Foreign Policy, Then and Now: A Conversation with Thomas Woods, Jr.

Brian Saint-Paul speaks with Dr. Thomas Woods Jr. about isolationism, non-interventionism, the foreign policy of the Founders, and how we got where we are today.

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Brian Saint-Paul: In the realm of foreign policy, what’s the difference between isolationism and non-interventionism? The terms are often used interchangeably — and incorrectly — in the current presidential race.

Thomas E. Woods Jr.: An isolationist — if words have any meaning at all — is someone who wants to isolate the country from interaction with the rest of the world. We’re not talking simply about disengagement from foreign conflicts but also drastically reducing our trade relations around the world — and perhaps, initiating trade wars. So the real isolationist is someone who wants the military budget limited to what’s required to defend the country, but who also wants national self sufficiency and isn’t interested in diplomatic engagement.

When you put it that way, very few people would qualify as isolationists. We should remember that the term itself wasn’t actually invented by those critical of U.S. foreign policy. The term ‘isolationist’ was actually invented by their opponents to smear them in the 1930s, and frankly, I can’t think of anybody who would take a totally isolationist view.

So the Founders were not isolationists?

No, they were in favor of non-interventionism, which is a different thing.

Non-interventionism means that while we do want to isolate the country from foreign conflicts, we don’t want to roll up into a ball and sit in the corner. Non-interventionists don’t want to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries and we don’t want to get involved in wars that are none of our business. And we want to define what is our business in a reasonable, non-insane kind of way. After all, not everything in the world is our business.

In other words, the non-interventionist wants to follow the advice of John Quincy Adams:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Beyond that, a non-interventionist supports international trade, cultural exchange, diplomatic contact, etc. A lot of the people who are smeared with the label ‘isolationist,’ actually hold this view. Non-interventionists say we do want to interact with the rest of the world, we just don’t want to bomb them.

That’s a nice difference.

It’s odd to me that the guy who doesn’t want to bomb people is considered the isolationist, while the ‘internationalist’ is the one who wants to go bombing. In the 1990s, did the Republicans become isolationists because they didn’t want to bomb Serbs who had never done anything to Americans? Were they suddenly isolationists then?

Incidentally, a non-interventionist posture would also generally refrain from using sanctions as a weapon. Sanctions almost always hurt the target population and do not hurt the regime. In fact, the regime is usually able to exploit the sanctions and position themselves as the great anti-American martyrs, outrageously put upon by the wicked Americans. It gives them every rhetorical device they could want to pose as the great heroes of their country against the Americans and their sanctions.

And since these regimes aren’t usually loved by their people, we may be unintentionally delaying a popular revolt by making ourselves a bigger irritant than their dictator.

Right. Just look at Cuba. What have the sanctions against Cuba accomplished? Is Castro out of power? It’s taking about 48… 49 years, and counting. Come on. The policy has had no effect other than to allow Castro to become the great martyr who thumbs his nose at America. But since the issue is so politically sensitive, you can’t even raise this obvious point.{mospagebreak}

And what about the view that we never negotiate with hostile foreign leaders anymore? Almost no conservatives ever took this view. It was understood that you even had to talk to the Soviet Union — it’s a geopolitical reality. But today, it’s considered evidence of weakness if you meet with a foreign leader with whom you’re having a feud. This is not a conservatism that the intelligent conservatives of yesteryear would have recognized.

In my thinking, that’s the isolationist position. Refusing to engage diplomatically and imposing sanctions that isolate you from other countries.

It’s as if anything short of military engagement is considered isolationism. It’s remarkable.

Murray Rothbard reminded us that Richard Cobden — one of the great classical liberals of the 19th century — opposed all of the military interventions of his government. And yet, he was not called an isolationist; he was called the International Man. And it makes sense — he didn’t want international conflict if it could be avoided.

You mentioned that the foreign policy of the Founders was clearly non-interventionist. We see that with Washington, Jefferson — and you mentioned John Quincy Adams. They encouraged us to take advantage of the ocean separating us from turbulent Europe. But of course, the modern world is different and those oceans aren’t as big as they once seemed.

Is non-interventionism even possible today?

It’s not only possible, but it’s more urgent than ever. One insight that conservatives have long had is that when you intervene in the domestic market, you always have unintended consequences. Put a price control on milk and make milk less expensive and pretty soon, you’ll have shortages, because no one is producing milk anymore and the discounted milk was bought up. That’s what happens.

Foreign affairs are even more likely to have unintended consequences. Woodrow Wilson did not intend to exacerbate every existing problem in Europe by intervening in World War I. But that’s what he did, and he helped create the fertile soil for the rise of a hyper nationalistic party like the Nazis.

So then how does non-interventionism fit with the terrorist threat? Terrorism has no borders.

Well, let’s take terrorism — the strongest objection. My thinking on this would follow very much the lines of what Mr. Republican, Robert Taft was saying in the late 1940s, when he thought the Truman administration was actually provoking the Soviet Union. No one in his right mind would question Taft’s conservative credentials. But Taft, as a conservative, was not a utopian and rejected the idea that American military might could solve all problems, or that the military budget was infinite.

