What they mean by “neo-isolationist”

nicer version of US-centric map of the worldWith support from Robert Golan-Vilella, Daniel Larison returns to a familiar theme, ridiculing Victor Davis Hanson for pushing the idea that President Obama is a “neo-isolationist.” As Larison notes, and has noted many times, applying the label “isolationist” to a mainstream liberal internationalist and multi-lateralist like Obama, or even to much stronger critics of the “Washington Consensus” like Andrew Bacevich, Ron or Rand Paul, or Larison himself, seems somewhat absurd, or at minimum a poor use of language. What Hanson really means when he refers to a “Diffidence Doctrine,” but is constrained by traditional American political practice from saying, is that Obama seems unwilling to assert an American imperial interest.

A coherent argument for this interest, and for related actual divisions between nominally left and right internationalisms, remains generally unarticulated. For a moment around the turn of the century, it almost became acceptable to speak of the American empire positively or at worst impartially, as in the writings of pundits like Fouad Ajami and Robert Kagan, but further development of that discourse was stalled by gross political-military miscalculations. Neoconservatives and fellow travelers have been forced to retrench, to explain all over again why an American imperial policy is in a narrowly defined American national interest, against a current conventional wisdom decisively against any such belief or claim. The ideology still operates in almost pure form in Republican Party foreign policy circles, however, if under misleading labels, awaiting a cyclical or conjunctural shift in popular opinion, presumably to be brought on by the rise of some intolerable foreign threat or the occurrence of some major setback generally perceived as such. In the meantime the charge that is really being laid against Obama and the contemporary mainstream Democratic Party, and the argument that the right internationalists hope and expect someday to be able to exploit again, is that Democrats like Obama are too passive in defense of the empire, and insufficiently interested in expanding it. The Democratic alternative is not, however, clearly anti-imperialist in its intentions, though it does at least allow for an anti- or non-imperial potential. The Obama-Clinton Democrats stand for a first-among-equals internationalism that, much to the frustration of American Conservative conservatives, leftists, and others, aims to maintain the imperial or neo-imperial political-economic architecture indefinitely, and even to elaborate it by other means or along less centralized lines. This more defensive, more temperamentally conservative stance holds open at least the possibility of a gradual or eventual dissolution of American hegemony.

The Republican neo-imperialists believe that the empire needs to be more aggressively defended and wherever possible expanded. The Democratic neo-imperialists believe that the empire needs mainly to be secured, or, if expanded, expanded via collaboration or cooperation more or less exclusively. The citizenry appears somewhat agnostic or passive on the main questions, except when unsettled by events suggestive of a possible un-managed and abrupt rollback that would also entail a downward adjustment in consumption and other disruptions of accustomed expectations – a possibility or set of possibilities that few outside the neo-imperial mainstream seem equipped to analyze concretely. The tendency for the moment – awaiting the next crisis worthy of the name – remains in favor of the “stationary state” in its globalized form, accompanied by a public discussion of high volume and intricacy, but of little noticeable or perhaps even conceivable significance.

5 comments on “What they mean by “neo-isolationist”

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  1. There is certainly a ‘more come home America’ ala McGovern, but that is not classic isolationism, even
    in the pre Atlantic engagement we were involved with Latin America, often commercial enterprises that collapsed into interventions, we generally gave Volodya a ‘blank check’ when it came to his sphere of influence, until his remarkable Czar Paul impression in 2008, that’s why I didn’t understand the reason behind the reset, he didn’t really help us out anywhere in the crescent from Syria to Iran,

    • Didn’t the Russkis refrain from ever completing delivery and installation of the advanced Iranian air defense system? And help keep re-supply to Afghanistan untroubled? I seem to recall these and possibly some other quids for our quos, and who knows what else may be going on below the public radar. Some say that at this precise moment relations may have somewhat deteriorated again, possibly an effect of disagreement over Syria, although to be frank I haven’t been following the subject much. I did notice some item about a renewed joint U.S.-Soviet-UN Syria initiative.

  2. If their claim is that Obama’s imperialism isn’t belligerent enough, I shudder to think the body count they would find acceptable…

    The citizenry appears somewhat agnostic or passive on the main questions, except when unsettled by events suggestive of a possible un-managed and abrupt rollback that would also entail a downward adjustment in consumption and other disruptions of accustomed expectations

    If U.S. global dominance is truly so important to domestic consumption, then that’s basically to call the current arrangement between us and the rest of the world parasitic. Co-signing blindly, especially something so key to current understanding of the U.S., seems to me yet another undermining of the alleged importance of “the people”: at least if everything were laid out and it was agreed to knowingly, warts and all, it could be said that this way is what was chosen, what we are actually responsible for. If we’re to be held responsible by the rest of the world anyway, why obscure it?

    • I may if I can find the time put together a longer reply in the form of a post, but, anyway, when we discuss neo-imperialism we should be clear that it has its own unique forms and assumptions.

      We prefer to “dominate” indirectly, and to profit from secured economic relations that many or most of our allies seem to find beneficial as well, compared to the alternatives. Without delving into the nature of consent on that level, we can suggest that the set-up wouldn’t be as stable as it is has been if its was a one-way parasitic or merely larcenous or exploitative relationship. By the same token, what would possibly be most disturbing to domestic consumers would be the disruption of international trade and the international resource and supply chain, which might mean a depression over here, or even a permanent lowering of the American standard of living amidst other alterations in American national life, but in many places in the world would be cataclysmic, even before a return of international-regional military “competition.”

      As for the engagement and general comprehension of the citizenry, the Free World secured by American arms and a willingess to use them was and to a large extent remains a major success story on balance, materially and otherwise, and not just for Americans alone by any means. There hasn’t been much felt need to re-visit the underlying consensus over and over again, though that also seems to have led to a decline in comprehension and engagement since the period when the foundations were laid and the general architecture was put in place, or since the long period during which there was a major global-imperial competitor to cope with.

  3. Tamerlan’s favorite prof, Brian D. Williams, was one of the leading experts on drone warfare, so ironically the tool used to keep the various engagements out of the news, which occasionally do affect a group like the IMU, had an opposite effect.

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