Posted on August 27, 2001
How national interests became taboo
Are you now, or have you ever been, an isolationist?
That would be a very uncomfortable question for one of today's politicians, especially considering that: (a) "yes" is an unacceptable answer; and (b) the correct answer is always "yes."
These days, isolationism is almost universally condemned as a political philosophy. The problem is that it really isn't one. Isolationism is the withdrawal from, or rejection of, international treaties, conflicts and commitments. Only somebody who would embrace every proposed treaty, every trade agreement and every military alliance would be immune to accusations of isolationism. Even in the world of politics, such baldly unprincipled behavior is unheard of.
As far as any practical application is concerned, the word "isolationist" means virtually nothing. Nevertheless, it has become one of the most effective epithets used in political discourse.
The term was coined as a part of America's political lexicon during the late thirties and early forties, when legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh led the "America First" movement against U.S. involvement in the Second World War.
As late as April of 1941, Lindbergh argued that the British air force was incapable of defeating Germany in a major battle. The English victory in the Battle of Britain, six months earlier, is apparently what he was referring to when he added, "...despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months." He also said that the United States could not win a war overseas, and should only be willing to fight the Axis powers if they invaded America. Incredibly, he asserted that England should have persisted in negotiating a peace settlement with Hitler, despite the fact that Neville Chamberlain had already tried that approach, and it had been an unmitigated failure.
Lindbergh, who had accepted the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Herman Goering in 1938, charged that the United States was being prodded toward war with Germany by American Jews, whom he complained were in control of the press, the film industry, and much of the U.S. government. The former hero's acceptance of the Nazi award was the object of much hostility at home in America. So was his activism in the eugenics movement.
While Lindbergh embraced the term "isolationism," it was then used specifically in the context of the Second World War, as the "America First" isolationists debated the interventionists, who wanted the U.S. to enter the war much sooner than it did. Many of the dynamics of that conflict are not present in other situations to which the same terminology is applied, but that doesn't stop people from using the I-word to smear opponents with the assumption that they are just as woefully wrong as Lindbergh had been. The veiled suggestion of anti-Semitism doesn't hurt, either.
President Bush clumsily flung accusations of isolationism at Democrats recently, over their plan to impose safety standards on trucks entering the United States from Mexico, in apparent conflict with NAFTA. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called the proposal isolationist and anti-Mexican.
Based on principle alone, Republicans should refrain from emulating the Democrats' tactics of demagoguing and making baseless accusations of bigotry. But there's another, perhaps equally good reason they shouldn't do those things, which is that they're really, really bad at it. It's perfectly obvious that the reason that the Democrats would propose such a law is that they've spotted an activity which is out of their regulatory grasp, and they can't bear to watch it escape them. Bringing an accusation of racism into the argument is as ineffective as it is unnecessary and unfair.
This ill-planned Bush offensive was a feeble tit-for-tat response to a series of charges of isolationism he's received over his rejection of various international treaties. It's more than a little curious to hear such an accusation from the Democrats, who declared in 1992 that foreign policy was not important, and that America needed to turn inward. But then, much of the strategy of using political catch words is to elicit a visceral response, and in so doing, to discourage analysis.
Just as the president was departing for last month's G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D, S.D.) criticized what he calls Bush's "dictatorial approach" to foreign policy. Daschle opened a can of claptrap so banal and so phony that it could easily be mistaken for an excerpt from one of Mrs. Clinton's books, when he said, "[I]n so isolating ourselves, I think we are minimizing ourselves."
Mind you, when Bush's father was president, Sen. Daschle voted against the declaration of war against Iraq. That may not be the same as Lindbergh's isolationism during World War II, but it's certainly a better comparison to it than Bush's refusal to sign an agreement on global warming.