He didn’t want to be needlessly belligerent.

Right. Now apply that to terrorism. Obviously, the terrorists themselves bear the moral responsibility for what they do. The person who sets off a bomb is responsible for setting off a bomb — we all understand that. However, it is at least logically possible that the person setting off the bomb feels like he’s behaving in a defensive way, or that he’s responding in a guerrilla fashion to policies he doesn’t like. That’s at least possible.

Now, let’s say that for half a century or more, our government has in a bipartisan way been stirring up trouble in the Middle East. I think that’s clearly true. So for the sake of argument, could this not be a contributing factor for why people are committing acts of terrorism against the United States, as opposed to Switzerland or some other country?

A lot of people don’t want to hear that.

Well, it’s not a matter of saying that we’re to blame. No one is saying that we’re somehow responsible for terrorism. All we’re asking is this: If our foreign interventions can cause these possible consequences, is it worth the risk? It’s possible that we may conclude that — for the sake of our security — we need to have bases all over the world, no matter what the cost. At least we’d be acknowledging that there’s a cost/benefit angle to this.

That’s what gets missed. So in raising the question, we’re not “blaming America” or removing the responsibility from the terrorists. We’re simply saying that these acts will happen as a result of our doing this, so are we still sure we want to do it?{mospagebreak}

So why are we being attacked?

In the 1980s, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for a jihad against America, on the grounds that we were degenerate, had filthy movies, our women didn’t know their place — all the reasons that we’ve been told are the causes of the current attacks. The result was absolutely nothing. No one blew himself up. No one did anything. Khomeini issued the call and there was no interest. It was a total flop — no one wanted to sacrifice himself on those grounds.

Then the 1990s come along, and we have Osama bin Laden. He does not make that fundamental cultural critique — obviously, he doesn’t like those aspects of American culture, but that wasn’t his main critique.

His criticism is actually very specific. He says the U.S. is responsible for propping up police states around the Arab world; exercising undue influence over oil markets; showing undue favoritism toward Israel; supporting countries that oppress their Muslim minorities; basing American troops on the Arabian peninsula, and on and on.

This is the sort of thing he offers as a rationale. So while there may certainly be the potential for Islam to be violent, what sparks that fire? It’s the combination of practical grievances and the Islamist ideology. Some people will do battle on behalf of an abstract philosophy, but most people will only fight and die for a specific grievance. For example, when you look at the Al Qaida recruitment tapes, they don’t simply quote from the Koran. They actually show images of people killed by U.S. weapons.

Why are they making those tapes if there’s no connection between U.S. foreign policy and what the terrorists are doing? It just doesn’t make sense.

You mentioned the foreign policy of the Founders and its incompatibility with what we have today. What happened? Who was responsible for this new, interventionist — almost imperial — America?

A conventional answer, but a good answer: Starting in the late 1890s, the political and intellectual elites latched onto the idea that the United States needed to have more of a foreign presence.

Of course, in the 1890s, a lot of the argument was economic. ‘We need international trade for the sake of our prosperity, and in order to secure our trade we need to have a big navy,’ they said. That meant refueling stations, coaling stations, and naval bases, all the way to the coveted markets in Asia. It became very useful strategically to have a position in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines, because then you have a forward position to be able to penetrate those markets.

This is the rationale offered by many today — that we need a stable world so we can have stable trade.

Right. It was thought that the free economy required some level of foreign intervention. But there were other people like Theodore Roosevelt for whom the economic arguments were secondary. For him, it was just a good thing for the U.S. to be one of the Great Powers. And to be a Great Power, you need to be overseas, prying your way into those markets.

That became known as the Large Policy. The Large Policy was the policy by which the United States tried to acquire bases and colonies — in the case of the Philippines — for the sake of projecting itself into contested places like Asia, where the European powers were carving out exclusive trading areas for themselves.

Was there no outcry? This is a significant shift in foreign policy.

Yes. The United States acquired overseas colonies after the Spanish American War. It got Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. That involved the brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines, and there was a lot of soul searching about that on the part of Americans. They started to ask, “Here we are, a country born out of colonial revolt. And now we see our leaders suppressing an anti-colonial revolt. Should we really be doing this?”

Was the concern bipartisan?

Actually, historians of the anti-imperial movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s have noted that it was primarily made up of conservatives. These were people who believed they were conserving the old America, which “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We’re talking about people like former president Grover Cleveland — and there were other former presidents involved. Mark Twain was in there, as well.

I think we’re going through the same kind of soul-searching today. There’s a cross-ideological movement that’s not represented on the cable news networks or the small range of opinion that you see from the New Republic to The Weekly Standard. There seems to be a meeting of the minds that maybe this isn’t what America is supposed to be. Maybe she’s just supposed to set a good example for the world.

In the 19th century, that’s what everyone assumed. Henry Clay was voicing that when he said, in effect, ‘We’re not doing the world any good when we bankrupt ourselves fighting wars all over the place. We will extinguish the great beacon that we are.’ He said we need to unfurl the banner of freedom here and show the world how it’s done. But ultimately other people have to fight for their own freedom.

As Lord Byron said, “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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