(I had submitted this article to The Wall Street Journal op-ed pages on November 06, 2009)
The United States, since 1789, was always isolationist. Except beyond its own borders to the west on the continent, it had stuck by George Washington’s dictum to avoid foreign quagmires until 1914. The Manifest Destiny west since Lewis and Clark had turned east across the Atlantic beginning with the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. Pearl Harbor had expanded it across the ocean on the other side to Japan.
Salvador Dali had painted a piece called “The Geopoliticus Child” after World War II. His surrealism in the painting stands out in its depiction of a new world order, the infant, hatching out of a bloody egg, for the expectation of the viewer is for the infant to be still born if the egg is bloody. The bloody eggs of the wars the United States did not start had yielded the Geopoliticus Child by 1945. The war that began in 1914 with a whimper had ended in the bang of the atomic bomb, with a period of uneasy quiet between 1918 and FDR’s election in 1932.
The world, as we all well know today, has not been still born out of that bloody egg. Surreally, the infant developed into a healthy adult and the egg healed. It hatched again after 1989 and birthed another new world order, trying to congeal into coherence. From our east to west, across the great oceans, the old worlds had their share of bloodshed. And they seem tired and hopefully more enlightened.
Before 1914, and even until before Pearl Harbor in 1941, American isolationism had served the United States well. After 1945, its engagement served both the world and the country also well. The world is mostly democratic and since 1993 is also more open economically.
The intellectual movement that began as a political philosophical war of ideas between the states and the people in eighteenth century Europe had produced the institutions of representative democracy and consequently the institutions of capitalism founded on democracy. As people know more about what is possible for the betterment of their own well-being they also become less amenable to centralized political authority. They begin to seek more participation in the political process but the economic causation of political liberalization need not necessarily lead to a Jeffersonian democracies. Both the Great Wars of the 20th century provide evidence to that effect in Western Europe. Political institutions and the law always precede capitalism as has been the seminal American experience.
The post-Cold War challenge of transition is one of the expectation of democratization through economic engagement with the democracies that are wealthier since World War II. Most of these democracies are in Western Europe. The transition countries are in the east of Eurasia. The two most populous continents on the planet have been joined at the hip since the advent of civilization, always integrating, politically and economically. Neither have adequate resources, unlike the Americas or Africa or Australia which makes it necessary for them to trade among each other more so that than it is necessary for the quasi-continental countries United States or Canada or the continental country Australia to trade with other countries in the world.
Economic protectionism is less about changing the tone and tenor of our government from democratic capitalism to socialism or worse as some fear, but more about strategic economic engagement with other countries. Trading less with other countries neither does nor should change the way we govern ourselves within our borders. After all, this is how it had been until 1914, exporting more than importing when we had to trade. The irony of American economic evolution is that regulation of the economy increased with foreign trade. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that we will get better regulation or as much regulation as is necessary if we reduce our dependence on foreign borrowing.
The isolationist streak of America since 1789 can thus once again become a viable strategic tool, just as its engagement had been in the 20th century, to let the 21st century world order set itself into place. If the rest of the world wants the United States to be less pushy, especially when they want peace more than war, perhaps it is indeed in our best interest to honor that sentiment.