Critics of 'Isolationism' Cherry-Pick the Worst Arguments For It
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When he returned home from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1981, Cato Institute co-founder Ed Crane wrote a classic essay (Fear and Loathing In the Soviet Union) in which he called into question the views of both left and right about the U.S.’s then-foremost enemy: To those on the left who felt communism a worthy, growth-infused alternative to capitalism and freedom, Crane calmly pointed out that the U.S.S.R. was desperately poor, with routinely bare store shelves picked over by miserable people. As for the members of the right convinced that a military buildup was necessary to beat the Soviet menace, Crane wisely pointed out that the Soviet Union presented no threat simply because it lacked any economy, and without an economy it lacked the means to go to war with the richest country on earth.

Crane’s thinking comes to mind now as members of the right and left denigrate so-called “isolationism” on the right in increasingly negative terms. This write-up is but one answer to the critics. The view here is that rather than rebutting real reasons for non-interventionism, critics are instead cherry-picking the worst arguments for avoiding global conflict; ones that non-interventionists don’t recognize as having much to do with their own reasoning. In other words, and without speaking for all non-interventionists, my strong lean against foreign adventurism has nothing to do with veneration of Donald Trump, disdain for Joe Biden, reverence for Vladimir Putin, fear that the U.S. is too weak or too broke, and it certainly has nothing to do with wanting to save bullets, bombs and money for an eventual war with China over Taiwan.  

To begin, and with Crane very much in mind, it’s useful to point out that in 1980 the U.S. had total debt of $900 billion, and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note was over 11 percent. In 2023 the U.S. has more than $33 trillion in total debt, yet the 10-year note presently yields over 700 basis points less than it did in the 1980s. If we think of 1986 as the high point of the Ronald Reagan era, the average yield on the 10-year in 1986 was 7.67 percent.

The rise in the value of Treasuries since the 1980s is a response to New York Times columnist David French’s recent opinion piece that a major driver of isolationism on the right is rooted in the right’s belief “that the nation is in ruins and can’t afford foreign commitments.” The latter has nothing to do with my own non-interventionist stance.

In my case, I don’t desire a reduced foreign footprint for the U.S. political class or military because we’re broke, but because we’re the opposite of broke. See Treasury yields. Our political class can access funds quite a bit more cheaply now than it did in the 1980s, and that’s what’s so troublesome. Politicians and bureaucrats who have a track record of getting so much wrong have way too much money at their disposal, and that’s dangerous.

I strongly believe governmental incompetence doesn’t stop at our borders. The very conceit that inspires politicians to fix things domestically applies to the dangerous notion of “do something” overseas. What worries me is the matching of governmental incompetence with copious amounts of capital from investors around the world, and who line up to lend to the U.S. political class precisely because the United States isn’t broke.  

Applying this way of looking at U.S. foreign policy to Ukraine, it has so far received $77 billion worth of support from the U.S., but the previous number doesn’t scratch the surface of what we’re capable of providing. In the latest funding bill from Congress, $60 billion more will be directed to Kyiv.

Which brings up another worry. Please consider the proposed financial commitment to Ukraine with Russia’s total debt well in mind: Russia can presently claim $190 billion built up over many decades. Think about those numbers for a second or two. U.S. politicians who can’t get anything right domestically have tens of billions at their disposal to direct to Ukraine, and in ways that drag us even further into a proxy war with Russia. Can those who turn their noses up to those of us who look askance at the size of our commitment really be so sure that there won’t be substantial blowback? Why are rhetorical skeptics of domestic federal spending so sure we’ll be get the spending right overseas? Without pretending for a second as some strangely do that Vladimir Putin is a sympathetic figure worth siding with, is Ukraine all that interventionists on the left and right have suddenly cracked it up to be?

Addressing the last question, no doubt Ukraine is a nascent democracy as some assert, but until fairly recently conservatives in particular looked askance at a country defined by corruption and astounding cronyism which included a certain energy company that purchased tight relations with Hunter Biden. Yet almost overnight a nation long known for its dishonest and oligarchic ways has become a cause celebre on the left, and within the so-called “Establishment” on the right? Why? And how does putting ourselves at war with Russia make us safer? If the answer is that war with Russia weakens Putin, how did that work out in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was taken out? Non-interventionists aren’t as optimistic as interventionists seemingly are that a Russian version of Thomas Jefferson is waiting in the wings after Putin. How quickly the always certain interventionists forget how disastrous our intervention was in the Middle East…

About the Middle East, conservatives in particular are finally admitting that perhaps the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and broader attempts to “democratize” the Middle East, were much less than successful. Trillions spent, and thousands of lives lost for what? Yet suddenly the very individuals who expressed the utmost certitude about intervening in the Middle East are expressing enormous disgust for skeptics of rising involvement in Ukraine, and surely beyond. It’s as though what happened in the Middle East didn’t happen.

