Isolationism in Contemporary Public Discourse


It should be noted that the term “isolationism” has been most often used to describe American approaches to the country’s strategy in the international arena. This American policy provoked discussions in political, military, and academic communities regarding the prospects for multilateral cooperation between the US and other countries within international institutions. At the same time, the discourse on the problem of one-sidedness and multilateralism at the level of the political and expert communities was reflected in the process of shaping foreign and defense policies. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the way isolationism has been deconstructed in contemporary public discourse and pinpoint its implications as applied to the domain of the nation.

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Description of the Source

The chosen public discourse is called “What We Talk about When We Talk about Isolationism,” which is an article written by Zach Dorfman in 2012. As for the context of this source, historically, it may be characterized as a left-wing magazine publishing a spectrum of different articles. In terms of the political scope, the founders of the intellectual magazine identified themselves with the views of democratic socialism (Isserman). Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the majority of viewpoints reflected in the publications represent the Left positions (Isserman). This is a crucial remark to be made given the topic of the selected discourse, which is American isolationism and its significance as applied to the US nation.

Foreign Policy Framework

Prior to analyzing the foreign policy framework and cultural constructs raised in the discourse, it is necessary to specify the main idea of the discussion raised by Dorfman. The major argument made in the text centers on the fact that that the term “isolationism” is inaccurate and, in fact, it is misleading in the way it specifies America’s relationship with the world. The author argues that isolationism is perceived by the population quite wrongfully, which is the result of the course of action employed by the state (Dorfman).

In particular, the term implies that one nation engages in a peaceful and neutral relation with another nation and rejects the idea of exhibiting dominance in its affairs. Meanwhile, the US is often regarded as a country, which has the right to intervene in the affairs of other countries but either fails to engage or chooses not to do it. This comprehension is wrongful in its core since isolationism does not imply cutting off from the world but rather remaining diplomatically neutral.

The discourse reveals the idea that the US is gradually moving away from the policy of benevolent hegemony. The rejection of this model in favor of national egoism in the defense sphere led to the fact that America’s military power implied the vulnerability of other countries (Dorfman). The author cites multiple examples to confirm that US foreign policy has become the main threat to the interests of the outside world. Thus, the term isolationism needs to be expanded to include the concept of unilateralism as a means of realizing the narrowly defined national interests of the United States. Curiously, the writer specifies the notion of unilateralism as “the ability for the United States to do what it wants, when it wants” (Dorfman). It is important to emphasize that this expanded interpretation will still not reflect the full range of trends of the conceptual thought of the United States.

The fundamental difference between the initial and the current interpretation of the concept of isolationism is linked to the international obligations of the US in relations with the outside world. The author noted that isolationism was closely associated with unilateralism since the United States often adhered to the need for unilateral refusal of political and military obligations towards other countries.

Interventional foreign policy did not make sense since the US was a strategically invulnerable country, which implied the absence of the need for political or military intervention. As the author puts it, the country spends “over $600 billion dollars a year on our military budget; the next largest is China’s, at “only” around $100 billion” (Dorfman). Interestingly, the refusal to intervene extends until an instance when there is a direct threat to the American nation.

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Interestingly, the narration in the discourse gradually moves from the discussion of isolationism to the analysis of the isolationism – internationalism dichotomy. The author cites the example of Randolph Bourne and his thoughts on the Americanization of immigrants in order to show how the first concept is interconnected with the second one, which leads to a misleading substitution (Dorfman).

The complexity of the dichotomy as applied to foreign policy issues lies in the fact that the first aspect focuses on the maximum independence of the United States from the orders of other countries. The second domain indicates the need and intention of the country to promote American values in the world (Walt 115). However, the policy of isolationism presupposes neutrality in relation to the affairs of other nations; therefore, the dichotomy existing in the country contains a contradiction.

Further Points

Notably, the discourse put forward by Dorfman considers the concept of isolationism from different points of view. On the one hand, the writer gives an example in which isolationism implies refraining from the conclusion of permanent military alliances (Walt 18). It is curious that he emphasizes that this concept does not mean the isolation of America from the rest of the world but the need to refrain from making permanent military obligations to other countries. In the discussion, the concept of isolationism echoes the concept of anti-interventionism, but the two domains are not synonymous.

Following the arguments suggested in the discussion, it may be assumed that the author proposes a broader interpretation of isolationism. This concept includes the macro strategy of the country’s military and political non-interference in international affairs and in the internal affairs of other sovereign states (Walt 352). Moreover, this framework should be coupled with economic protectionism and cultural isolation. The expansion of this concept makes it possible to consider the historical traditions and the current state of the isolation vector of America’s foreign policy more adequately.

Framework and its Relation to The Cultural Construct of Nation

It is important that the discourse proceeds from a detailed discussion of politics to the difficulties associated with isolationism as applied to the nation and the well-being of the population. In the article, the author notes that the policy of isolationism has already become part of the mentality and culture of the country. He states that “the idea that global military dominance and political hegemony is in the U.S. national interest—and the world’s interest—is generally taken for granted domestically” (Dorfman).

However, closer to the end of the discussion, he focuses on the fact that such a political position critically affects the nation in the first place. The United States made great efforts to protect other countries from such phenomena as communism and left-wing dictators (Walzer 256). Nonetheless, during that time, the American allies were able to build a robust economy. Moreover, some of these countries managed to introduce free medicine and education by saving on military spending.

The article leads the reader to the idea that less active participation in the affairs of the rest of the world will allow solving the problems inside the country. According to the writing, obsession with national security “depletes U.S. coffers, obviously, diverting resources that could be spent on health care, education, or environmental protection, among many other things” (Dorfman). The writer further concludes that “a desire for a more just domestic order requires paying detailed attention to the U.S. role on the international stage, and how that feeds back into politics and culture at home” (Dorfman). Therefore, the discourse stresses the need for a drastic reduction in military spending in favor of those social programs that are chronically unresolved due to lack of funds.

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Thus, it can be concluded that the public discourse by Dorfman offers an insightful discussion on the need to comprehend the notion of American isolationism correctly. He put forward an idea that this domain was interpreted in a misleading and inaccurate way. Dorfman further expressed thoughts regarding the desire of the US to ramp up national security, which had resulted in an instance when the well-being of the nation was undermined due to irrational use of funds.

Works Cited

Dorfman, Zach. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Isolationism.Dissent Magazine, 18 May 2012. Web.

Isserman, Maurice. “Steady Work: Sixty Years of Dissent.Dissent Magazine. 2014. Web.

Walt, Stephen M. The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Walzer, Michael. A Foreign Policy for the Left. Yale University Press, 2018.

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