Trump’s isolationism revives an old American tendency

The presidential candidate's views encapsulate a deep-seated American cultural preference to prioritise trade benefits over political alliances.

Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the World Health Organisation, and more.
Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the World Health Organisation, and more.

Trump’s isolationism revives an old American tendency

Former British Prime Minister and war leader Winston Churchill once said there was one worse thing than fighting with allies: fighting without them.

Former US President Donald Trump, born in 1946 — a year after the war that Churchill fought so hard to win — may disagree. He is a go-it-alone kind of guy.

Trump recently told a Republican rally that aggressors such as Russia could do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO members who did not spend 2% of GDP on defence.

It was a stunning admission from the man who may lead the free world from 2025-29: that he may not abide by the collective-defence clause (Article 5) at the heart of the NATO military alliance if re-elected.

It sparked considerable frustration in Europe and seemingly gave Russia free rein. He suggested that the United States would not commit men to states that would not commit 2%. It ripped the rug of deterrence from under the feet of friends.

US President Donald Trump (R) holds a bilateral meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) at the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019.

Washington’s wishes

Although Trump’s comments appear blunt and inflammatory, they

He added that America's "true policy" should be 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".

This early isolationism emerged in response to Europe, a continent many Americans considered rife with intolerance, tyrannical monarchies, age-old feuds, and religious conflicts—a noxious mix of misery, poverty, and hatred.

Why else would all these Europeans be getting on boats and sailing out west, Americans wondered?

Indeed, this inclination has been a cornerstone of American thinking since its establishment in the late 18th century, espoused by none other than George Washington in his celebrated farewell address of 1796.

Advising young American leaders of the future, he said: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

Not for them the mistakes of old. They would seek to distinguish themselves from Europe, learning from its historical missteps.

Trump's isolationist inclination has been a cornerstone of American thinking since its establishment in the late 18th century.

Monroe's model

For a start, Americans' president would be elected, serve a fixed term, and be overseen by a robust legislature. In contrast, Europe's monarchs wielded near-absolute power and were propped up by a nobility class.

To Americans, the Europeans seemed more interested in religious disputes, indulging in the past, igniting conflicts, and courting fanaticism, while they were more interested in trade, economic growth, and building for the future.

Given the situation, they thought, America must isolate itself from Europe's old ways and bad habits to preserve the purity of their new and unique American experiment. Heavy and unnecessary interaction was therefore best avoided.

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, named after James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, was articulated through a letter he sent to Congress.

This enshrined America's policy of non-interference in European affairs, with the expectation that Europe would repay the courtesy.

The Monroe Doctrine enshrined America's policy of non-interference in European affairs, while expecting Europe to repay the courtesy.

Monroe said that while the US would not meddle in the internal affairs of European colonies in the Americas, it would staunchly oppose any further European colonial expansion in the region.

This was aimed mainly at the French, the Russians, and any other European power with designs over Latin American nations that were newly independent of Spanish rule.

Over time, this model brought the US economic advantages and a form of political dominance over some of these countries, albeit not through colonialism.

Wilfully war wary

America initially stayed out of World Wars I and II, which were seen as yet more European entanglement in fanaticism and age-old animosities. Across the Atlantic, Americans' policy of isolationism seemed vindicated in both 1914 and 1939.

Only when the repercussions of these global conflagrations began to threaten its economic interests did the United States feel compelled to intervene. It subsequently played a pivotal role in tilting the balance in favour of the Allies over Germany.

In World War I, American involvement only came in 1917, after German submarines sank American military and commercial vessels ferrying supplies to Britain.

Germany's offer to help Mexico reclaim Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico in return for its wartime alliance cemented America's decision to go to war.

Submarine attacks on American ships also factored in the eventual involvement of the United States in World War II after Japan's surprise assault on the Pearl Harbour naval base in Hawaii at the end of 1941.

French Foreign Affairs minister Georges Bidault(C) flanked by US Secretary of States James F.Byrnes (L) and French ambassador Henri Bonnet signs the United Nations Charter in the name of France on August 24, 1945 in Washington.

The Marshall Plan

After the war ended in 1945, America became heavily involved in the United Nations, which was a marked departure from George Washington's advice to separate economic and political affairs. Such a separation now seemed impractical.

This was exemplified by the Marshall Plan (1949-51), also known as the European Recovery Programme, where the US gave $13bn to rebuild and fortify Western Europe amidst growing 'Cold War' tension between Washington and Moscow.

Such an intervention was completely at odds with the isolationist 'lone ranger' America of recent history, yet the subsequent half-century witnessed an active US that was both embedded and involved in world affairs.

Yet, throughout the Cold War and beyond, debates over America's engagement with the world never went away, particularly regarding its military interventions.

When US troops were sent to Vietnam, Kuwait, and Bosnia—countries some Americans could not find on a map—people demanded to know why.

The logical argument is that America's national security begins abroad. The emotional argument is that these are the fights of others, not of America's.

The debate took a turn after the events of 11 September 2001, which soon became known as '9/11'.

Suddenly, America's isolationist arguments were hugely undermined. The US had been attacked like never before and now needed to take the fight to the enemy, or so the thinking went.

The logical argument is that US national security begins abroad. The emotional argument is that these are not American fights.

The Pentagon soon embarked on a widespread military and political campaign against terrorism, supported with rare unity by rival US politicians and backed by international coalitions and resolutions. In America, allies were back in vogue.

Over time, the public's focus on the 'War on Terrorism' waned but was rekindled in 2014 by the visceral emergence of Islamic State (IS), which was publishing PR videos of its masked black-robed fighters beheading US hostages.

Trump goes it alone

Fast forward to the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, however, and isolationism was again all the rage. He rekindled America's latent desire to shut itself off, bring its soldiers home, and not get involved.

He showed a limited grasp of foreign policy and a general indifference towards international affairs but was well-tuned to the popularity of the call.

To him, multinationalism (such as the United Nations) and globalisation were two sides of the same coin. He knew that would-be Trump voters in swing states had been hit hard by cheap goods and labour from overseas.

Job losses from the relocation of factories to lower-cost countries went hand in hand with the political under-representation of these hard-working, conservative communities.

Or so he told them.

It struck a chord with a broad swathe of voters, from the Christian right to the white nationalists to the born-and-bred Republicans.

Trump appeared in court in Miami for an arraignment regarding 37 federal charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, making false statements, and mishandling of classified material after leaving office.

His 'America First' ideology hit a sweet spot. 'Globalisation' took your job. The world took your job. America First.

Clear, easy, appealing, and seemingly patriotic, it nevertheless drew upon a skewed interpretation of American history and of the Founding Fathers' principles by offering an inaccurate connection to today's challenges.

Trump's political skill in crafting and disseminating these over-simplifications may propel him back into the White House in January 2025.

If so, he will have to navigate a lone America through the obscure and complex reality of global interdependence, in which the US currently has a nuanced role, neither firmly involved nor fully removed.

Trump may like the clarity of the latter until such a time as America is attacked. Then, he may come to realise that the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.

font change

Related Articles