In the 20th Century, isolationism proved costly—protectionism exacerbated the Great Depression and strategic disengagement pulled America into an even more bloody Second World War. Now, neo-isolationism may prove America’s last reasonable choice.
Western values—national self-determination, basic human rights, and free markets, supplemented by a compassionate state—are under attack by the rise of China, Russian aggression, and ISIS and al Qaeda.
The resources required to defeat these are so huge that the United States must be better supported by allies, or it will be forced to engage in foreign policy triage.
China, through trade and aid, offers emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere an alternative to western norms founded on an oligarchy, limits on individual freedoms, and state-directed capitalism.
The U.S. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) initiative is about countering Chinese influence with access to American markets and technology—but it only enjoys cynical support from allies in Europe.
Britain, France, Germany, and Italy have agreed to participate in China’s Asian Development Bank, which will offer poorer nations an alternative to World Bank financing without prescriptions for political and economic reform. The Europeans want a cut of the business with China, even if that means subverting western institutions.
Regarding Russia in the Ukraine, Germany is not willing to bear the commercial costs of imposing the broader sanctions that could cripple the aggressor’s supporting economy, and it is not willing to commit its military to defend Eastern Europe.
Without support from Europe’s richest country, confronting Vladimir Putin’s designs would be daunting for any American president.
Muslim extremism cannot be stopped by defeating ISIS’s army in Syria and Iraq, but terrorism cannot be contained without destroying that army. The growing economic resources of ISIS make possible the colonization of Libya and support the spread of violent extremism now embraced in some form by about 48 million Muslims worldwide.
Defeating radical Islam also requires moderate Muslim states to lead by rejecting the imposition of Muslim values through constitutions, laws, and violence, and to fight ISIS if they expect Americans to do the same.
Yet, Saudi Arabia sends a clear message of support to extremists by banning churches and synagogues and countenancing beheadings. Egypt, with a large and modern military, refuses to put boots on the ground to defeat ISIS in Iraq—President Sisi says that’s an American responsibility.
In Europe, Italy is faced with an emerging terrorist state in Libya, which has declared its goal to turn St. Peter’s Basilica into a mosque. Rome says it is willing to participate in an international force—translation, let’s ask the Americans to defend our ancient culture.
Certainly President Obama gives allies good reasons to view America as unreliable by failing to adequately dispatch the U.S. navy to help defend Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam when China encroaches on their territorial claims, failing to even adequately arm the Ukrainians, and musing Christians did terrible things during the Crusades. He seems bent on compromising U.S. interests in trade talks such as in the TPP, efforts to address climate change, and negotiations with Iran.
The next president—be it Hillary Clinton or her GOP opponent—will likely have a more realistic view of U.S. interests and responsibilities, but America cannot save Europe from its own decadence or the Muslim Middle East from its own immorality with its treasure and lives of its warriors.
By default, America is left to defend Israel, where immediate peril requires more realism in assessing threats and moral fiber than most Europeans, Saudis, and others seem able to muster.
The new isolationism will not be absolute. Cooperation with Europe will continue, but America’s future really lies in Asia—where its friends would resist Chinese hegemonic designs if America exhibited the kind of courage and resolve that seems foreign to President Obama.
Asia and the Pacific are the real prizes, and that’s where America’s future lies.
Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1.