One of the hoariest myths in foreign policy is that the U.S. public is reflexively isolationist and sovereignty-obsessed. This may be true for a vocal minority of libertarian and conservative legislators and their constituents. But since World War II the majority of Americans have accepted that the realities of interdependence and the responsibilities of power leave the United States no choice but to pursue an internationalist path, including participation in multilateral organizations and initiatives that require some sacrifice to their freedom of action. They understand—as Tom Connally, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in debates over the United Nations Charter in 1945—that the United States cannot "live in a cellophane wrapper."
The myth that Americans are inveterate isolationists has a long pedigree, dating back to George Washington's inaugural address and Thomas Jefferson's admonitions about "entangling alliances." But as Robert Kagan shows repeatedly in Dangerous Nation, the United States has been deeply and assertively enmeshed in global affairs from the early days of the republic. More recently, the isolationist myth has been given new life in the aftermath of U.S. misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a recent Pew-CFR opinion poll suggesting that Americans would prefer "to mind their own business," focus on domestic problems and let other countries work out their own problems. No doubt Americans feel exhausted and overstretched, and in the mood for a little retrenchment. But to call this isolationism is a stretch.