The Magazine

The Myth of GOP Isolationism

Don't believe the historians

Nov 1, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 07 • By DAVID FRUM
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One could reprise this story again and again. Genuine isolationism has from time to time flared up inside the Republican party, as it did in 1940-41. And the traditional Republican commitment to protectionism in the decade after World War I inflicted more damage on the world economy and world peace than outright isolationism ever could have. Nevertheless, through most of this century, the main constraint on American world leadership has been the aversion of the leaders of the Democratic party to recognizing that world leadership is founded on power, not moral example. This aversion slowed American rearmament in the late 1930s, because the same Progressives who supported Franklin Roosevelt's domestic program were convinced that it was the greed of "merchants of death" that had provoked the 1914 war. And likewise, it was the Progressives' fantasies of postwar friendship with the Soviet Union that accelerated America's military build-down after 1945 and that slowed America's response to Soviet aggression and espionage for three crucial years.

This unwillingness to shoulder the responsibilities of power has come to characterize the Democratic party more and more strongly over the past three decades. Nowhere can it be seen more sharply than in the fascination with arms control that has served many Democrats as a substitute for a foreign policy idea over the past three decades, but it is on display in many other areas as well: the bugout from Indochina, the hacking at the defense budget in the 1970s, the refusal to aid the opposition to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s, the vote of the large majority of congressional Democrats against the Gulf War in 1991.

Since 1993, the United States has been led by a Democratic president who thinks of himself as an internationalist. To his credit, Bill Clinton is a free trader -- even if by now most of his party have become thoroughly protectionist. But Clinton shares his party's proclivity for grand aspirations unbacked by force. From Haiti, through Somalia, to Iraq and Yugoslavia, this administration has again and again made commitments and threats it was never able to muster the resolve to honor or carry out.

The critique of the Clinton foreign policy has been written many times of course. And yet somehow, it never quite takes hold. The old trope of Republican isolationism and Democratic internationalism is always ready to spring to life again, despite its falsity about both past and present. The trope lies ready to use because it accords so neatly with the received ideas about the two parties that furnish most journalists' minds. And it reminds us that until the Democratic partisan historiography that still fills America's textbooks is replaced by a more independent and objective story of the nation's past, Republicans will continue to be wrongfooted by ancient myths.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.