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An Unfashionable Comeback: Why the World Must Prepare for the Return of American Isolationism

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Opinion Piece

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For decades the US has dominated the global world order. In the aftermath of the Second World War, amid the rubble, ruins and carnage of the post-war world, there began an explosion of ideas; liberal democracy, human rights, and a free market economy. These ideas spread around the globe like wildfire, with America fanning the flames in every direction. US foreign policy has long been underpinned by the assumption that democracy is the natural endpoint of a nation’s political development, and the full economic and military might of the United States has been put behind these ideas, to champion change and encourage positive reform.

Since the advent of Marshall Aid in post-war Europe, whereby billions in loans were granted to European nations, the US has been lending its immense economic support to encourage growth and investment in countries the world over. Under certain conditions of course. Eligibility requirements differ, but the underpinning theme in most American trade, investment and aid packages is the requirement for democratic reforms, and an adherence to free-market principles. Rightly or wrongly, the American model of government has been exported across the globe, ensuring that nations only receive support if they adhere to certain international norms. One need only look at the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to see, whereby sub-Saharan African nations are granted duty-free access to US markets, provided they meet certain criteria. These requirements include calls for the protections of human rights, reduction of poverty and for recipient countries to make continual progress toward establishing a market-based economy”. The goal of US foreign policy is strikingly clear. The US State Department has never shied away from this fact; the free market is king.

Now, it would be naïve to assume that American foreign policy is solely determined by a desire to champion freedom, human rights and democratic norms. The world has been dominated by a unipolar world order for decades, and undoubtedly the US has been involved in more than its fair share of controversy. But regardless of your opinions on America’s role as policeman to the world, its overreaching hand, and the historic interference in countries’ domestic politics, we shouldn’t wish it away. Without doubt, the US global order has shaped the very world we live in, and for all its flaws – it’s better the enemy you know. American influence and intervention have ensured a degree of security on the European landscape; for decades it has kept Russian expansionism at bay, and the spread of free-market economics and governance has ushered in huge technological, social, and medical advancements.

So, it comes as no surprise that the first large-scale aggression on the European continent in the form of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, comes at a time when isolationism has become all the trend in Republican political spheres in the US. The GOP primary seems to be a competition of who can care-less for global issues. Vivek Ramaswamy, an up-and-coming contender, has proudly promised to leave Taiwan to its fate if China were to launch an invasion. Likewise, Ron DeSantis has made it a campaign pledge to slash funding for Ukraine, and to focus on ‘American issues’ instead. It’s common to hear such arguments that the billions spent on Ukraine should be spent on the US, but this simply shows a lack of economic and political awareness. The aid sent to Ukraine is miniscule. In the grand scheme of the vast Federal Reserve, the roughly $75 billion sent by the Biden administration to Ukraine is a drop in the bucket. The war in Ukraine has become a trivial political talking point, and it represents a short-sightedness that American politicians just can’t afford to have at present.

It goes without saying – global issues are American issues. However, this fact seems lost on former President Donald Trump who, in his presidency, attempted to withdraw 4000 troops from South Korea because President Moon Jae-In wouldn’t cover the cost of stationing US garrisons there. This approach is testament to Trump’s business background, where nothing should be given for free, and it suggests a general lack of understanding around world affairs. The soldiers stationed in Seoul act as a deterrent to North Korean aggression, and squadrons have been stationed in the country since the Korean War. The same goes for US troops in the Baltics, Japan and Gulf states – they are a deterrent for hostile nations. But the Republican party seem antithetical to this idea. Isolationism is on the rise on the American right; a CNN poll found that 55% of Americans didn’t support further aid to Ukraine, and 71% of Republican voters opposed sending any more aid. This is the result of a political class who have caved to the vote-winning stances. Politicians who have taken the easy-route, and instead of explaining the ramifications of a Russian victory, have opted to rile up the isolationist sentiment.

The Republican party has taken a step back a hundred years, to a time before the world wars, before America threw off the shackles of isolationism that held it back and have suggested leaving the world to its own fate. But when American military support and economic aid has upheld the very global institutions that govern us all, this view is dangerous and erratic. Political commentators have already begun questioning what will happen if we see a second Trump presidency – will he pause all funding to Ukraine? Such a move would severely hamper the Ukrainian war effort, and thus for Putin, it is simply a case of waiting. He knows that all he has to do is outlast the other side, and if US military aid dries up, the wait will be significantly shorter. And for those who read this and ask why America should fund the fighting, you need to understand the Ukrainian psyche.

For soldiers and citizens in Ukraine, their country has been invaded by hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers; soldiers from the same country that dominated Ukraine under the guise of the USSR. Ukraine’s history in the Russian sphere is one of political repression, famine, and nuclear disaster. Now the same country is ravaging the landscape, annexing entire regions and provinces, and initiating rigged elections. It’s not a negotiable issue for Ukraine – it is an issue of life and death. So, the duty falls on the West to support the Ukrainian military, to stop Russian aggression in its tracks, and to send a strong and clear message that illegal military aggression will not go unpunished.

However, isolationism has taken control of the top brass of the Republican party. The party leaders either don’t see or don’t care about this, and some Republican congressmen have even given voice to conspiracy theories that the war is a hoax. The party had a chance to take the reins and demonstrate that they are the party of freedom and democracy, but they’ve fallen at the first hurdle. Reagan would be turning in his grave. So, with all of this, we are now at a cross-roads, whereby the 2024 US election could swing either way. Emerson polls fluctuate, but suggest Trump has a narrow lead against Biden, which means the likelihood of a second Trump presidency is real. Trump knows how it works. He will most likely come in with purpose and will rein in America’s foreign policy reach to appeal to his voter base.

So, how can the rest of the world prepare for the return of an increasingly isolationist President? The most important goal should be Ukraine – Britain and the EU have spearheaded tremendous support for the Ukrainian war effort and have proposed enormous economic aid packages to support the eventual post-war reconstruction of the country. But they must prepare to take on an even greater responsibility, should the US take a step back. Plans should be drawn up to allocate adequate funds for future military aid packages, and the EU must continue to support Ukrainian rebuilding, support humanitarian crises, and continue to accept any future Ukrainian refugees. Similarly, NATO members should be encouraged to reach military spending goals of 2.2% of GDP - a 2022 report showed that only 7 member states were hitting this target. If the US were to take a step back from international bodies like NATO, the UN and the WHO – as Trump has indicated he wants to – then these organisations must be prepared to adapt appropriately. Other key areas of focus should be to establish a credible plan for a stability across north Africa; closer European defence ties with South Korea and Japan; tighter-knit foreign policy co-operation between the UK and the EU. Europe also needs to spear-head the drive for net-zero, as this will undoubtedly become another key point of contention between America and its allies, with Trump pledging to scrap certain net-zero goals, and re-open closed coal mines.

The Western alliance has a lot on its plate. For all his flaws, the flawed withdrawal from Afghanistan, his public gaffes and the lack-lustre approach to tackling immigration, Biden is a breath of fresh air. He has restored trust in US institutions and has demonstrated the US resolve and determination to exert itself across the globe in the face of Russian aggression. With another Trump presidency, this will change. It’s impossible to cut the US out of the picture, and European nations should encourage a Trump administration to stay in the fold, but we must prepare for this eventuality. The most important issue is that of Ukraine – Ukrainian sovereignty must be respected, and an isolationist White House will prove to be a hinderance to these goals. It’s up to leaders in Europe and her allies to lead by example, to continue to support Ukraine, and to safeguard the international, democratic institutions that shape the world we live in.


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