Was American Foreign Policy ever Isolationist? I Do Not Think So!

Students of American foreign policy and International Affairs in general have been regaled with tales of isolationism in American foreign policy. The story goes that the founding fathers of the new nation chose to adopt a different path from what was at play in Europe. In 1796 George Washington implored the nation in his farewell address not to adopt the policies of European international relations; that their ‘distant and detached situation’ provided them with an opportunity to ‘pursue a different course.’ But how different was this course and did America actually choose a different path?

This post argues that American foreign policy was never isolationist. It refers to some of the policies that were made during the 18th and 19th century to demonstrate this. It further argues that isolationism in American foreign policy was more in the minds of the policy makers than it was a reality in international relations.

America won her freedom from the British empire and as Henry Kissinger explains in his book Diplomacy (1994) the new nation rebelled against all that was European. He calls it American exceptionalism: the belief that America was a pure and noble nation and that it could not be entangled in the mess that was international politics then. At this time (late 18th century) it should be remembered France had pretensions for global domination and would have succeeded had Waterloo not happened to Napoleon.

The fight for American independence was a moral fight, at least in the eyes of the freedom fighters, rather than a political one. In their view there was no separate morality between man and state. With victory at hand, the new nation thought that its ideals had been vindicated and that these ideals were the solution to end wars prevalent in the international system. This system, based on the amoral nature of politics, had been wracked by wars of national interest and balance of power from the 1600s with the rise of France as the most powerful state in Europe and arguably the world. 

With the international system contradicting their belief system, early American leaders interpreted George Washington’s farewell address as a call to completely dissociate from European affairs. However, did this mean that America did not participate in international affairs? The answer is no, America did participate in international affairs but labelled such participation as domestic rather than foreign policy.

The first issue about labelling American foreign policy as isolationist is the insular notion that international relations only applied to European affairs. Focus is often given to what the Americans refused to do for the European balance of power system than to what it did in its own western hemisphere. This often leads to the conclusion that leaders of the time conflated international relations with European relations.

Secondly, the labelling also serves to exclude the Manifest Destiny and the 1823 Monroe Doctrine from the realm of foreign policy. The Manifest Destiny is the lofty idea that the American nation was given the divine right to expand westwards to the Pacific Ocean. It was a mission statement that guided a series of purchases (e.g. Louisiana in 1803 & Alaska in 1868) and conquests which have been immortalized in Holy Wood film with stories of brave cowboys pitched against atavistic (as often portrayed) red ‘Indians’. This is the policy that validated American expansionism into a glorious mission that was not in the least bit foreign in as much as it was the same foreign policy goal of France in Europe at the time.

The Monroe Doctrine is still more evidence that American foreign policy was not that isolationist as we are meant to believe. President James Monroe was convinced by John Quincy Adams (Secretary of State) to take a unilateral stance on the Spanish revolution wars in the 1820s. Britain had shown interest through foreign secretary George Canning of collaborating with the Americans to keep the Holy Alliance (Austria, Prussia and Russia) out of South America. However the war between the Brits and Americans that culminated in the 1812 occupation of Washington DC made Americans wary of the deal. This led to the push to make a unilateral declaration that America would not interfere in European affairs and European states should not interfere with not only North American affairs but the entire western hemisphere.

What were the results of this policy? America was no free to set the tone of international relations of the entire western hemisphere. It did this by first ridding European influence from Latin American states such as the 1902 forcing of Haiti to clear up its debts with European banks and the 1905 creation of a financial protectorate over the Dominican republic.

The Monroe Doctrine was used as a springboard to a further interventionist American foreign policy called the Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. This was initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt who firmly believed in the use of might than morals to influence international outcomes in favour of American national interests. He finally gave way to Woodrow Wilson and his idealism after a split in the Republican camp between Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. However it was not until after the second world war that some pundits opine that American isolationism officially ended.

Bearing all these in mind, it is difficult conclude that America was indeed isolationist. It used the very elements of expansionism it stated that it eschewed to become a powerful state. The only difference between this means and that of the European system was that the Americans believed that they were a divine instrument set to make things right with the world whereas the European system was predicated on survival. In as much as the American public and its leaders thought and stated that they were not engaging in international affairs, their actions were purely of a foreign policy nature.