In This Review

Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World
Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World
By Charles Kupchan
464 pp, Oxford University Press, 2020

Most Americans think of isolationism in relation to the U.S. foreign policies of the 1920s and 1930s, which disastrously helped lead to World War II. But the country’s association with isolationism, Kupchan argues, stretches back to its founding and forward to recent years. In this valuable volume, he reexamines the full sweep of U.S. history through this lens in a bid to “refurbish” this oft-maligned foreign policy tendency. In this comprehensive history of the subject, he shows that disengagement from the world served the country well through long periods of its early history. He compellingly demonstrates that the notion of American exceptionalism was as closely tied to isolationism—the “city on a hill,” standing above and apart from a quarrelsome world—as it later would be to the country’s postwar internationalism, when the United States saw itself as “the indispensable nation.” Kupchan believes that a strategic pullback from the interventionist foreign policy of the past 80 years or so is inevitable. Indeed, he marshals evidence to argue that such a withdrawal is already well underway. He worries, however, that years of U.S. strategic overreach could give way to the obverse: a retreat that is too rapid, too sweeping, and not thought through. He offers some common-sense guidelines to achieving a more balanced middle ground.