Isolationism, First U.S. Foreign Policy Tradition, Continues to Pull America Back From World, Writes Kupchan in New Book

The first full account of American isolationism throughout U.S. history

October 5, 2020

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As Americans assess the costs and benefits of President Donald J. Trump’s America First brand of statecraft, they need to better understand the enduring connection between the isolationist impulse and the American experience, argues Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan in his new book, Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. “Although America’s current yearning to pull away from foreign entanglement constitutes a sharp departure from its recent track record of determined foreign engagement . . . this inward turn resonates strongly with America’s further past,” Kupchan observes.  

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Kupchan’s book traces isolationism across U.S. history, from the founding era through the Trump presidency. President George Washington in 1796 warned Americans “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Thereafter, “the isolationist impulse embraced by Washington and the other Founders guided the nation for much of its history prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941,” states Kupchan. Isolationism, unilateralism, protectionism, racism—these were all defining features of America’s approach to the world from the nation’s birth well into the twentieth century, the author posits.

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Americans from the outset wanted their unique democratic experiment to spread to other countries, but they sought to change the world only by the power of example, not by extending their strategic reach beyond North America. According to Kupchan, “Americans were determined to protect the exceptional character of their nation by keeping the outside world at bay.” The author observes that “limiting foreign entanglement long served America well,” clearing the way for its ascent during the nineteenth century. But this aversion to involvement abroad later led the nation astray. During the 1930s, the United States “ran for cover as militarism and virulent nationalism began to engulf Europe and East Asia.” According to Kupchan, “The United States was a passive bystander during one of history’s darkest decades.” 

 Kupchan’s book explains how, amid World War II and the Cold War, Americans finally broke with their isolationist past and embraced an ambitious brand of internationalism. To good effect: America’s global leadership led to a more stable and democratic world. But since the end of the Cold War, Americans have overreached, lured off course “by the idealist ambitions of Pax Americana.” The nation’s “forever wars” in the Middle East, political polarization, and COVID-19’s painful economic impact have taken a toll on the nation’s internationalist appetite. As the electorate tires of seemingly unlimited foreign commitments, “isolationist sentiment has been making a comeback,” writes Kupchan.

Kupchan warns that “the strategic, political, and socio-economic conditions that long made Americans ambivalent, if not hostile, toward foreign ambition are by no means gone for good.” Today, the United States is hardly destined to return to isolationism. Indeed, the author argues, Americans need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of both isolationism and internationalism to avoid that outcome. He writes, “A principal challenge moving forward will be to draw on both isolationist and internationalist traditions to find a sustainable brand of statecraft.” Looking ahead, Kupchan recommends a “judicious retrenchment” that constitutes “the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little.”

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Read more about Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World and order a copy at cfr.org/isolationism.

To interview the author, please contact Andrew Palladino at 212.434.9541 or apalladino@cfr.org.

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Praise for Isolationism:

“In this timely, judicious, and thoughtful book, Charles Kupchan adds depth and dimension to our understanding of the United States’ foreign relations and the strategic choices now facing it. In tracing isolationism’s origins to the earliest days of the Republic and showing its iterations in successive generations, he reminds us of how powerful a force it has been—and remains. Essential reading both for those who are going to be in charge in the next years and for anyone who cares about the United States and the world.” —Margaret MacMillan

“Comprehensive and objective, Kupchan’s Isolationism is a useful contribution to the history and contemporary understanding of American isolationism.” —Henry Kissinger

Isolationism is a carefully researched, clearly presented study of American foreign policy that demonstrates the enduring power of American skepticism about open-ended international commitments while making the case for continued American engagement. By grounding his policy arguments in a careful review of American history, Kupchan not only strengthens his case but sets an example, which other policymakers would be wise to follow.” —Walter Russell Mead

“The battle for the future of America’s foreign policy rages all around us. This learned, wise, and deeply engaged history of U.S. isolationist impulses from the founding up to today is a much-needed book, and the selective commitments and judicious retrenchments it calls for are recipes for good policymaking.” —Odd ArneWestad

“Astute political history.” —KirkusReviews

“An erudite and evenhanded study of the isolationist impulse in American foreign policy. . . . Policymakers and foreign affairs scholars will want to take note.” Publishers Weekly     

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