have the potential to backfire and cause more security issues for the United States.

Whereas Parent and MacDonald look to collective security to help shoulder some of the burden of the more dangerous global environment that will invariably occur as a result of U.S. withdrawal, I see little hope for this occurring. The European and Western allies of the United States are struggling even more so than the U.S. with economic uncertainty, and are looking to decrease their security commitments, not increase them. Furthermore, international organizations have not proven good at either preventing direct threats to the United States such as Al-Qaeda terrorism.

When U.S. security is at stake it is not enough to depend on international institutions or the goodwill of other nations. The clear path forward, therefore, lies with a slow yet steady devolvement from international affairs while maintaining a strong military capable of protecting the United States at its borders. The military should also be able to protect U.S. citizens and interests abroad, although in a restricted sense that moves away from current norms. The benefits of an isolationist policy are clear: decreased costs and increased long-term security. Not only will the United States not have to pay for costly overseas bases and foreign aid that is of only dubious use to its own interests, but it will also, through a reduction in the blowback effects caused by interventions, mean that there are fewer groups and individuals motivated to attack it.

This lack of motivation will translate into increased security for U.S. interests both at home and abroad. Detractors will invariably argue that such a scenario is hopelessly idealistic and naïve. It is impossible to undo hundreds of years of interventionist foreign policy simply through removing outward signs of the policy. Furthermore, deep-seated hatreds and animosities directed against the United States will not in and of themselves be swept away with such a bureaucratic maneuver. Certainly, these criticisms are valid. Fundamentally realigning U.S. foreign policy towards an isolationist point of view will neither occur quickly nor without costs.

The U.S. must be willing to accept the potential for there to be an increased period of vulnerability while the policy transition is taking place. As the U.S. devolves itself from international affairs it will be seen as weakening, and both non-state and state actors might be inclined to strike. What is not inherently contained within an isolationist foreign policy, however, is the requirement that the military is weakened. The U.S. military and other security apparatuses still possess the power and strength to stand up against both state and non-state actors. Indeed with the savings brought about by an isolationist foreign policy, it may prove possible to slightly increase defense spending to counter increased instability. As well, the decreased area of jurisdiction and a focus on domestic homeland defense rather than outward expansion or aggression will allow the military to realign along a new axis of defense that through its decreased size will prove to be more easily implementable and easier to perfect. It will remain possible for the United States to survive any initial instability and emerge on the other side in a peaceful, more stable world.

Animosity directed against the United States due to past interventionist activities is not immortal. It rises and falls primarily according to generational differences as well as new interventions that resurrect past hatreds. Given generational shifts in thinking, and the limits of individual memory, it is likely that it will take at most 2-3 generations before past U.S. interventionist actions are either forgotten or have their relevance diminished to the point where they no longer fuel hatred. In many circumstances, animosity might diminish more quickly, as past interventions move out of immediate memory with the passing of a single generation. Ultimately it will be the nature and size of the initial intervention, coupled with the cultural emphasis placed on remembrance by the victims, which will determine how long this process takes.

Certainly, it will not be easy for the United States to give up many of the deep-seated justifications for interventionist policies. Most difficult to give up will be the closely held belief that the U.S. needs to meddle in international affairs in order to protect its hegemony. As demonstrated, physical U.S. hegemony may actually paradoxically contribute negatively to the security of the United States. At the same time, however, an isolationist foreign policy does not mean that the U.S. needs to cede moral hegemony or the notion of American exceptionalism. A drawdown of military forces overseas and the number of foreign entanglements does nothing to diminish the preeminent moral and ethical position that the United States believes it enjoys.

Rather, the only qualitative difference will be that that morality will not be as easily defined through the use of force. Whether or not the U.S. should be embarking on a campaign to retain moral hegemony may prove to be a controversial issue, but it is important to note that such a path remains open even in an isolationist foreign policy.

A new isolationist foreign policy will require a perceived diminishment of the United States in the international arena. This fact is inescapable. Due to the fact that such a drawdown of foreign commitments has as its end goal a more streamlined, focused, and powerful America, such a perception will ultimately prove false. Since the inception of American hegemony following the Second World War, and only intensifying since the collapse of the Soviet Union, other nations have been given a free pass to depend upon U.S. military might and good intentions to rescue them and their assets when a particular global hot spot flares up. In doing so the U.S. has footed the bill for international security, a bill which cannot be added to indefinitely, while other nations do nothing. Should the U.S. refuse to continue this practice of serving as the world’s “policeman” another country or countries will have to step forward. In doing so they will be signing their own relative death warrant.

Without the United States to ensure that its investments in areas such as Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa are protected, China, among other nations, will be required to increase its global presence and footprint. Since China lacks the moral hegemony of the U.S. these new commitments will have as their chief consequence the sapping of resources from other areas of Chinese national interest. Like the U.S., who has found mounting military costs and other assorted expenditures to prove ultimately too burdensome, China will buckle under the newly assumed costs, assuring once again U.S. supremacy.

