American isolationism is an ambiguous concept. The United States has never been isolationist with regard to commerce. Our merchant vessels roamed the seven seas from the first days of independence. Nor has the United States been isolationist with regard to culture. Our writers, artists, scholars, missionaries, and tourists have ever wandered eagerly about the planet. But through most of its history, the republic has been isolationist with regard to foreign policy. From the start, Americans sought to safeguard their daring new adventure in government by shunning foreign entanglements and quarrels. George Washington admonished his countrymen to "steer clear of permanent alliances," and Thomas Jefferson warned them against "entangling alliances."

Only a direct threat to national security could justify entry into foreign wars. The military domination of Europe by a single power has always been considered such a threat. "It cannot be to our interest," Jefferson observed when Napoleon bestrode the continent, "that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy." America would be forever in danger, he said, should "the whole force of Europe [be] wielded by a single hand." But between Napoleon and the kaiser, no such threat arose, and Americans became settled in their determination to avoid ensnarement in the corrupt and corrupting world. Isolationism, in this political sense, was national policy.

Then World War I revived the Jeffersonian warning. Once again, as in the time of Napoleon, the force of Europe might have been wielded by a single hand. A balance of power in Europe served American interests as it had served British ones. The United States entered the Great War in its own national interest. But for Woodrow Wilson, national interest was not enough to excuse the sacrifice and horror of war. His need for a loftier justification led him to offer his country and the world a strikingly bold American vision.

The position of the United States had changed since the days of the founding fathers. Where Washington and Jefferson had seen independence, Wilson saw interdependence. His aim was to replace the war-breeding alliance system and the bad old balance of power with a "community of power" embodied in a universal League of Nations. The establishment of the League, Wilson said, promised a peaceful future. Should this promise not be kept, Wilson warned in Omaha in September 1919, "I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war."

For a glorious moment, Wilson was the world's prophet of peace. No other American president--not Lincoln, not F.D.R., not J.F.K., not Reagan--has ever enjoyed the international acclaim that engulfed Wilson. But Wilson was a prophet without much honor in his own country. His vision of a community of power implied a world of law. It rested on the collective prevention and punishment of aggression. Article X of the league covenant imposed on member nations the "obligation" to "preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the league." This meant, or seemed to mean, that American troops might be sent into combat not just in defense of the United States but in defense of world order. U.S. soldiers would have to kill and die for what many would regard as an abstraction and do so when the life of their own nation was not in danger.

The commitment of troops to combat became the perennial obstacle to American acceptance of the Wilsonian dream. It is a political obstacle: how to explain to the American people why their husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons should die in conflicts in remote lands where the local outcome makes no direct difference to the United States? And it is a constitutional obstacle: how to reconcile the provision in the constitution giving Congress exclusive power to declare war with the dispatch of American troops into hostilities at the behest of a collective security organization?

Wilson's fight for the League of Nations foundered in the Senate on these obstacles. So America, after the two-year Wilsonian internationalist binge, reverted to familiar and soothing isolationism. Disenchantment over the Great War accelerated the return to the womb. Revisionist historians portrayed American entry into the war as a disastrous mistake brought about by sinister forces--international bankers, munitions makers, British propagandists--and by Wilsonian deceptions and delusions. Novelists and playwrights depicted the sacrifice of war as meaningless. The onset of the Great Depression further confirmed the isolationist impulse.

By the early 1930s, even Wilsonians abandoned the League as a lost cause. Isolationism set the terms of the foreign policy debate. Franklin D. Roosevelt had no illusions about the threats to peace posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Although he was a mighty domestic president, he could not, for all his popularity and all his wiles, control an isolationist Congress when it came to foreign policy. Congress rejected American membership in the World Court. It passed rigid neutrality legislation that, by denying the president authority to discriminate between aggressor and victim, nullified any American role in restraining aggression. In sum, it put American foreign policy in a straitjacket during the critical years before World War II.

