A Short Examination of Isolationism

Read President George Washington’s words from his 1796 farewell address:

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interests humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; …I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.”

There is much more after this tract which speaks about the problems of becoming involved in foreign entanglements, such as President Washington’s appeal to remain friendly with other nations, considering “policy humanity and interest,” but the crux of his admonishment is for the United States to remain free from cemented commitment in becoming involved in the European quagmire. Not only would it not be in the best interests of the United States but would “entangle” us in conflict never ending.

President Washington: “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation, It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride out to discard.”

To understand President Washington’s stance, one must first understand the world of the late 18th century. European nations were the gold standard in terms of commerce and power, as well as conflict. The French Revolution was still smoldering 1796, the nation in ruins politically and socially, the rise of Napoleon just on the horizon. From 1799 until 1815 with only a one-year respite, Europe would be engulfed in war. China was still in its self-imposed shell; South and Central America were Spanish colonies but the seeds of independence were maturing with the continued growth of the mestizo class. Haiti was only a few years away from declaring its independence and leading the independence movement in the Western hemisphere.

The world was not as it is today, bound by trade ties, interwoven economies, and ties/alliances/conflicts created by two world wars.[1] It was certainly moving in that direction, but nations were much more independent and self-governing than versus now, meaning decisions were made on the basis more so by how said decision would benefit the nation rather than the whole alliance. Monarchies still dominated the political landscape, yet the example of representative government as embodied by the United States and the brief French Republic (it would go through five Republics) was beginning to draw attention, having as its embryonic example Britain in the 14th century.[2]

It is in this stew President Washington implored his nation to steer clear of getting overly involved other than for trade and commerce reasons. To declare or give favored nation status to one might be to become pulled into expensive and never-ending conflict for the newly established United States. Not only would said involvement be detrimental to our growth as a nation, but it would also be an undue burden on the citizens of the new nation by requiring more and more taxation to cope with the ever rising expenditures require for such involvement. President Washington was not explicitly advocating for extreme isolation, but rather what I will refer to as judicious isolation; get involved when we are threatened directly and have no other choice, but not at the expense of our nation as a whole.[3]

As a warrior and student of history, President Washington understood the black hole of warfare, the notion that one war inevitably leads to another, and soon, the cycle continues almost without abatement, the nation continually choosing who to support, who not to support and that in the end, conflicts among our friends would force us to take sides, again, possibly igniting another conflict especially in the European world of never ending political posturing and infighting.

Geographically, we were far enough away to avoid such entanglements much to our benefit and could pick and choose where we stuck our proverbial nose. This is what President Washington recommended.

Fast forward to the 21st century.

Since the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913-1921), the United States has fundamentally shifted President Washington’s position, becoming more and more involved in foreign entanglements, exacerbated by our participation in the Second World War. No one will argue our involvement the latter, although some might argue our involvement in the former, the fact remains since the Second World War, the United States has enbubbled the world whether it be protecting Europe due to NATO, funding proxy wars, or outright occupation after “helping” other nations in their quest to defeat what it deemed as government oppression. We’ve also countered and continue to counter expansionist nations and ideologies be they in Korea, Vietnam[4], or the growth of communism during the Cold War, all of which necessitated our involvement in other nations’ affairs.

The result has been an expansion of what President Eisenhower warned of: the growth of the military/industrial complex, a rise in taxation of the American people, expansion of regulations on American business, as well as permanent friends we are obligated to care for. Once again, the American taxpayer footing the bill for all of it via expanded taxation, taxation once unthinkable before the Wilson administration.

This generation is seeing, in real time, the consequences of our involvement. Our government and by proxy, the American taxpayer is funding the war in Ukraine, a proxy war for reasons not only of blunting Russian aggression, but to ensure Ukraine stays independent and sovereign, blunting Russia’s expansionist tendencies under Vladimir Putin.[5] We are told now, more than ever, NATO must be not only secured but expanded to protect Europe and the liberated Eastern European nations, no matter the expense.

However, in doing so, we are depleting our military resources, funding not only the Ukraine war effort but also their public pensions and business, among other things. Over-involvement…what President Washington warned against.

I do not write this in either opposition or in favor of the war in Ukraine. What I am saying is this nation has funded NATO, funded causes all over the world. We’ve defended nations that could not defend themselves, gotten ourselves involved in sovereign nations internal business (see Latin America in the 70’s and 80’s), and bankrolled dictators, so-called freedom fighters, and armed resistance movements that ultimately turned against us (see the Mujaheddin in the Afghan war against Russia). If President Washington saw how we’ve implemented his words of caution, he would simply throw up his hands and walk away, head shaking with the immortal words, “I told you so” coming from his mouth.

The problem is in this post World War II world that’s been created, the world economy is so intertwined there is almost no way we can extricate ourselves from it simply to conduct business.

The open seas are kept open by the power of the United States Navy, and as a result, prices here are cheap and goods are plenty (especially when one compares them to the rest of the world). Should we shrink from that world police ideology, the expansion China is engaged in would increase dramatically, and if you think prices are expensive now, well, just wait until the waters are no longer kept safe and free.[6] We are on the brink of the dollar no longer being the world’s reserve currency, our national debt soaring, with neither party willing to make the necessary cutbacks to ensure our continued economic solvency. Ironically, it was precisely the same issue, runaway spending, massive national debt, and over-taxation that lit the kindling for the French Revolution.

