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Should the United States Return to a Policy of Isolationism?

Recent articles in US Policy journals and the mainstream press have been noticing a shift among Americans toward isolationist views. A Gallup poll conducted in February 2011 points out that a growing minority (barely a minority) of Americans want a decreased level of US involvement in foreign affairs. Weary of protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, citizens are wondering about value versus the cost in lives and dollars of these interventions. That seems reasonable to me; after all, the cost has been tremendous, and the resulting governments in both countries appear tenuous at best. Both are likely to require continued support from the coffers and political relationships of the United States for many years to come, if they are to survive.

When one views this as a scale, with interventionism at one end and isolationism at the other, where should US policy reside along that scale? This is an incredibly important question impacting not only US national security but also the day-to-day lives of every American. Endless intervention into the national affairs of every country with a crack-pot dictator would bankrupt even the United States. Ignoring some despotic regimes simply because they are too large to confront (China, for example) is disingenuous even if pragmatic. As a point of reference, I am including the Heritage Foundation’s 2011 ranking of countries in descending order by economic freedom. Notice that China’s ranking is # 135 (“Mostly Unfree”) as opposed to the United States ranking of #9 (“Mostly Free”). Looking at the list of “mostly unfree” nations, it is far less likely that the United States will directly intervene when it comes to repressive civil actions (like the events surrounding Tiananmen Square) in China than it will in similar circumstances in other “mostly unfree” nations such as Haiti (ranking #133). There are many other factors as well, of course, such as geographic proximity to the United States, governmental stability, and level of threat to US security if things went really bad (do they have nuclear weapons?). It’s a difficult balancing act, with countries forming formal and informal alliances and undertaking both overt and covert actions to influence others, to understand and respond appropriately to every significant change on the world stage.

Beyond intervention in any specific country’s internal activity, there is a need to monitor international exchanges to ensure that countries such as India and Pakistan – both of whom are nuclear powers – do not go to war, inadvertently lighting the fuse on a global powder keg. A third world war would not serve the best economic or security interests of the United States – no matter where it was initiated.

For those reasons, in spite of the cost of our current policy set, it is unlikely that the United States would adopt policies of radical isolationism. After the first World War, when the US backed out on the League of Nations, it didn’t take very long for the world to experience, in the most horrific way, the cost of US isolationism; The United States almost waited too long to avert the ultimate tragedy of world-wide Nazi domination. Nonetheless, policy papers and “what-if” scenarios are now beginning to appear.

Isolationism is commonly defined as a national policy of abstaining from political or economic relations with other countries, and should probably be understood as distinctive from non-interventionism, a foreign policy which holds that political rulers should avoid alliances with other nations (while maintaining diplomatic ties), and avoid wars unless they are required for direct territorial self-defense. While neither of these policy positions is appropriate, in my view, elements of both of them would likely benefit the strategic interests of the United States. Certainly, withdrawing some portions of the US annual spend on these efforts and redirecting them toward our domestic economy would be beneficial in the short term.

Depending on whose numbers you wish to believe, US Foreign Aid amounts to between $13 billion and $25 billion per year.

So let’s take a look at the kinds of policy changes that could come into play in a more isolationist / non-interventionist America:

  1. Technology: The purpose of this policy set is to establish a perpetual state of US dominance in technologies critical to US national security and economic strength.
    • The United States will maintain at least one generation of technical superiority in all weapons systems. Exporting state-of-the art weapons, avionics, surveillance technology becomes illegal.
    • Weapons, avionics, and surveillance equipment may be sold commercially as long as it is sufficiently inferior to current technology such that it poses no threat to US forces or national security interests.
  2. Economic Interests: The purpose of this policy set is to establish safeguards related to US employment and international trade.
    • The United States will no longer allow US based manufacturers to manufacture goods outside the United States that are then imported to the United States for consumer purchase. Any product with less than 50% manufactured content value is banned from import.
    • Any company that chooses to move its headquarters of record away from US soil will immediately become subject to all tariffs and other import and trade restrictions that other foreign companies are subjected to when their products are sold in the United States. This includes the “50% US Content” rule.
    • The US Government will no longer provide foreign aid, though US citizens and NGOs are free to provide charitable contributions and Aid as they wish. Possible exceptions to this rule involve humanitarian aid to major natural disasters such as Tsunamis, earthquakes, and similar catastrophic events.
  3. Immigration: The purpose of this policy set is to establish guidelines related to immigration and naturalization, protecting the demographic and geographic sovereignty of the United States.
    • We will allow a maximum of 250,000 immigrants to relocate to the United States per year. Undocumented aliens living in the United States, when they have been identified by ICE, will be fined and placed on probation. That probation will last for 6 months, during which time they must pass proficiency tests in the (American) English language, and demonstrate that they have visible means of financial support or independence. Otherwise, at the end of 6 months they will be detained and returned to their country of origin. If they flee the city in which they reside during their probation, a warrant will be issued for their arrest and they will be deported to their country of origin.
    • The Border Patrol will be expanded by 400% in terms of manpower, and perimeter fences will be extended across the southern border of the United States between all US/Mexico territories.
    • The United States will not interfere or intervene in any way with the internal governance of any foreign nation. However, the United States will expect that its citizens are treated humanely and fairly while abroad, and will take whatever actions are require to protect them when they are traveling for legitimate purposes abroad.
    • Commercial businesses and Government offices within US borders will no longer utilize signage, instructions, help desk information, or any other public communications in languages other than American English language. This includes voting booths and ATMs.
  4. International Relationships: The purpose of this policy set is to establish a clear understanding of the conditions required for US protection of allies, and engagement of military forces outside of our own borders.
    • Foreign countries will receive US protection only if it is deemed by the US Government to be in the immediate best interest of the United States. Immediate best interests shall be restricted in this context to situations where failing to deploy US assets is deemed by the US Government to represent a clear and present danger to US national security or the security of US interests abroad.
    • The United States will not interfere or intervene in any way with the internal governance of any foreign nation. Sovereign countries will not experience US interference in their affairs, as long as they do not undertake any hostile actions. (Hostile actions in this context would include the development and deployment of weapons and systems designed to inflict harm on the United States or its interests abroad, and the amassing of domestic or foreign troops in a manner that represents a threat to the United States or its interests abroad.)
    • The US will not tolerate any attacks on the United States, her diplomatic properties, her personnel, or her sovereign interests abroad or at home.
    • The US will not be constrained by approvals from any international or foreign body such as NATO or the UN before acting in what it considers to be its own best interests.
    • The United States will guarantee the integrity of US borders with its adjacent neighboring countries; so as to assure that illegal border crossings do not originate from US soil.
    • Military bases on foreign soil will be maintained only where they are considered by the US Government to be strategically important. It is expected that most existing military foreign bases will be closed within one calendar year of the issuance of this policy.