I refer to this history to illustrate the continuing strength of the isolationist faith. Roosevelt meanwhile began a campaign of popular education to awaken the nation to international dangers. In 1939, the outbreak of war in Europe fulfilled Wilson's Omaha prediction and justified Roosevelt's warning. But it did not destroy isolationism. Rather, it ushered in the most savage national debate of my lifetime--more savage than the debate over communism in the late 1940s, more savage than the debate over McCarthyism in the early 1950s, more savage than the debate over Vietnam in the 1960s. The debate between interventionists and isolationists in 1940-41 had an inner fury that tore apart families, friends, churches, universities, and political parties. As late as August 1941, the extension of the draft passed the House by only a single vote.

Pearl Harbor settled that particular debate. But in vindicating internationalism, it did not vanquish isolationism. In the 1942 congressional election, despite a major campaign by internationalists, only 5 of 115 legislators with isolationist records were beaten. The predominantly isolationist Republicans gained 44 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate--their best performance in years. Secretary of State Cordell Hull told Vice President Henry Wallace that "the country was going in exactly the same steps it followed in 1918."


For Roosevelt, the critical task in 1943-45, beyond winning the war, was to commit the United States to postwar international structures before peace could return the nation to its old habits. "Anybody who thinks that isolationism is dead in this country is crazy," F.D.R. said privately. "As soon as this war is over, it may well be stronger than ever."

So he moved methodically to prepare the American people for a continuing world role. By the end of 1944, F.D.R. had organized a series of conferences setting up international machinery to deal with the postwar world. These conferences, held mostly at American initiative and dominated mostly by American agendas, came up with postwar blueprints for international organization (Dumbarton Oaks); international finance, trade, and development (Bretton Woods); food and agriculture (Hot Springs); civil aviation (Chicago); and relief and reconstruction (Washington).

Above all, F.D.R. saw the United Nations, in the words of Charles E. Bohlen, as "the only device that could keep the United States from slipping back into isolationism." He was determined to put the United Nations in business while the war was still on and the American people were still in an internationalist mood; hence the founding conference in San Francisco, which took place after his death but before victory. And, as Winston Churchill emphasized, the new international organization "will not shrink from establishing its will against the evil-doer or evil-planner in good time and by force of arms" (italics mine).

Once again, there arose the Article X question that had so bedeviled Wilson. Could the new United Nations on its own order American troops into war in defense of world order and the peace system? Washington's veto in the Security Council ensured that U.S. soldiers could not be sent into combat over a president's objection. But if a president favored U.S. participation in a U.N. collective security action, must he go to Congress for specific authorization? Or could the U.N. Charter supersede the U.S. Constitution?

The U.N. Participation Act of 1945 came up with an ingenious solution. It authorized the United States to commit limited force through congressionally approved special agreements as provided for in Article 43 of the U.N. Charter. Presidents could not enter into such agreements on their own. If more force was required than the agreement specified, the president must return to Congress for further authorization. This formula offered a convincing way to reconcile the charter and the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Article 43 special agreement procedure soon withered on the vine. When Harry S Truman sent troops into Korea five years later, he sought neither an Article 43 agreement nor a congressional joint resolution, thereby setting the precedent that persuaded several successors that presidents possess the inherent power to go to war when they choose.

At the same time, the Cold War aborted the resurgence of isolationism so much feared by Roosevelt and Hull. Within a few years, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, other security pacts, and overseas troop deployments bound the United States to the outside world in a way isolationists, in their most pessimistic moments, could hardly have envisaged. In two hot wars fought on the mainland of East Asia under the sanction of the Cold War, the United States lost nearly 100,000 people. Even the traditionally isolationist Republican Party joined in support of the United Nations and collective action. At last, it seemed, Americans had made the great turning and would forever after accept collective responsibilities. The age of American isolationism, it was supposed, was finally over.