After that, and pivoting squarely back to Ukraine, can we realistically say that life under Putin would be so much worse for Ukrainians versus the present Ukrainian leadership? If the answer is an unequivocal yes, interventionists might then contemplate their certitude with the present state of Ukraine top of mind. More specifically, interventionists would do well to answer the 20 percent decline in Ukraine’s population since fighting broke out. To show readers how substantial the previous number is, and how incredibly crippling it could be, consider that since 2015 Venezuela has lost 25 percent of its population. Without speaking for other non-interventionists, I’ll say that the fight that interventionists argue has been so worth it has in fact been disastrous for Ukraine. In the words of 19th century classical liberal John Stuart Mill about the ability of a nation to come back from difficulty, “it mainly depends on whether the country has been depopulated.” 

From there, what about the hundreds of thousands killed in a conflict arguably made possible by U.S. funds, not to mention the not insignificant destruction of so much within Ukraine? And when the fighting does eventually end, can anyone say with a straight face that it won’t be the U.S. paying for a rather expensive rebuild?

All of the above in mind, is it beyond the pale to suggest that no matter the outcome of the war, Ukraine and its tragically much smaller population will be much worse off? Does the previous speculation at least rate a fair hearing among those who lean more interventionist, and who are a bit more supercilious than the average bear?

One reasonable response from the interventionist side of the Ukraine argument is that if Putin had been allowed to take Ukraine without a fight, that he likely wouldn’t have stopped there. Maybe, maybe not. The bet here is maybe not, however, and the speculation is not informed by any presumption of foreign policy expertise. Instead, it’s an economic presumption. See Russia’s total debt of $190 billion once again. The latter isn’t a signal that Putin is a classical liberal thinker who understands that government spending is a cruel tax on progress, rather it’s a market signal that Russia’s economy is small now, and worse, investors don’t expect much growth from Russia in the future. Paraphrasing Crane, Russia plainly lacks the economy to expand its footprint in Europe or anywhere else.

About what’s been written so far, it cannot be stressed enough that it’s not meant as a rebuttal as much as it’s meant to offer a viewpoint that generally isn’t found in the efforts of opinion leaders to besmirch “isolationists.” Without once again speaking for all non-interventionists, I’ve yet to read a critique of non-interventionists that at all reflects what inspires my own, or that of the many non-interventionists I know. Which requires a pivot to Taiwan. Interventionists fear that rising non-interventionism in the U.S. signals “to China that Taiwan is too distant to defend.”

About Taiwan, it would be interesting to ask those who lean interventionist on the matter just how deep their commitment actually is. Assuming China invades Taiwan, would conservatives ever fearful of debt be willing to commit the treasure necessary to maybe save Taiwan from China? What if American blood is required in addition to treasure? About both, memory says Lawrence Lindsey was vilified by members of the right for putting a bigger price tag on U.S. involvement in Iraq than the Bush administration had estimated. It turns out Lindsey’s alleged overstatement about cost was understated by many miles. In which case it’s worth asking what it would cost to defend Taiwan in dollars, not to mention the much bigger cost in terms of people.

Taking this further, how giddy would the interventionists be if the cost of saving Taiwan included a draft? These questions rate asking given the size of China’s economy. Quite unlike Russia’s, China’s economy is large and growing. Unlike what interventionists suspected about Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military involvement meant to defend China would logically be quite a bit bloodier? Is protecting Taiwan from Xi Jinping worth it?

Of course, the much bigger question is whether a military response to China trying to acquire Taiwan is even necessary. The size of China’s economy requires mention yet again, along with the sizable flow of investment from the Mainland to Taiwan, and Taiwan to the Mainland. As this economic interconnectedness grows, so will the cost of any kind of bloody reunion. Good. Much better than an implied guarantee of military support, how about we encourage the very economic interconnectedness between China and Taiwan (perhaps an erasure of any and all Taiwanese tariffs on any goods from the Mainland?) that would make war of the shooting kind so costly for the two.

Indeed, one of many reasons behind my full support for open markets in the U.S. is that they make the cost of war with the U.S. so frightfully large. Really, who wants to shoot at their best customers? This is something to think about as the more interventionist among us increasingly demonize Chinese businesses, including most notably TikTok. If we ignore that TikTok’s immense popularity in the U.S. is a rather loud hint that it’s not controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), we can’t ignore that its 150 million U.S. users exist as somewhat of a peaceful shield for the U.S.

