America has gone back to isolationism, many commentators are saying. Not just the dovish Democrats, but also Republicans who were so hawkish a decade ago are turning away from the world.
There is something to this, but it’s more complicated than that. To understand where we are, it’s helpful to put today’s developments in historic perspective.
One picture of American history has it that this country left the rest of the world alone through most of its history, was pulled into world politics by World War II and the Cold War and is now just reverting to its norm.
The problem with this picture is that it leaves a lot of things out. George Washington kept Americans out of a world war between Britain and France, wisely because the early republic was split down the middle on which side to back.
But a few years later, Thomas Jefferson was quite willing to send the U.S. Navy and Marines to quell the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. He recognized that we were a maritime and trading nation and had an interest in keeping the sea lanes open for trade.
America has sent missionaries as well as merchants around the world for two centuries. The nation has projected power and acquired territory in the Pacific as well as the Caribbean.
It has participated in international organizations since it ratified The Hague Conventions that set out principles of international law in 1899.
So the proposition that America long isolated itself from the world is laced with exceptions.
The term “isolationist” became common in the years after World War I. It was applied, erroneously, to senators who opposed the Versailles Treaty because it committed the U.S. to go to war without a vote in Congress.
But the heyday of isolationism was not the 1920s, when Republican presidents were heavily involved in European negotiations. It was in the middle 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt torpedoed the London economic conference and signed a Neutrality Act. He changed course around 1938, when he decided that Hitler was a menace America could not live with.
Since the Founders, Americans have had different approaches to foreign policy -- four different approaches named after four statesmen, as Walter Russell Mead explains in his book, “Special Providence,” and on his American Interest blog. They are isolationist to varying degrees, depending on circumstances.
One approach is Hamiltonian, making the world safe for American commerce through global alliances and military power. Another is Wilsonian, relying more on international law and human rights.
George W. Bush started off as a Hamiltonian and after 9/11 added Wilsonian emphases. Military power would be used to serve universal aspirations for freedom.
Iraq and Afghanistan have made these two mostly non-isolationist approaches unattractive to most Americans and most Republicans.
A third approach is Jeffersonian, seeking to avoid war to keep a virtuous America safe from the wiles of the world. Rand Paul takes a Jeffersonian approach, combined with opposition to big government at home.
Until Paul became prominent, most Jeffersonians were leftish Democrats, ever seeking to prevent another Vietnam. They like big government at home, but they join Paul in suspicions about National Security Agency surveillance and air attacks in Syria.
The fourth approach is Jacksonian, named after the victor in the Battle of New Orleans. Jacksonians respond fiercely and with utter determination to attacks on America. Most numerous in the South, they have supplied a large share of America's soldiers -- including to both sides in the Civil War.
In war, Jacksonians insist on the “absolute victory” Roosevelt promised in his Pearl Harbor speech. They are not interested in military involvement in areas where America doesn’t seem threatened or in “incredibly small” attacks.
All these groups have been dismayed with how American forces have been targeted and attacked by those we have sought to help in the Middle East, except the Jeffersonians, who expected nothing better.
On Syria, President Obama seems out of line with all four. Jeffersonians oppose attacks on a country which hasn't attacked us. Wilsonians oppose attacks without international authorization.
Hamiltonians resent Obama’s willingness to accept sequester-driven cuts in defense spending. Jacksonians see Obama as a leader eager to talk to America’s enemies and reluctant even to utter the word “victory” — their only goal in any conflict.
A successful foreign policy gathers the support of all four tendencies, or at least three. Obama on Syria is something like the opposite.