In retrospect, that seems an illusion. It is now surely clear that the upsurge in American internationalism during the Cold War was a reaction to what was seen as the direct and urgent Soviet threat to the security of the United States. It is to Joseph Stalin that Americans owe the 40-year suppression of the isolationist impulse. The collapse of the Soviet threat faces us today with the prospect that haunted Roosevelt half a century ago--the return to the womb in American foreign policy.

This suggestion requires immediate qualification. The United States will never--unless Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has his way--return to the classical isolationism of no "entangling alliances." It will continue to accept international political, economic, and military commitments unprecedented in its history. It will even enlarge some, as in the curious mania to expand NATO, which would commit U.S. forces to the defense of Eastern Europe from, presumably, the menace of a Russian army that cannot even beat Chechnya. But such enlargement hinges on the assumption that other nations will do as we tell them. The isolationist impulse has risen from the grave, and it has taken the new form of unilateralism.


The Clinton administration began by basing its foreign policy on the premise that the United States could not solve the world's troubles all by itself. "Many of our most important objectives," Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said, "cannot be achieved without the cooperation of others." The key to the future, in the Clintonian view, was collective action through the building of international institutions and through multilateral diplomacy in the spirit of Wilson and F.D.R.

But as the Soviet threat faded away, the incentives for international collaboration faded away too. The Republican capture of Congress last year gave unilateralism new force and momentum. In a perhaps ill-judged attempt at conciliation, President Clinton issued Presidential Directive 25, which restricted U.S. participation in collective security operations and declared that "the United States does not support a standing U.N. Army, nor will we earmark specific U.S. military units for participation in U.N. operations." Predictably, this retreat failed to appease House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who promptly accused Clinton of still cherishing the "multinational fantasy" and of a continued desire "to subordinate the United States to the United Nations." Nor did it appease Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who argued that international organizations too often "reflect a consensus that opposes American interests or does not reflect American principles and ideals."

The House has already passed a Gingrich-backed bill with the Orwellian title of the National Security Revitalization Act. This bill would cut U.S. financial support for current U.N. peacekeeping operations by more than $1 billion and limit the president's ability to approve new peacekeeping missions. The effect, should the bill be enacted into law, would be to eviscerate the American role in collective security.

For its part, the Senate has under consideration Dole's Peace Powers Act, which would amend the U.N. Participation Act of 1945 to give Congress a statutory role in the relationship between the United States and the United Nations. This bill, Dole tells us, "imposes significant new limits on peacekeeping policies which have jeopardized American interests, squandered American resources--and cost lives." Among other things, the Dole bill would generally forbid U.S. troops to serve under foreign commanders and, in the words of The Washington Post, "would make it difficult if not impossible for the president to commit U.S. troops to new or expanded U.N. operations or even continue support for ongoing activities." "The American people," Dole says, "will not tolerate American casualties for irresponsible internationalism."

Sir Nicholas Henderson, the distinguished former British ambassador to Washington, characterizes the present situation as "the rejection by the Republicans of the main plank of U.S. foreign policy for the last 50 years." And it is not as if America is at present deeply involved in collective security. The United States stands 20th on the list of nations making troop contributions to U.N. operations, well behind such world powers as Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nepal. Jordan, for example, with a population of less than two percent of the United States, is contributing more than three times as many troops to U.N. peacekeeping.

In foreign aid, despite the popular impression that it is a major charge on the U.S. budget, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently reported that the United States, once the world's top aid donor, has cut back its allocation today to a mere 0.15 percent of its gross domestic product, placing it by that measure last among the 21 industrial nations. If the Gingrich Congress has its way, foreign aid will be cut still further. And the new mood has already forced the administration to abandon its intention to rejoin the reformed U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Nor can it be said that this recoil from collective security misrepresents American popular sentiment. The latest public opinion survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Gallup Organization shows that, while Americans are still ready to endorse euphonious generalities in support of internationalism, there is a marked drop-off when it comes to committing not just words but money and lives. Defending the security of American allies, rated very important by 61 percent of the public in 1990, fell to 41 percent in the most recent survey. Public support for the protection of weaker nations against foreign aggression fell from 57 to 24 percent. There was a 24 percent decline in support for the promotion of human rights and a 19 percent decline in support for efforts to improve living standards in underdeveloped countries.

