Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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America will not retreat from the world


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Those parochial Democrats. Those globalist Republicans. Last week, when US forces struck Houthi rebels in Yemen, some Congressional left-wingers objected to the action itself or to the lack of legislative consent for it, or to both. Meanwhile, the Republican leader in the Senate and the Republican chair of the House foreign affairs committee just wished that Joe Biden had gone harder, earlier. In a line that could have come out of the liberal Eden of the 1990s, Mitch McConnell said that America must uphold “international commerce” against rogue actors.

There is a lesson here, but it tends to come around often, and there is no chance that it will be heeded this time.

Don’t call the Republicans isolationist. (Call them other things, though.) It was Donald Trump’s America that assassinated an Iranian general and fired missiles at Syria. It was Barack Obama’s that led “from behind”. Rightwing populists can be insular but also quick to recognise external threats. Democrats can be sincere internationalists but also self-doubting and passive. Over the past decade or so — next month marks 10 years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which happened under Obama — it is an open question which party has been the more negligent and derelict abroad.

The issue here, I think, is that commentators equate unilateralism, which is a method or even just a set of manners, with isolationism, which is a desired outcome. Well, the next Republican president will be unilateralist, even if it is Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis. But isolationist? Unless we are to drain the word of all meaning, that implies a significant rolling back of America’s presence abroad. It suggests a coyness in the face of adversaries. How plausible is that?

On its own, the Republicans’ obsession with China keeps them hooked into the outside world. But that isn’t all. Their focus on commerce has the same effect. Unless the US runs a siege economy, it will always feel the effect of far-off events through the price of groceries and other basics. And so even a Republican with the most transactional, dollars-and-cents view of the world ends up backing a police-sergeant role for America. Better that than expensive disruptions to shipping lanes. “There are no atheists in foxholes”, goes an old cliché. Well, there are no isolationists in supermarkets. Who doubts that Trump, to prevent inflation at home, would have attacked those Houthi tormentors of Red Sea cargo ships? His materialism has its uses.

In fact, the least attractive traits of the Republicans are the ones that push them out into the world. Take their jingoism. A flag-waver cannot contemplate taking a backward step against a mere foreigner. What is, on the face of it, ridiculous amour propre often guides the party towards outward action. The strikes against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad were the ultimate but not sole example.

How did the idea take hold that America is forever longing to quit the world? The nation spent the 19th century rolling westwards and then into the Philippines. For the past 80 or so years — a third of the republic’s lifespan — the US has been the inescapable world force. Its isolationist phase was 1919 to 1941: disastrous, yes, but also exceptional, which is why anyone who so much as whispers “America first” now has that and only that period quoted against them. America’s innate desire for a quiet life has become one of those tropes that survive all contradicting evidence, like the “fact” that few of its citizens have a passport.

As this election year plays out, and the word “isolationist” flies around without much rigour, keep one question in mind: is a Republican of any note arguing for less defence spending? I don’t mean 1920s-style naval disarmament, just a material cut in the Pentagon budget. If not, discount the language of national retreat. True, no one knows what Republicans would do to defend Taiwan, but how does that distinguish them from all US administrations? Yes, stinting Ukraine of support is daft, but enough on its own to establish a whole party programme as isolationist? A party that wants to do more against China?

There are better candidates than America for the i-word. It is a serious handicap for the free world that its second and third biggest economic units, Europe and Japan, don’t convert their wealth into geopolitical clout. Japan at least has the alibi of a pacifist constitution, drawn up in another age. Europe’s excuse for being so marginal to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or for taking almost a year to surpass the US in aid for Ukraine, is what? No one thinks to call the continent isolationist. We might extend that courtesy across the Atlantic.

janan.ganesh@ft.com



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