Isolationism, in its most extreme form, is a foreign policy calling for minimal dealings with foreign governments. It usually means avoiding relations with certain disliked countries, and avoiding entanglements that might lead to war.
President George Washington called on Americans in his Farewell Address in 1796:
- "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.... we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."
The U.S. had a policy of isolationism toward the Soviet Union (1918–33), and toward Communist China (1949–71).
League of Nations
Woodrow Wilson wrote the League of Nations into the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty. The League went into operation but the U.S. never joined. The Senate rejected ratification on Wilson's terms, and also rejected ratification on terms proposed by the Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. The Republicans demanded amendments that made clear that only Congress could declare the U.S. at war, not the League. Debate on the League was furious, with the Senate split three ways: Wilsonians, Lodge supporters, and a third group of "irreconcilables" (mostly liberals) who rejected any membership.
Religion and the League
The churches played a major role in the debates on the League of Nations. The mainline denominations, especially influenced by the Social Gospel, provided strong support. Opposition came from Fundamentalist and Calvinist groups.
Most Americans who belonged to Dispensationalist Fundamentalists, Calvinists, German Lutheran and Catholic churches opposed the League. Ethnicity played a role, as German Lutherans and German Catholics were especially hostile, as were Irish Catholics. There was some opposition from Methodist and Episcopalian ranks.
Dispensationalists denounced the League as fulfilling the prophecy of a final world empire and as a sign of "human pretensions of self-sufficiency" in thinking that they could prevent the sin of war without God's help. Although many Calvinists backed the Social Gospel and therefore the League, conservatives, including Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, and Christian Reformed, counter-argued that such a human endeavor to improve the world without a Christian core doomed it to failure. Furthermore, they lamented the lack of mission language in the League charter and warned against cooperating with non-Christian states on an equal plane. The Missouri Synod Lutherans argued against such Social Gospel endeavors because of their amillennialist bent and insistence on the separation of church and state. Conservative Methodists and Episcopalians found themselves in the minority within denominations that publicly endorsed the League of Nations but nonetheless derided it as dangerously socialist and too divorced from Christianity for success. Much of this rhetoric has reappeared in recent years in discussions of the United Nations.
Starting in 1933 with the World Economic Conference, American public opinion and national policy was to minimize the risk of entering another war by isolationist laws, such as the Neutrality Laws. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, started in late 1937 to reverse the isolationist policies. When World War I began in late 1939, the U.S. was officially neutral but gave significant military aid to Britain, France, and China. It was only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that the United States abandoned its isolationism and entered the war. See America First Committee for the 1940–41 debate on avoiding American entry into World War II in Europe.
During World War II, the internationalist wing of the GOP gained strength, as former isolationist Arthur Vandenberg switched sides. The Republicans controlled Congress when it approved the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and the Marshall Plan in 1948.
The leaders of the anti-isolationist or "internationalist" wing were Dwight D. Eisenhower (president 1952-60), and Richard Nixon (president 1968-74). Conservative leader Barry Goldwater in 1964 rejected isolationism and called for an aggressive Rollback strategy to defeat Communism, a policy followed by Ronald Reagan (president 1980–88).
Meanwhile, isolationist sentiment grew in the Democratic party, largely in reaction to the failure of the Vietnam War. The chief spokesman was Senator George McGovern, whose 1972 presidential campaign had the isolationist slogan, "Come Home America".
Japan had a rigorously enforced policy, 1640-1854, that isolated the country from nearly all foreign contacts in the Tokugawa period. The goal was to prevent Christianity from entering, as well as other dangerous ideas. The problem is that Japan became militarily so backward it could not defend itself.
During the years 1840-99, Chinese intellectuals' growing awareness of China's precarious status in a world of increasingly powerful competing nation-states led them to question China's traditional isolationism and to advocate the adoption of Western technology and institutions.
Korea was the "Hermit Kingdom" that largely cut itself off from all outside contacts until the 1880s.
Today Burma (or Myanmar) and North Korea strictly limit contacts. North Korea, however, has an aggressive foreign policy that threatens its neighbors South Korea and Japan—and also the U.S.--with missiles and perhaps even nuclear weapons.
During the reign of Moulay Slimane (1792-1822), the experience of the Napoleonic wars demonstrated the military might of the European powers and the weakness of Morocco. As a result, the sultan began a purely defensive, even isolationist, policy that sought to sever all of the country's ties to Europe and, at the same time, to curtail any possible provocations (for example, he forbade any further activity by Moroccan corsairs). This isolationism was characteristic of Morocco for the rest of the 19th century.
Since 1815 Switzerland has conspicuously distanced itself from the international community. It remained neutral in all wars. It has rejected membership in the UN and participation in the European Economic Area treaty and UN peacekeeping operations; and it remains outside the European Union. It remains one of the world's major banking centers, and serves as the neutral host of many international agencies and meetings.
This starkly isolationist posture is the product of Swiss direct democracy. Swiss voters have repeatedly voted on issues of international integration. In five of the six cases, they delivered a sharp rebuff to the international community and to their own government. One explanation focuses on the renewed linguistic cleavage between German speakers and French speakers. Also critical has been the desire to preserve a wide scope for Swiss direct democracy by rejecting binding international agreements. Finally, government campaign tactics have exacerbated popular opposition to international integration.
The British Empire
The British Empire followed a policy of "Splendid Isolation" during the 19th century. Britain tried to stay out of any major alliances whilst also trying to maintain a balance of power in mainland Europe so as to avoid any dominant power arising to threaten their overseas territories or Britain itself. This policy ended in 1904 with the signing of the Entente Cordiale between Britain, France and the Russia
- See Markku Ruotsila, The Origins of Christian Anti-Internationalism: Conservative Evangelicals and the League of Nations. (2008)
- James A. Gazell, "Arthur H. Vandenberg, Internationalism, and the United Nations". Political Science Quarterly 1973 88(3): 375-394
- Kris W. Kobach, "Spurn Thy Neighbour: Direct Democracy and Swiss Isolationism." West European Politics 1997 20(3): 185-211