What’s true for China is happily true for us. Enormous symbols of American capitalism including Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Nike (to name a few) derive a not insignificant amount of their valuations from sales in China. This is a powerfully peaceful signal. War is bad for business, and war between the U.S. and China would be tragically bad for the economies of both countries. Good once again. As this is being written, McDonald’s just announced plans to increase its China store count from 5,500 to 10,000. “Isolationists” like me don’t want to retreat from the world, rather we very much want to be economically connected to it because we’re for freedom, because trade is the path to soaring prosperity, plus while it doesn’t ensure that there will never be war, free trade certainly makes it less likely. It’s a long way of saying that “isolationists” aren’t isolationist in their foreign policy as much they feel that the best foreign policy is rooted in good economics, not a massively global troop presence. Instead of calling us isolationists, call us modern disciples of the great British free trader Richard Cobden, and the “Manchester School” of thought that the 19th century free thinker was best known for. As Cobden put it about free trade and peace, they’re “one and the same cause.”

This is worth thinking about yet again with regard to Taiwan. Cross border investment between the mainland and Taiwan is enormous, which means an acquisition of Taiwan by China with guns would by extension be very costly in too many ways to count. It raises a question about whether the U.S.’s implicit guarantee of Taiwan’s defense is as wise is assumed. Doesn’t it delay more rational talks between Beijing and Taipei, and to the detriment of Taiwan? See the current state of Ukraine if you disagree.

Indeed, have the implications of a war between Taiwan and China been contemplated? If so, or even if not, let’s accept the view of the more interventionist among us that China is led by some bad people. Despite that, but with Ukraine’s parallel depopulation and destruction well in mind, can anyone say with any confidence that Taiwan would be in much better financial and human shape after a successful war with China for its independence? What if there’s a loss? And again, how much blood and treasure are Americans willing to expend for such an uncertain outcome?

Contrast the above with serious talks between Taiwan and China that might lead to a more peaceful re-unification, and without loss of life for China, Taiwan or the U.S. Are we really so wedded to the notion that Chinese leadership is too communist, authoritarian, or name the pejorative? It rates asking mainly because a visit to China itself reveals a country quite unlike the one portrayed in conservative media. While right-of-center media gives the impression of a communist state defined by totalitarianism, to visit China’s cities (I’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi, Shenzhen, and Kashgar) is to be bombarded with Americana everywhere one looks. McDonald’s expansion has already been mentioned, after which China is the biggest non-U.S. market for Nike, Starbucks, Tesla, and Apple, GM sells more cars in China than North America, etc. etc.

To merely mention the happy truth that the formerly starving Chinese are eating, and that China is an essential driver of U.S. prosperity, routinely gets me in trouble with members of the right. Fair enough. Liberty is what matters. At the same time, it doesn’t take a foreign policy genius to know that war between Taiwan, China, and eventually the U.S. will bring enormous harm to all three, and at the certain cost of liberty. There’s got to be a better way.

Which explains once again the viewpoint of non-interventionists. We’re not that way because we want to retreat from the world, but because we loathe war and think economic interconnectedness is much better as a driver of good foreign policy outcomes than are military alliances, interventions, or both. To which foreign policy eminences routinely turn up their noses. Really, how idealistic, how naive to imagine that trade will make the world safer from bad people?

Ok, but it’s not unreasonable to reply that it’s similarly naïve to presume that military force backed by billions and trillions will make the world safer or better. Think Iraq and the Middle East again, and think once again how certain so many foreign policy eminences were about a positive outcome. Except that as former Iraq War proponent Martin Peretz put it in his memoir, he wasn’t aware of “how much I didn’t know I didn’t see.” Well, yes. And my response isn’t see I told you so, as much as the world is a complicated place. And war incredibly complicated. Avoid it all costs. What reads as simple rarely is. And it’s not made better with more money coughed up by eminently fallible politicians.

In closing, my non-interventionism once again has little to nothing to do with how prominent members of the right and left are describing it to their readers. Mine is rooted in a Manchester School belief that free trade is the greatest foreign policy concept mankind ever came up with, so let’s try it. If we ever forget the latter, let’s remind ourselves (members of the right in particular) why we’re so skeptical of government in the first place: it’s incompetent, and that incompetence doesn’t stop at our borders. And if we ever forget the first two truths, let’s constantly remind ourselves of a conservative truth that incompetence is rarely improved when more money is thrown at it. There’s my so-called “isolationism,” a way of looking at the world that critics of isolationism have yet to address.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, President of the Parkview Institute, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors ( His latest book, set for release in April of 2024 and co-authored with Jack Ryan, is Bringing Adam Smith Into the American Home: A Case Against Homeownership

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