G.O.P. Vs. World
By DAVID GREENBERG
Published: June 29, 2011
AFTER Barack Obama announced new troop withdrawals from Afghanistan last week, it was no surprise to hear rebukes from the mushrooming field of Republican presidential candidates. The surprise came in what they said: although some predictably implied that he was looking to cut and run, several others declared the move too little, too late.
That break from the usual Republican hawkishness has also been on view in the House, where Republican leaders have faulted the president for using force in Libya without Congressional authorization, especially now that he has run afoul of the War Powers Act. And balanced-budget mania has enabled talk of scaling back defense spending of a sort that Republicans would once have never dared broach.
Suddenly, after the aggressive, militaristic foreign policy of the Bush years, isolationism — a stance that rejects America’s leadership role in the world — is on the rise among Republicans. But if this comes as an abrupt break, it is also a return to form: the impulse to retreat from the world stage has a long and hardy pedigree within Republican ranks. And while a dose of caution among conservatives can be refreshing, a Tea Party-led reversion to a dogmatic America First stance could damage both the party and the country.
Modern Republican isolationism began with the 1919 battle over joining the League of Nations, when Senate Republicans, led by so-called Irreconcilables like William Borah of Idaho, killed the deal — even though without American guidance, European affairs were doomed to explode again. A pattern emerged, as liberal Democrats, along with Northeastern Republicans, wanted America to actively manage world affairs, while the Republicans’ powerful Midwestern and Western factions viewed cooperative international ventures as dangerously entangling alliances.
The isolationists had complex motives: Congressional vigilance against presidential encroachments on their constitutional powers; a small-town obsession with balanced budgets; and conspiratorial suspicions of foreigners, financiers and — in the case of anti-Semites like Charles A. Lindbergh — Jews. Naturally, isolationism thrived among Congressional Republicans when a Democrat held the White House — as it does again today — but it continued through the Coolidge and Hoover years, too.
Later, Republicans resisted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to gird the nation for war, passing legislation that limited rearmament and support for European allies. Only the bombing of Pearl Harbor banished the isolationists to the margins.
Some thought World War II, which proved the need for American leadership, would kill off isolationism. Yet with Harry S. Truman as president and the Republicans running Congress after 1946, members of the party’s Midwestern faction — led by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio — vainly fought efforts to promote collective security, including NATO and the Marshall Plan.
Right-wing isolationism seemed to die again after 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower, an internationalist, vanquished Taft in an epic battle for the presidential nomination. As vigorous a cold warrior as Truman, Eisenhower articulated a staunch anti-Communism behind which most of his party could unite.
Yet the G.O.P.’s isolationist strain, though submerged, remained alive. Shattering the cold war consensus, the Vietnam War not only spawned a new “Come Home, America” sentiment on the left but also brought out the old-fashioned isolationism of Midwestern reactionaries like the activist Phyllis Schlafly and the radio host Paul Harvey. In a 1976 vice presidential debate, Senator Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, seethed over the century’s four “Democrat wars.”
A string of internationalist G.O.P. presidents, from Richard M. Nixon to the first George Bush, helped recast the Republicans on foreign policy, but isolationism emerged once more in the 1990s. Several events — the fall of the Soviet Union, the perception that Mr. Bush’s foreign affairs focus blinded him to economic suffering at home — led Republican congressmen to oppose President Bill Clinton’s myriad global initiatives, from the Balkan campaigns to United Nations financing to arms control treaties.
Given the Republican chest-thumping after 9/11, it was easy to assume that the party had finally and completely jettisoned its isolationist tendencies. But a decade later, with fear of Islamist terrorism subsiding, they are again in evidence, at a moment when the world needs America to play a stabilizing role. And this time, the G.O.P.’s old Eastern wing, which used to provide internationalist ballast, is almost nonexistent.
A healthy democracy needs critics, particularly when it engages in risky overseas adventures. But the doctrinaire call to drastically scale back our global leadership role has usually led us into error, making the world a more chaotic and dangerous place. Following the path of isolationism today won’t serve America well. Nor will it help the Republicans.
David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers, is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.