US ‘Isolationism’ Exaggerated, And Unlikely To Last

There is a perception that the US has pursued an ‘isolationist’ foreign policy in recent years, especially since Barack Obama became president. Proponents of this ‘isolationist’ perception cite Washington’s relatively low-key role in the NATO war on Libya, its reluctance to intervene in Syria, and its inability to deter Russian intervention in Ukraine as evidence that the US is less engaged in global affairs.

We believe that accusations of US ‘isolationism’ are greatly exaggerated.

Firstly, the US is heavily engaged with all regions of the world, and it is still the only Great Power with a truly global military presence. No other nation comes close. Apart from the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US is not visibly reducing its overseas troop deployments.

Secondly, the US’s reluctance to intervene in Syria is perfectly understandable after the difficulties and casualties experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq. A lack of desire to intervene in conflicts such as Syria’s is hardly isolationism, but rather a pragmatic decision based on the fact that none of the plausible outcomes are beneficial for the US.

Thirdly, there is not much that the US can do to assist the Ukrainian government in the face of Russian intervention. Not even traditional national security hawks in the US are advocating military action in Ukraine. Meanwhile, if the US adopted excessively punitive sanctions, it would risk causing a rift with its European allies. Those who accuse Washington of weakness against Moscow’s assertiveness should recall that the George W Bush administration – arguably the toughest in foreign policy terms for more than 20 years – adopted an even more muted response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Fourthly, the Obama administration is currently pursuing two bold gambits, which, if successful, could transform the geopolitics of Asia and the Middle East. The first is Obama’s engagement of Myanmar, which could create a useful new ally of the US and major emerging market in South East Asia at a time when China is asserting its influence. The second is Obama’s ‘outreach’ to Iran, which is considerably riskier, but offers much greater rewards. 

Nevertheless, there will be some who will continue to argue that the US is being ‘isolationist’. Even if that were true, we do not believe that this would be a lasting phenomenon. After the US defeat in Vietnam in 1975, America saw a number of geopolitical setbacks in South West Asia and Africa, but within a few years, Ronald Reagan had been elected president, and adopted a far more aggressive strategic posture. It is true that the US did not wage any wars for 18 years between 1973 and 1991, but America was certainly willing to defend Western Europe from potential Soviet aggression during the final years of the Cold War.

For the next few years, the US will probably be reluctant to go to war, given the weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the US will eventually recover its willingness to use military force, including ground troops, when its interests are threatened.

This Week’s Trivia Question

A fortnight ago, we asked the following trivia question: what long-forgotten objects are intended to be excavated from a burial site in New Mexico, USA, towards the end of April, having been interred there for more than three decades? The answer is a large number of E.T. Atari video game cartridges, which failed to sell due to the game’s flop.

This week’s trivia question has the theme of anniversaries and is as follows: What major European political event, which would have a substantial impact on Africa, took place 40 years ago today? And what powerful organisation, which is also one of the largest employers in the world, and headed by a man aged approximately 30 years, marks its 82nd anniversary today?