How would these various policy changes impact the United States?

Policy Area Pros Cons
Technology Strengthened National Security Reduction in A&D Jobs, Income
Economic Increase in US Manufacturing Jobs 

Reduced Federal Spending (Foreign Aid)

Less Favorable Perception Among World Trading Partners 

Risk of Some Companies Relocating Outside the US

Immigration Reduced Costs Associated with Illegal Immigration 

More Unskilled, Low Skill Jobs Available to US Workers

Strengthened Border Security

Less Favorable Perception by Mexico 

Higher Cost of Border Patrol

International Relations Reduced Military Spending Less Favored Status Among Current Allies 

Risk of Growth in Non-Democratic Governments

The changes proposed in Technology, namely cutting off sales of leading edge weapons, surveillance, and avionics technologies to non-US governments would improve the US edge over countries who are currently our allies, and because of sheer leakage between those countries and non-allied countries, also help to prevent reverse-engineering of US technologies in these areas by competitors such as China. Since much of the technology among our major competitors is currently copied from or reverse-engineered from US systems, that is important. But our major competitors (China, Russia, and many other industrialized nations) have development programs of their own, and in some cases parallel or even surpass US technologies and technological capabilities. There are policies and agencies in place to prevent technological leakage today (ITAR comes to mind), so one might argue that the overall impact here would not be significant. I do not agree with that assessment, but the truth is that outside of classified intelligence estimates, no one really knows. And as we have seen over the last decade, classified intelligence estimates are not always reliable guides for making strategic decisions. From my perspective, the adoption of this policy set is an extremely close call.

The changes proposed in the Economic area primarily target the eroding US employment market, and specifically focus on tangible value adding jobs in the manufacturing sector. Displaced US manufacturing workers, when they are able to find another job, lose an average of $20,000 to $30,000 a year in income, and often they never recover to previous levels. In addition, manufacturing and related design skills leave US soil in many cases within a few years of the transfer of the actual work, never to return. This policy set, or a similar one, is extremely important in my view. The middle class of the United States is at serious economic risk, with the gap between a few “haves” and a growing majority of “have-nots” growing every day. These changes won’t completely fix that problem, but it will go a long way toward protecting US citizens from the “leveling of the playing field” that requires them to compete with employees earning $2.50 an hour in other countries. Between 1995 and 2005, America lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs. Even if we assume that all of those workers found another job (which of course is not true), this amounts to a loss in average annual income for middle class Americans of $90 billion. That is middle class American earnings that simply transferred to another country, and will likely remain there forever.

The policy set proposed around Immigration is designed to shut off the inflow of illegal aliens (primarily from Mexico), integrate those who are committed to remain here, expel those who are unwilling to integrate into American society, and expunge the trend toward a proliferation of languages in the United States that tends to break down our shared culture and national cohesion. Personally, I think this is a set of changes that should have occurred at least 30 years ago. The impact of these changes will include making the Mexican Government less friendly toward the United States, and just about everything else is upside. More jobs for fewer people (though most of them are unskilled or semi-skilled), less cost associated with maintaining the infrastructural requirements for people some who are not paying into it by virtue of taxes, and so on. The cost of illegal immigration is estimated to be $113 billion per year. The elimination of those costs would be a very nice shot in the arm for the US economy.

The policy set related to International Relationships is perhaps the one with farthest reaching impact among the world community. By my personal estimates, these changes would net a savings to the United States of at least $250 billion per year. They would place far more of the burden of security on other countries, of course, and increase the risk that they would be overthrown by other US competitors such as Russia who have demonstrated the propensity for military aggression in the past. This is a risky move, and would need to be implemented carefully. Reviewing the strategic implications of such a move would likely cause the United States to abandon this position as untenable.

In summary, I strongly support the implementation of policy sets 2 and 3 (Economic and Immigration related policy revisions). I am on the fence about policy set 1 (Technology), and probably would not favor the adoption of policy set 4 (International Relations).

What do you think?

3 Responses to “Should the United States Return to a Policy of Isolationism?”

  1. Mariah says:

    This is a really good resource for government papers on isolationism.

  2. Robert Wick says:

    I agree entirely with this author.

  3. Monty says:

    I like how thorough and logical the articles in this article are, and the only qualm I have with this article is Theory 3, with the Immigration focus of isolationism. I fear that it would encourage the transition into a more authoritarian state, with too much focus on a ‘preferred’ American citizen, with no embrace for diversity.

    While there are absolutely immigrants that do not respect or value their citizenship as an American citizen, I believe that those citizens are centralized to certain locations in the nation and are not as widespread of a problem as this theory perceives them to be. Diversity and an embrace of ethnic heritage are not detrimental to the United States.

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