Avoiding Entanglements

People at both ends of the American political spectrum are giving new currency to George Washington's classic admonition

By , Edward A. Olsen is professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

THE trauma of the Vietnam war stimulated non-interventionist sentiment among some Americans who were reluctant to see the United States again risk getting bogged down in more geopolitical quagmires. They were quickly tagged with a ``neo-isolationist'' label. The most articulate exponents of this view are on the left, individuals such as Ramsey Clark and George McGovern. They and others bore the brunt of nearly universal conservative criticism for advocating a warmed-over isolationist foreign policy that, it was claimed, would leave US allies vulnerable to aggression and dangerously diminish American influence in world affairs.

The end of the cold war has fostered a remarkable transformation among some conservative intellectuals who have rediscovered the conservative movement's pre-war isolationist roots. The most notable exponents of this cold warrior's form of revisionism are Patrick Buchanan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Robert Novak, and Joseph Sobran.

Is the right co-opting the left's prerogatives on neo-isolationism? Probably not, but the apparent convergence of left and right on neo-isolationist common ground deserves closer scrutiny by the center.

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President George Washington long ago counseled Americans not to become ensnared in entangling permanent alliances. For most of its history, the US followed that advice and profited accordingly, without concern over whether it was a ``leftist'' or a ``rightist'' position. The lessons of Chamberlain-era appeasement, World War II, and the cold war caused a major shift in US foreign policy away from George Washington's precept. Diverse commitments to collective security and seemingly permanent alliances were formed.

The end of the cold war, with Western allies claiming victory, and the current level of cooperation in the Persian Gulf, seem to reinforce the wisdom of post-war collective security alliances. Despite appearances, however, this is an excellent time to reconsider President Washington's admonition and return to the still sound principles of a no-entangling-alliances doctrine.

During the last half century a stereotype emerged equating American isolationism with head-in-the-sand noninvolvement. Still worse, contemporary American neo-isolationism has acquired a reputation for radicalism. Neither perception is warranted. Actually, the US remained active in world affairs throughout its long ``isolationist'' years, but on its own terms. Americans were actively engaged abroad economically and did not refrain from diplomatic and military assertiveness when US interests warranted.

In other words, supposedly isolationist Americans remained active participants in world affairs. The avoidance of entanglements, not abstention from international affairs, was (and is) entirely consonant with the liberal, conservative, and centrist traditions in American politics.

During the latter stages of the cold war, arguments over proper levels of burden-sharing between the US and increasingly rich allies reflected a gnawing feeling by many Americans, again on the left and the right, that the benefits of alliances in Europe and Asia no longer were equitable.

The Persian Gulf crisis, as the first post-cold war test of collective security, has had mixed results. Many analysts are pleasantly surprised by the extent and effectiveness of United Nations-sanctioned economic restraints and by the variety of defensive military contributions. In fact, this should not be surprising at all given international sensitivity to disruptions in the flow of oil.

The current crisis, on the surface, reassures virtually all mainstream defense analysts about the virtues of collective security - whether defined in economic or military terms. Should this crisis last or escalate seriously, however, truly profound burden-sharing questions, which already have become controversial, are likely to reshape the post-cold war world order in ways that the Bush administration does not intend.

While leftist neo-isolationists continue to warn the American people that US interventionist policies are dangerous for world peace, the neo-isolationists on the right are joining in the chorus by warning that the US is being taken for a ride by ingrate ``allies'' who refuse to bear their fair share of the risks and costs.

Thus the Gulf crisis has helped crystallize disparate concerns of the American left and right. It has brought about a common perception that interventionist policies are anachronistic in the post-cold war era. Though the left and right non-interventionists are motivated by very different aspirations, their policy goals overlap. Both wish to see American leaders rebuild the US domestically, and scale back costly and outdated overseas commitments.

Against this background, it is time that the left and right work together to revive George Washington's dictum about entangling alliances. It also is time that the broad center of American politics recognize the undiminished wisdom of that dictum.

For too long isolationist or neo-isolationist views have been considered anachronistic heresy. As the views of some of the left and right now demonstrate, neo-isolationist non-interventionism may be a viable strategic alternative in the post-cold war era. Let's bring it into the mainstream where it belongs and integrate this alternative into the debate over appropriate US foreign policy in a new world order.

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