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US Isolationism: How to Step Back Without Stepping Away?

Interview with Charles Kupchan by Soli Özel

US Isolationism: How to Step Back Without Stepping Away?
 Charles Kupchan
Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

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. 

The US will be heavily focused on its domestic agenda and the pandemic will dominate American politics for the first year of the Biden administration.

That exceptionalist narrative then shifts in 1941 after entry into World War II. It takes a radical turn: "if the United States cannot change the world through example, then it will have to do so through engagement and activism". The country then effectively becomes a crusader, which sets off a long era of liberal internationalism that endures through the presidency of Barack Obama. 

What I think we are now witnessing is a swing of the pendulum back, not to isolationism, but to something that would constitute a middle ground between these two long eras of American foreign policy.

Obama started that process: he was a retrenchment president, but he could not really get out of the Middle East, because the Middle East would not let go. Then Trump comes in, on an isolationist platform, and he has been very busy pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and most recently Somalia. And I think that pullback is going to continue. It is not just Republicans that want to get out of the Middle East: it is also the Left-wing, and the centrists. Keep in mind that the 2020 Democratic platform called for the United States to end what are commonly called its "forever wars" in the Middle East. 

Though the Biden administration is saying "America is back" and "we will lead again", that turn back will take a different form than we are used to. The US will be heavily focused on its domestic agenda and the pandemic will dominate American politics for the first year of the Biden administration. We have had a near death experience this year when it comes to American democracy. 

I am a Democrat, I am elated that Biden won, but I am exhausted, distressed, and deeply worried. 74 million Americans voted for Trump’s re-election. So, there will be no return to a so-called "normalcy".

I would project that we will see three features of US foreign policy moving forward.

  • A continued retrenchment from the strategic periphery, but an effort to maintain core relations in Europe and East Asia. 
  • A pulling back from the liberal international order. My guess is that Biden will be more of a pragmatic realist than he will be a liberal internationalist. And that means efforts to work with countries that we need in order to solve problems, and not only with countries that are democracies. 
  • A return to a form of American exceptionalism that is much more inwardly focused. If Biden is to be more than a relief from Trump, if he is to be more than a pause from angry illiberalism, angry populism, we need to address the sources of domestic discontent, the polarization, the pandemic, the economic security that America’s middle class has experienced. That does not mean that the US turns its back to the outside world, but it does mean an American foreign policy that finds some kind of middle ground between the globalism of the last 80 years and the isolationism that came before. 

Why are you not among those who think that there is no point in having a close relationship with Europe either? What in your view unites the Old and New Worlds? What keeps together the Atlantic alliance and what is the purpose of it? 

I think that the Atlantic space looms larger today than it did before Trump. And that may sound a little odd, but I think that it is precisely because we have recognized the fragility of liberal democracy that we need to double down on it. Trump is not the cause of this, he is the symptom. And we know that because we see illiberalism and nativism in the UK, we see it in Hungary, we see it in Turkey, Poland, Italy, and even in Germany, a country that has remained centrist in its government, but where there is now a strong populist undercurrent. So, I think there is an awareness that this experiment, that Europeans and Americans launched two hundred years ago and together advanced first under Pax Britannica and then under Pax Americana, is much more fragile than we believed. I never imagined that I would be here in the United States living with a President who says he just won an election that he just lost, in which daily he speaks untruths, in which he openly insults minorities, in which many Americans cannot tell fact from fiction because the President cannot tell fact from fiction. We clearly have a problem that warrants efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to firm up the foundations of liberal democracy. 

My second point is that the same strategic objectives that guided the United States during WWII and the Cold War ring true today, and that is to prevent the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power. Russia continues to pose a threat, while the project of European integration is fragile and it needs its American partner. In my opinion, France and the EU need to maintain strong ties with the United States. 

Dealing with China will probably be one of the most challenging tasks for the Atlantic community.

I believe that the United States and Europe, both for strategic reasons and for normative and political reasons, should remain strong partners. 

China is going to be the main challenge for the United States. The largest economy in Asia, soon to be first in the world, it is becoming, if not aggressive, much more assertive in protecting its interests. Through its Belt and Road Initiative it is really reaching out to the rest of the globe as well. Does Europe need to compete or fight with China? In what way does the Atlantic alliance help contain the rise of China, if that is really the big (systemic and geopolitical) challenge? 

I think dealing with China will probably be one of the most challenging tasks for the Atlantic community. And that is because I expect the United States’ relationship with China to remain troubled. The underlying conflicts of interests over trade, over security, over human rights are not going away. In fact, they could get worse because Biden cares more about human rights, about Hong Kong, Taiwan and Uighurs in Xinjiang than Trump. But I do think that the European Union, collectively and individually, will be pulled in different directions. On the one hand, it shares the American scepticism about Chinese ambitions. On the other hand, China has arrived in Europe through the Belt and Road Initiative and trade and investment are rising. The economic stakes of strong Chinese-European ties are high. 

This is another area where I think that Russia looms large. We have seen in the last ten years or so what I would call a quasi-alliance between Russia and China, but one that I think is rather unnatural and perhaps fragile. So another task that I would put on the European and American agenda is to pull Russia westwards, and to try to respond to what I am sure the Kremlin is feeling quietly, which is that over the long run, the greater threat to Russian interests come not from NATO, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus or Estonia, but from a rising China. 

What ought Europe to do to help? If there is going to be a retreat from the Middle East, what does this entail, in terms of the commitment to Israel and Saudi Arabia, for instance? How will Biden handle Iran, which is an issue of importance for the Europeans and where they can be of great assistance to the President-elect?

Let me stress that when I say "pullback from the Middle East", I am talking mostly about land wars. And I expect there to be a pullback from the military front but a lean in on the diplomatic front. So, no more attempts at regime change, no more toppling of Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Ghaddafi. But there will be more engagement diplomatically, so that as the United States pulls back militarily it compensates by doing more diplomatically. And I presume that there will be some residual US forces in the region to deal with counterterrorism as well as some US forces offshore to deal with the Persian Gulf and Iran. I do not see the US disappearing: I see it avoiding land wars and regime change and focusing more on a set of core objectives, including containing Iran, protecting the flow of oil, defending Israel’s security.

And I also think that it would be wise for Europe to be ready to assume more responsibility for the broader Mediterranean basin. Whether that is in Syria, in Libya, in Nagorno Karabakh. I think Biden will be looking for concrete examples of European willingness to shoulder more burdens.


Copyright: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

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