The Return of the Isolationist Republicans
Western civilization needs American leadership. Some on the right want to abdicate that role.
I recently looked back at what my predecessor and mentor, Robert Bartley, said in 2002 upon his retirement. He surveyed his 30 years as Journal editor and the progress that had been made. America had won the Cold War, vanquished the stagflation of the 1970s, and quieted the social convulsions of the 1960s and ’70s.
“What I think I’ve learned over 30 years,” Bob wrote, “is that in this society, rationality wins out, progress happens, and problems have solutions. This, I like to think, is what happens when a society incorporates the editorial credo of my newspaper, free markets and free people. In that kind of a society, optimism pays.” He had cause to claim vindication.
Twenty-one years later, I wish I could say the same. Most of the victories that Bob celebrated have eroded or vanished. But then Bob predicted that too. His book, “The Seven Fat Years,” made clear that peace and prosperity are contingent, that the seven fat years in the Bible followed seven lean years. That the Belle Époque of the early 20th century soon gave way to World War I and Stalin, Hitler and Tojo.
This is a lesson that conservatives understand. Progressives—God bless them—believe that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice, as Barack Obama liked to quote Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes it does, but not without much human agency. Progressives believe that human nature can be molded like soft clay. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in—well, we believe in human nature.
We know that things can get worse, and they probably will. The essayist Joseph Epstein reviewed a book in the Journal some years ago about pessimism, and the headline summed up a certain conservative disposition: Upbeat pessimism, he called it. The world may get better, but you better not count on it.
This is the disposition another Journal editor, Vermont Royster, explained when I interviewed him for the 100th anniversary of the Journal in 1989. I asked if after all he had seen in his life he was an optimist or pessimist. He said, “Well, I’m a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist. As long as you define the long term as 500 years.”
With upbeat pessimism in mind, I want to address one of our current troubles, which is urgent but also solvable. That is the decline of America’s defenses—military and political. This weakness has been exposed in sharp relief in the last two years, and it is worse than most Americans know. We face an array of adversaries more formidable than at any time since World War II, and we aren’t prepared for the moment.
In 2019, in a visit to the White House, I met with a senior foreign-policy official. The conversation included his concern about Iran propping up Venezuela’s dictatorship with oil supplies. “Have you considered interdicting the tankers at sea?” I asked.
“We have,” he said, but the nearest ship we could find was a Dutch frigate in the middle of the Atlantic. “This isn’t Ronald Reagan’s Navy.”
Recently I spoke with a U.S. ambassador in Asia who, noting the balance of military power against China, said, “The way we have let our defenses decline is criminal.”
The war in Ukraine has taught us that our defense production lines are inadequate. Our long-range antiship missile stocks would run out in a week in a war over Taiwan. We trail Russia and China on hypersonic weapons. Or consider one example from the U.S. Navy.
The Navy’s attack submarines are the best deterrent we have against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The Navy says it needs 66 hulls, yet only 31 were “operationally ready” this past fiscal year. To satisfy the Navy’s needs, and meet our commitments under the Aukus accords, we would have to build an average of at least 2.3 subs a year. We are building 1.2. I could cite many such examples.
The relevant questions are: How did we get here? And what to do about it?
The answer to the first question is that we forgot the lesson of history. One of my military mentors was Andy Marshall, the legendary Pentagon strategist, who liked to say that peace is best understood as an interlude between wars. Robert Gates issued a similar warning as he retired as defense secretary in 2011 when he said that, when wars end, the U.S. always makes the mistake of drawing down defenses and leaving ourselves vulnerable. We ignored him.
So what do we do about it? The obvious initial answer is to spend more on defense, and soon. But that is the easy part; we know the policy solution. The harder issue is finding the political will to do it, while persuading adversaries that we are credible enough to restore American deterrence. As we have learned in Ukraine and now in the Middle East, U.S. deterrence has faded. And the world’s rogues are on the march.
On this score, my worry is less about the political left than some of our friends on the right. Modern progressives will always put the welfare state above defenses because that is their governing model and ideology. They believe in the restraining power of international treaties and arms control. They believe adversaries will be deterred by America’s forbearance and good example. They will never rebuild our defenses without pressure from the political right.
What worries me these days is the lack of unity and resolve on the right. That includes the return of conservative isolationism. The proponents of this view would not identify themselves with that term, but the policies they espouse justify it.
Senators, think-tank leaders, Silicon Valley billionaires with a podcast, even presidential candidates argue in some way or another in favor of a U.S. retreat from the world. They start by denying that defending Ukraine is in our interests. But listen and you can hear where this goes. Next they say we should consider withdrawing from NATO or South Korea. They are willing to support Israel, at least for now, but that won’t last if it means engaging more in the Middle East.
What is most striking is how much this isolationism of the right resembles the traditional isolationism of the left. Isolationists in the Vietnam era argued that America wasn’t good enough for the world. We were baby killers and imperialists. This is the view of today’s pro-Hamas left.
As Charles Krauthammer pointed out 20 years ago, the conservative isolationism that flourished in the 1930s argued the opposite—that America was too good for the world. Our republican values shouldn’t be tarnished by the bloody intrigues of Europe or Asia. But the new isolationists on the right now agree with the left that the U.S. doesn’t deserve to lead the world. They say we are too degraded culturally and too weak fiscally to play the role we did during the Cold War. They say we are too woke and too broke.