This wave of neo-isolationism draws strength in part from the understandable desire to concentrate on improving things at home--a desire justified by the neglect of domestic problems during the Reagan-Bush years. The neo-isolationist enthusiasm also results from waning popular confidence in the United Nations, its bureaucracy, its competence, and its peacekeeping skills. And it draws strength from the recoil against all-out internationalists, who would set the nation on a crusade to establish human rights and democracy.

Neo-isolationism gains further support as America--and indeed all nations--confronts the ultimate price of collective security. For the essence of collective security remains, as Churchill said, the readiness to act against evildoers "by force of arms." Denied military enforcement, and with economic sanctions of limited effect, the international community's effort to restrain aggressors becomes hortatory.


Are Americans today prepared to take a major collective security role in enforcing the peace system? The U.N. Participation Act of 1945 provided a way to overcome the constitutional obstacle, but no president has gone down the special agreement path, and the old struggle between presidents and their Congresses remains. This is a political battle fought in constitutional terms, and the political obstacle is more potent than ever. How to persuade the housewife in Xenia, Ohio, that her husband, brother, or son should die in Bosnia or Somalia or some other place where vital U.S. interests are not involved? Nor is it just the Xenia housewife who must be persuaded. How many stalwart internationalists in the Council on Foreign Relations would send their own sons to die in Bosnia or Somalia?

Dying for world order when there is no concrete threat to one's own nation is a hard argument to make. For understandable reasons, our leaders are not making it. We have a professional army made up of men and women who volunteered for the job; and the job, alas, may include fighting, killing, and dying. But let a few American soldiers get killed, and the congressional and popular demand for withdrawal becomes almost irresistible. Nor is the United States alone in this reaction. When two French soldiers were killed in Sarajevo in April, the French government, on the eve of its presidential election, threatened to withdraw its 4,350 peacekeeping troops from Bosnia. Terrorists recognize this vulnerability of democracies and know now how a couple of accurate snipers can drive peacekeeping forces from their land.

Surely this flinching from military enforcement calls for a reexamination of the theory of collective security. Despite two grievous hot wars, a draining Cold War, and a multitude of smaller conflicts, the Wilsonian vision is as far from realization today as it was three-quarters of a century ago. In the United States, neo-isolationism promises to prevent the most powerful nation on the planet from playing any role in enforcing the peace system. If we refuse a role, we cannot expect smaller, weaker, and poorer nations to ensure world order for us. We are not going to achieve a new world order without paying for it in blood as well as in words and money.

Perhaps our leaders should put the question to the people: what do we want the United Nations to be? Do we want it to avert more killing fields around the planet? Or do we want it to dwindle into impotence, leaving the world to the anarchy of nation-states?

Perhaps we might reduce the constitutional and political obstacles to a collective security role by reviving the Article 43 special agreements and asking members of the armed forces to volunteer for consequent U.N. assignments. Or perhaps we might consider the proposal recently made by that distinguished international civil servant Sir Brian Urquhart for a U.N. volunteer army, a foreign legion recruited from idealists, adventurers, and mercenaries that could serve the Security Council as a rapid deployment force.

If we cannot find ways of implementing collective security, we must be realistic about the alternative: a chaotic, violent, and ever-more dangerous planet. Maybe the costs of military enforcement are too great. National interest narrowly construed may be the safer rule in an anarchic world. But let us recognize, as we return to the womb, that we are surrendering a magnificent dream.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the Graduate School and University Center, the City University of New York. This article is drawn from his George W. Ball Lecture, delivered at Princeton University in April.
  • More By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.