A brief period of apparent Chinese “hegemony” will do wonders for U.S. relations worldwide, as it hastens the process of forgetting past U.S. interventions while simultaneously providing a profoundly negative example of what hegemony will look like. Any form of Chinese hegemony will inevitably prove more detrimental to other nations than U.S. hegemony due to the relative lack of clear moral purpose and the fact that domestically the Chinese government has proven itself willing to be authoritarian and ruthless in ways that the U.S. is not. Mapped onto the international community, states will find Chinese “hegemony” to be even more burdensome and oppressive, leading them to direct their animosity, and hatred, against China rather than the U.S.

Apparent Chinese “hegemony” is therefore not something that needs to be feared. It will ultimately prove as detrimental to China as an interventionist foreign policy has proven to the United States. As well, it will not prove a greater security threat to the United States. Devolving from foreign entanglements and interventions, as stated earlier, will allow for the U.S. military to refocus and reorganize in a way that will strengthen its ability to fight another potential hegemon, not weaken it. Isolationism will not mean a weakening of U.S. military might, which will remain strong enough to fight off any potential new challenges to homeland security.

What, then about American interests abroad? Won’t they become less safe in the meantime? Yes, the withdrawal of U.S. military power will increase the risks for U.S. businesses, assets, and citizens worldwide. Still, as local animosity becomes directed at other sources, this threat will diminish in the long term. Furthermore, increased risk abroad will inevitably drive American businesses and assets back home where they belong. This influx of capital and ingenuity will further help to stoke the U.S. economy and well-being at home, increasing the long-term stability and strength of the United States. This argument is contra to Parent and MacDonald, who see the federal government as inevitably structuring the economic recovery. They note “Washington should prioritize measures to more directly stimulate the U.S. economy and make it more competitive. How exactly to achieve that outcome will surely continue to be the subject of fierce debate. But that debate will be much more meaningful if it is conducted with the aim of investing a retrenchment dividend.”

The relative failure of current government policies to quickly solve the economic crisis and their contribution to increased short-term deficits and long-term debt is unacceptable. If the United States is to maintain a robust, stable economy for the far-reaching future it must come about as a result of private investment, not government intervention.

Should a strategy of domestic investment by returning American corporations and capital proves to be not enough, or inherent natural resources prove insufficient to fulfill the needs of American manufacturing and industry, then it may become necessary to embark upon a severely limited and localized expansion of U.S. power in its rightful sphere: the Western hemisphere. This traditional bastion of American influence since the Monroe Doctrine has been woefully ignored in the latter parts of the 20th century and opening flurries of the 21st century as U.S. vision remained centered on the Middle East. Latin and South America possess the resources and space in abundance that U.S. interests might require, in a more concentrated area that is closer to the homeland. The reason for the focus on the Middle East is painfully obvious: the U.S. obsession with cheap oil. Any form of American pull back from the Middle East will inevitably contribute to an increase in the cost of oil and petroleum products, which will cause immense pain and suffering for those industries and individuals in the U.S. that depend on fossil fuels for their livelihood.

Still, as a short-term remedy, the U.S. will only need to turn towards its own petroleum reserves, as well as those of Canada. As well, the quick shut off of foreign oil should provide the long needed final impetus for the U.S. to transition towards a non-petroleum based energy program. Given the new need for alternative energy sources, funding and research will flock towards alternative and “green” sources of energy that will quickly allow the U.S. to replace its petroleum-based structures. These new alternative sources of energy will also in the long term be more cost effective and cheaper than a continued dependence on foreign oil.

By now the long-term benefits of an isolationist foreign policy for the United States should be clear. Fiscally it will be cheaper and security-wise it will make the U.S. safer. It furthermore does not mean ceding moral hegemony or claims to American exceptionalism. It also does not in and of itself signal a decrease in the military capability of the United States. The biggest stumbling block, however, is whether or not the United States can accept potential short-term drawbacks in security and a short-term ceding of hegemonic status to another country. There also is a question of practicality that has not been fully addressed. Certainly, for instance, from a theoretical perspective, it should prove possible to retain moral hegemony while ceding military or physical hegemony.

Whether in practice moral hegemony can be upheld without an outward military or physical presence remains empirically in question. The same is true of the short-term increase in instability following a potential drawdown of American foreign bases and military installations. From an empirical standpoint, it is difficult to easily and accurately predict what level of instability will result, and what threats the U.S. may have to face. It is due to these uncertainties that the United States will most likely not embark upon an attempt to reshape their foreign policy and global vision into an isolationist one.

The question then becomes how long the current path remains sustainable, and at what point the opportunity to change to an isolationist policy becomes impossible. One can only hope that this tipping point has not already been reached unbeknownst to both the American foreign policy elite and the general public alike.

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