Contrary to Daschle's vapid statement, it is not necessarily "isolationism" which will minimize us. Often, the things which threaten to minimize us are international agreements aimed at reducing our standard of living, and/or our military capability, in relation to the rest of the world. Consider the following issues and treaties toward which President Bush has supposedly adopted an "isolationist" approach:
*The Kyoto Protocol -- Of all the nations which would have to abide by its "greenhouse gas" emissions standards, the only one that has actually ratified it is Romania. Practically nobody who is criticizing President Bush for rejecting Kyoto is himself in favor of ratification. When it was put before the U.S. Senate during the Clinton administration, it was rejected by a count of 95-0. Not one Democrat senator voted in favor of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. If Bush's position is "isolationist," then it appears that the whole world is becoming isolated together.
We're now told that a revised version of Kyoto was "agreed to" in Bonn, Germany on July 25, but what does that mean? The word of the U.N. delegates who voted on the compromise measure is no more meaningful than the signatures on the original accord. The Bonn agreement, like its predecessor, has been ratified by nobody of consequence. Yet news accounts criticize Bush as the "lone holdout," while 178 other nations have "supported" or "backed" the measure.
Even if Bush had been the only one standing in opposition, he would have been right. Under Kyoto, the U.S. would have to reduce "greenhouse gas" emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels. An economic analysis by the Wharton Economic Forecasting Associates estimates that compliance would double household electricity bills, and increase gasoline prices by about 65 cents per gallon.
*Strategic missile defense -- Bush is criticized for "breaking" the 1972 ABM Treaty, which actually expired as soon as the Soviet Union dissolved. Other nations have condemned Bush's missile defense plan, saying that, although they had not, technically, "signed" the treaty, they've decided to abide by it, and have considered it a blueprint for nuclear arms control worldwide. Of course, the United States is the only nation which considers itself capable of building a nuclear defense shield, so exactly what it is that the rest of the world has agreed to remains a mystery.
For an isolationist, Bush has done a remarkable job winning other world leaders over to his side. Among those former critics now accepting his plan are British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladmir Putin.
*Land mine ban -- It's Bush's position, just as it was Clinton's, that the United States cannot agree to destroy all land mines, because such an agreement would leave one of our allies, South Korea, more vulnerable to attack.
Land mines, like guns, do not have a positive or negative moral value by themselves. What does have such value is the use to which they're put. There's a world of moral difference between land mines used in an act of terrorism, and those used to thwart an enemy attack. To implement a ban without differentiating between those situations would be simplistic and irresponsible.
Besides, the American mines planted along Korea's 38th parallel are part of a defense effort that began in the Fifties, as a United Nations "police action." Wouldn't withdrawing support from that action, thereby leaving a longtime ally in greater danger, really be the isolationist thing to do?
*Biological Weapons Convention -- Originally drafted as a purely symbolic gesture in 1972, it was left intentionally vague, with no mechanism for enforcement. President Bush has rejected proposed enforcement procedures, on the grounds that U.N. inspections in the U.S. would violate citizens' Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and in particular that private-sector biotech industrial secrets would be compromised. He also contends that the compliance of other nations would not be verifiable. Moreover, any threatened penalty for noncompliance would be a weak deterrent, if the U.N. inspections of Iraq are any sort of precedent.
*Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- This pact, also criticized as unverifiable, was voted down by the U.S. Senate for that very reason in 1999. Even if India, Pakistan and North Korea had signed the treaty, which they haven't, and even if Russia, China and Iran had ratified it, which they haven't, they could easily defy it by conducting their nuclear tests underground, as is commonplace anyway.
*Small arms control -- The United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) makes frequent references to "illicit" weapons and "illegal" manufacture and trade of weapons, but this does not indicate a deference to the gun laws of each of the U.N.'s member states. Instead, what these terms refer to are as yet unspecified global "laws" that are meant to supplant our own. The conference instructs nations to "put in place, where they do not exist, adequate laws, regulations and administrative procedures to exercise effective control over the production of SALW within their areas of jurisdiction, and over the export, import, transit or retransfer of such weapons."
For the U.S. Congress to allow the U.N. to determine which laws are "adequate" would be an abrogation of its legislative responsibilities. There can be no doubt, furthermore, that any body of gun laws the U.N. would call "adequate" would amount to an evisceration of the Second Amendment.
