No matter who becomes President, American isolationism will be a strong force

 “Who can bring the jobs back?” I overheard a man say on the New York City subway as he and two friends held an animated debate about the US Presidential election. In a time of tremendous unease about America’s future, it’s not surprising that the economy is foremost in voters’ minds as they head to the polls today.

I live in Israel but was born and raised in New York, and recently returned from an extended trip to the States, the longest stretch I’ve spent there in almost twenty years. What particularly struck me in conversations with both Democrats and Republicans in New York, New Jersey and Florida was how much the recent economic collapse has created huge concern and shaken America’s confidence, with the resulting impulse for Americans to turn inward to solve America’s problems, at the expense of foreign affairs.

The U.S. has long had an isolationist streak, starting at the nation’s beginnings when the first American president George Washington warned in his farewell address in 1796 against foreign entanglements, saying: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” In the same vein, the third president Thomas Jefferson declared in his inaugural address: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” In modern times, the United States stayed out of World War I until 1917, a year before the war’s end, and did not enter World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, even though Hitler’s armies had swept through Europe beginning in September 1939.

Clearly, the American posture has changed dramatically in the post-World War II period, with the United States emerging as the world’s preeminent economic power. It took a leadership position during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and remains the key military and political power within NATO. Within the past twenty or so years, President George H.W. Bush gathered an international military coalition to overturn Saddam Hussein’s capture of Kuwait, President Bill Clinton led military action in the Balkans with air attacks against Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav positions after their massacres of Muslims, and President George W. Bush led two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

However, today the nation faces a staggering national debt which is $16 trillion and rising, with several trillion more owed by state and local governments. It is still tentatively recovering from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, when the federal government bailed out big chunks of the automobile industry and banking system and millions of people lost their jobs. In certain parts of the country, real estate prices collapsed and many mortgages remain “under water,” where people owe more than their houses are worth. China runs a massive trade surplus with the US and uses the dollars it receives to buy US Treasury debt, in the process becoming America’s largest creditor.

The US Federal Reserve has cut short-term interest rates to almost zero and embarked on a massive money printing exercise dubbed “quantitative easing,” yet this has not prevented what has been the weakest US recovery from a recession since the end of World War II.  Economic growth remains anemic at 2% and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 7.9%, although these figures compare well with the European Union, which is going through its own crisis. The US government also faces the so-called “fiscal cliff” at year-end, when unless an agreement is reached in Congress, huge automatic tax increases and sweeping budget cuts will kick in, perhaps risking the fragile economic recovery.

On top of this, the wars in the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the nation greatly, with thousands of American soldiers killed and over $3 trillion spent. It feels to me that Americans have had enough of foreign adventures for the foreseeable future. At present, it is clear that President Obama is carefully trying to avoid new foreign military entanglements, happy to take a back seat to British and French leadership in the action against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya (though American air power did end up playing the key role) and refraining from military intervention in Syria, even as the death toll has climbed above 36,000 people, many of them civilians.

Though a possible President Romney would sound a very different tone internationally, I’m not sure he would or could act very differently, given the constraints and mood the country is operating under.  Of course, a foreign crisis can always break out and force America’s hand, as George W. Bush experienced after 9/11.  In addition, one can make the argument that indecision, inaction or weakness abroad ultimately leads to the very conflict that one was trying to avoid.  

However, given the current climate I think Times of Israel editor David Horovitz analyzed it correctly.  In his recent piece The limits of friendship, focusing particularly on Iran, a key concern for Israelis, he wrote: “The differences between Obama and Romney on stopping Iran are important, but not as important as the context in which the next US president will be operating – in an America that wants to avoid almost any war at almost any cost…And who can blame Americans for that?”


About the Author
Gavin Gross, a New York City native, was a commodities trader in New York and London before serving as Director of Public Affairs at the British Zionist Federation (ZF). He has appeared on BBC TV and radio, Al Jazeera English, and Iran's Press TV discussing Israel issues. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, University of London, and now lives in Israel.