On December 8, Institut Montaigne hosted a webinar in which Soli Özel, Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne and an expert of American politics, spoke with Charles Kupchan, professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the United States’ trend towards withdrawal from global affairs, and how that could evolve under the Biden administration. The following article presents the key ideas of the webinar.
The US elections have brought Joe Biden to power. For those who have not been too pleased with Donald Trump’s foreign policy, in Europe and among all allies, there is a lot of hope invested in Joe Biden, but if isolationism is the default option of American foreign policy and if the 75 years from 1945 onwards were the exception, what should we expect from the Biden administration, which will face tremendous domestic challenges as well? How do you view the unfolding of American foreign policy?
I think we have been through two big periods in American history. One runs from 1789 to 1941, wherein isolationism was the default option. In the second period, from 1941 to the election of Donald Trump, Pax Americana, global ambitions and a robust internationalism were the default options. A new era began under Trump, that I think Biden will somewhat reject, but to some extent also continue. This new era will be one in which the USA tries to find a middle ground between doing too little, which was the situation before Pearl Harbour, and doing too much, which is what it has been doing during the last couple of decades. In other words, Biden’s task is to retrench, to pull back, to lighten the load, but not to retreat, not to step away in a way that would leave a global vacuum.
How do I arrive at that conclusion? My first observation is the revelation - which can be considered such because most people are unaware of American grand strategy prior to 1941 - that the United States, from its founding era until WWII, essentially adopted a strategy of geopolitical detachment from the outside world.
George Washington, in his farewell address of 1796, effectively said that the United States should have economic connections with everyone, but political connections with no one. So began the aversion of the Founders to "entangling alliances". From that period until the end of the 19th century, the USA expanded in North America, grabbed territory from Mexico, tried to invade and annex Canada, but stopped at the Pacific coast. And that is because the Founders and those that followed them believed that ambition abroad would come at the expense of prosperity and liberty at home. That changed in 1898 with the Spanish-American war. Woodrow Wilson in 1917 then contravened the guidance of the Founders and went to war in Europe during WWI. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the USA retreated to hardcore isolationism. We all know the story of the 1930s and the degree to which Franklin Roosevelt, although known as a great wartime leader, steered clear of entering World War II until Japan brought the war to the United States in 1941.
Why was isolationism so strong? In many respects, it was very much embedded in the notion of American exceptionalism. The United States was engaged in a unique experiment in political and economic liberty and needed to protect that experiment from the outside world. The United States would lead by example and be a shining city on the hill, but Americans would not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, as John Quincy Adams put it in the 1820s.