*The United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCARRDXRI) -- Sort of like a collegiate "diversity" seminar on a grand scale, this conference seeks to stamp out unnice thoughts worldwide.
To nobody's surprise, the WCARRDXRI is in part an attempt at global wealth redistribution, under the guise of reparations for the "transatlantic slave trade." The idea of reparations within America is riddled enough with injustices and logistical tangles, but its senselessness is compounded when projected to an international setting.
Not only is there nobody alive in America who ever owned slaves, but even if we were to make the dubious decision that individuals should be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors, then why should African descendants of slave traders be given money by Americans, twelve to sixteen percent of whom are descendants of the slaves who were sold? In the transatlantic slave trade, the victims were the ones who were brought to our side of the Atlantic, not those who remained in Africa.
Keep in mind, also, that these payments would be made not to individuals, but to governments, which didn't even exist until long after the importation of slaves into America was prohibited by Declaration of Independence. This wouldn't faze the redistributionists at the U.N., though, because their proposal actually has nothing to do with slavery; it has to do with the fact that the U.S. is a wealthy nation, and African countries are not. The U.N. sees a causal connection between those two situations, and seeks to correct it.
Many American liberals argue that only whites can be racists. The WCARRDXRI likewise presumes that only certain parties can be guilty of "xenophobia" or "related intolerance." Islamic nations have fought to have language included in the U.N. declaration that equates Zionism with racism. So Israel is capable of "intolerance" toward the Arab states, but as far as this conference is concerned, the reverse cannot be true.
President Bush has made the "isolationist" decision not to attend the WCARRDXRI, or even to send Secretary of State Colin Powell as a representative. In doing so, he has effectively thwarted this inane exercise in anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and extreme idiocy.
*International criminal court -- The ultimate anti-isolationist policy, this treaty would subordinate the U.S. Constitution to a global authority.
As is the case with all U.N. documents, the outline for this court uses open-ended terminology, the possible applications of which are nearly limitless. Article 6(b) tries to define "Genocide by causing bodily or mental harm," which "may include, but is not necessarily restricted to, acts of torture, rape, sexual violence or inhuman or degrading treatment." "Mental harm" caused by "degrading treatment" cannot result in genocide. The fact that the U.N. is calling something "genocide" which might be no more serious than hurting someone's feelings is itself reason enough for abstention.
The hazily defined term "mental suffering" arises again in Article 7(1)(f), which defines the "Crime against humanity of torture." The infliction of "mental pain and suffering" can imaginably include any police questioning of any suspect. In fact, since the existence of "suffering" can only truly be known to the alleged victim, all one needs to do is perceive "torture" in order to make it exist.
The plan for an international criminal court was ostensibly conceived in order to combat genocide, but the language of the draft would involve the United Nations in nearly all aspects of American law, from sexual harassment to the administration of the death penalty.
It cannot seriously be argued that the president's positions on these issues have the effect of "minimizing" the United States. Clearly, he's taken each of these stands in defense of our national interests. That's his job, regardless of how many or how few foreign leaders agree with him.
The use of the term "isolationism" as shorthand for protecting national interests may be aided by Lindbergh's "America First" rhetoric, but it was doubt about Lindbergh's own loyalty over which he and his movement were famously discredited. The "America First" doctrine was actually defeatist in nature, in contrast to the belief in American superiority that underlies each of Bush's decisions on these international issues.
When proponents of these global accords complain that Bush is an "isolationist," they might be trying to evoke images of bigotry and disloyalty, but what they're really doing is criticizing decisiveness. They grouse that the president has been "unilaterally" exercising his "go-it-alone" foreign policy.
So what's the matter with that? When U.S. presidents make decisions involving national defense, economic policy, and endangered constitutional protections, should they really bother seeking the approval of, say, Spain? American voters aren't likely to think so.
Anytime specifics are discussed, government by global consensus quickly becomes a losing argument to make. But then, who needs arguments, when a mindless one-word zinger will do?
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