Is Obama an Isolationist?


President Barack Obama’s June 22 speech announcing his plans for eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted debate about troop numbers and timetables. But beyond those specific judgments, there was in the speech an implicit challenge to the reigning logic of America’s post–Cold War foreign policy. In declaring, “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” Obama has reintroduced a line of reasoning that has for decades been misrepresented as isolationism and protectionism.

Since the end of the Cold War a bipartisan consensus has guided American foreign policy. Regardless of the president in power or the majority party in Congress, a series of broad assumptions drawn from a narrow view of American history has informed all major decisions. The defining incident in this narrative is the supposed isolationism of the American public in the 1920s and ’30s. In this telling, American isolationism played a decisive role in causing the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, and it was only Roosevelt’s internationalist leanings that saved us from the error of our ways. There is more than a little truth to this characterization of our past. What should concern us, however, is the simplistic way this period of history is used to marginalize dissent.

In every major debate of the post–Cold War era, the overwhelming majority of our foreign policy elite, be they in the media,...

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About the Author

Gregory Metzger received a master’s degree in international relations from Boston University. His work has appeared in the Christian Century, Books & Culture, and Touchstone.