There is an element of truth to this critique. We are neither as culturally united nor as fiscally sound as we were in the 1980s. But this is not an adequate excuse for an American retreat from the world. And it cannot be an excuse for failing to protect national security, the first obligation of government.
The fiscal objection is simply false. Defense spending is at an historic post-World War II low as a share of the economy. We can afford to spend more on defense even at our present level of national debt. In two years alone the Biden Democrats spent $11.6 trillion on things other than defense. We can make spending choices. Yet the same conservatives who say we can’t spend more on defense because we are broke also say we can’t reform entitlements because it is too difficult. This is political surrender. It is exactly the corner that Barack Obama and the left have wanted to back us into.
As for being too woke, that battle is not lost. It is being fought by parents in school districts across the country. It is being fought by those who resist the ESG agenda in business. I suspect the shock of the pro-Hamas protests on college campuses will awaken more Americans to the anti-American corruption of many of our universities.
We have also been here before with the military. In the 1970s, after Vietnam, morale and recruiting hit a low point. But an officer corps that included Colin Powell and Jack Keane helped to revive the esprit and the reputation of the armed forces. Within a decade the military of dope and defeat was the military of “Top Gun.” Today the Marines are still meeting their recruiting quotas by resisting identity politics and putting sacrifice and discipline first.
I must acknowledge another problem here, and that is the legacy of failed interventions abroad, especially Iraq. Those of us who supported that intervention promised more than the U.S. delivered—more, it turned out, than we were capable of delivering to societies that didn’t want what we were selling.
Based on what we knew at the time, or what we thought we knew, there is still a reasonable defense for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is no longer a regional or global menace. The Gulf Arabs have had to choose between Iran and a U.S.-backed Israel, and they have been choosing Israel. But the Iraq occupation was botched, the cost was far too high, and the political consequences have been destructive.
I’ll admit my own role here. I spent my 20s in Asia as a reporter covering the democratic revolutions in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. Those successes filled me with too much optimism about the potential for democratic change. I knew too little about Arab and Muslim society and so underestimated the challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those troubled interventions have now become a political veto the way Vietnam once was for the left. No more nation-building, as they say.
But we are not nation-building in Israel or Ukraine. Israel is trying to preserve itself as a nation. Ukrainians are fighting to preserve their nascent democracy and join the West. It is more than a little ironic that the same people who criticize the intervention in Iraq for seeking to promote democracy now criticize aid to Ukraine because it isn’t a perfect democracy.
As Arthur Herman has pointed out, in Israel and Ukraine we are also defending Western civilization. Israel is an outpost of the West, a descendant of the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem, among neighbors who would destroy it precisely because of that heritage. Ukraine aspires to be the same. In helping them defend themselves, we are defending our founding principles. And we are helping them with weapons, not with American troops.
Different interventions overseas need to be judged on their own terms. For two decades the left had its Vietnam Syndrome against U.S. intervention abroad. Now the right is developing an Iraq Syndrome that is equally as mistaken.
Which brings me to the politics of isolationism. History shows it is a political loser for whichever party adopts it. In the 1930s the Republicans resisted what they called foreign entanglements. Even as Hitler rose in Germany and the militarists rose in Japan, Sen. Gerald Nye and other Republicans devoted their energy to investigating U.S. weapons makers. They voted for the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936 and 1937. They even opposed Lend-Lease to Britain.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, Republicans were discredited politically for a decade. It might have been longer if they hadn’t nominated Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
Democrats suffered a similar fate after they became the party of “come home, America” during and after Vietnam. They slashed aid to South Vietnam in 1975, and Saigon fell within weeks. Democratic hawks became Republican neoconservatives, and Republicans dominated the White House for a generation until the end of the Cold War.
Republicans are inviting a similar fate now if they abandon Ukraine to Russia. Or if they withdraw from NATO. Or if they signal to China that Taiwan is too distant to defend. The disorder that results from that abdication will be blamed on those who refused to deter it—and America will eventually be drawn into conflicts as a result of that disorder.
I am not arguing for willy-nilly intervention around the world. We must pick our spots. Prudence is a conservative virtue abroad as much as at home. We should also not fight wars that we are not willing to do what it takes to win. But when friends ask for help to defend themselves, we should make sure we have the strength and weapons to help them—and defend ourselves in the bargain.
I’ll end by addressing the popular new line of the new right. Perhaps you’ve heard it: “Do you know what time it is?” It’s intended as an insult, as in: Stop invoking Ronald Reagan, old man, and get with the 21st century. But it’s the wrong question. The right question is: What time do you want it to be?
Do you want it to be the 1930s, when America watched from afar as dictators began to march? We pretended we were safe, only to be attacked with our guard down. It took four years and 400,000 dead Americans to win World War II. This isn’t yet the 1930s, but they will arrive soon enough on our present course.
Or would you prefer this time to be like the 1970s and 1980s, when the American right united behind a mission of rearmament, economic revival and renewed national purpose? When we won the Cold War and ushered in two decades of prosperity.
Don’t believe the pessimists who say we can’t do it again. Stick with the upbeat pessimists, who know we can do it—if we rally the political will to do it.
Mr. Gigot is the Journal’s editorial page editor. This is adapted from remarks Tuesday at the annual Irving Kristol award dinner hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
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Appeared in the November 11, 2023, print edition as ‘Isolationism Makes a Perilous Moment More So’.