Once, during the period of the Cold War, the great fear was that Russian ideological expansion would eventually leave the United States and to a lesser extent, Western Europe on a proverbial island, the last bastions of free market economics and democracy.[7] That, among other things, fueled the Cold War and the United States’ unwillingness to take our foot off the gas to thwart the Soviet Union’s best efforts. As anyone familiar with the Cold War understands, our ability to outspend the Soviets was one of the major reasons for the fall of the regime.

Further, free market reforms also fueled Vietnamese, Chinese, as well as African economic turnarounds, demonstrating the power of free market capitalism vs. the stagnation of centrally planned government economics. In short, our outreach or, as some would say, overreach, resulted in a big win for the home team and for the world in general. World poverty rates have plummeted over 90% since the demise of centrally controlled economics in the 1990’s.

So why write an article that seems to defend our involvement world-wide while providing an undertone of isolationism?

Simple. We’re overextended. We’re involved where we should not be, and the American taxpayer is getting fleeced. We’ve prioritized the well-being of other nations at the expense of our own, guaranteeing other nations’ borders while ours are wide open with people from all over the world flooding into it without restraint.

Cities are overwhelmed, states are overwhelmed. We don’t have enough money to fund all of our entitlement programs (a topic for another article), our infrastructure is decaying, and our citizenry, specifically minority populations who are citizens, are being shortchanged at the alter of illegal migrants who have done nothing to earn what many are receiving. It’s one thing to be generous and caring, quite another to be taken advantage of…and we are the latter.

There is another side to consider.

At the current, foreign aid takes up about 1% of the total budget of the United States. Foreign aid comprises the following areas: 1. Humanitarian aid. 2. Development Assistance. 3. Security Assistance. All told, foreign aid amounted to 39 billion dollars in 2019. The aid given to Ukraine thus far, since 2022 amounts to 75 billion.

The United States government has a 6 trillion-dollar budget, overspending by some 1.2 trillion the amount of money it took in during 2022. 75 billion doesn’t seem that much, nor does the 39 billion in foreign aid. So, what’s with all the fuss? Conservative and liberal proponents of our continued funding of the Ukraine war and all our other interests see 75 billion as a cheaper and much less expensive way to maintain our foreign presence than sending men and women into combat or openly engaging in warfare.

The answer is atrophy. The more person 1 does for person 2, the less person 2 is willing to do for themselves. They become dependent on person 1. It’s a simple equation, and one that has stood the test of time since humans first began interacting with one another. If it is true for individuals, it must be true for nations as nations are made up of, and led by, individuals. Of course, NATO will bristle when confronted about their required payment when they’ve not been required to pay for their defense. They became used to keeping that money for themselves, allowing the U.S. to foot the bill. It is one of the reasons many European states can continue with their generous social welfare states…we’re footing their defense bill. Would you not bristle if your free ride were discontinued? It’s gotten so European nations since the end of World War II have relied on the generosity of the United States for their defense, and by proxy, the American taxpayer who willingly goes along with it via electing the same officials who’ve fashioned lousy policy repeatedly.

It’s simple, really. The U.S. taxpayer is being fleeced, willingly, by the choices they make in who they elect, and do little about it, preferring to continue voting party and person rather than policy, another warning by President Washington gone unheeded by the American populace.

The case being made here for isolation is not a complete pullback, allowing the world to descend into chaos like dogs fighting for scraps of meat left in the center of the floor. What it is advocating for is a strategic pullback, doing so where we can, allowing the atrophied muscles of the cared for nations or organization to build up again to where they can care for themselves while relieving the United States and by proxy the American taxpayer of this burden. Then, we can reallocate the saved money to ourselves, addressing the needs of the American citizenry and securing our own borders.

This nation cannot continue to spend and spend and spend be it for entitlements or bankrolling other nations’ wars, problems, or conflicts. At some point, one must stand up for themselves as must nations. It is one thing to come to the defense of a nation, and quite another to come to the defense of every nation purporting to be our friends, something it seems we’re doing more and more. Humanitarianism has its limits. It must have its limits and nations must stand on their own two feet.

Maybe, the week of his 1957th birthday we need to revisit his last message to the nation he, and others, gave life to. Maybe we need to heed his words, not seeing them as the words of an ancient, but the words of a prescient. Just maybe.

[1] For a complete examination, see The Wheels of Commerce by Fernand Braudel. It is the seminal work in this arena, and a great read.

[2] Great Britain, ruled by monarchy in the 14th century, was also home to powerful land barons and lords who were the true power, London essentially being an independent city within the kingdom before and during the rule of Edward III.

[3] Shortly after the Constitution was signed, Alexander Hamilton tested the limits of limited federal government when he was Secretary of the Treasury, expanding the power of the government to collect revenues and almost igniting a civil war, diffused by President Washington, with the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794).

[4] It matters not whether we should have been in those locations, nor the reasons put forth for it. The fact is we were, as were our brave American soldiers.

[5] There is much wrangling on this matter as well; NATO “creep” vs. Russia’s desire to defend its borders.

[6] The word “free” is a relative term, but one look at the Persian Gulf and what the Houthi’s are doing there, or attempting to do, is an example of why the U.S. presence is vital.

[7] The United States is a Federal Republic with democratic principles. We are not a democracy.