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Look to the cold war to chill fresh calls for American isolationism

Several Democrats and Republicans are calling for a fresh -- and dangerous -- isolationism. But just as Europe needed US leadership after the cold war, so does the Arab world now.

By David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington / August 4, 2011


The debate about America’s world role recently has taken a disturbing direction. Prominent figures in both parties – including a number of the announced Republican presidential hopefuls – have anchored their rhetoric on demands for American withdrawal from various conflict zones and from international engagement generally.

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Voices on the political margins – Dennis Kucinich on the left and Rand Paul on the right – are increasingly echoed by figures from the mainstream. Even President Obama has succumbed to the prevailing mood with his unfortunate June reference to “nation building here at home.”

To be sure, Americans’ unease with global involvement is understandable at a time of high joblessness and economic uncertainty. Americans are unlikely to support the country’s international goals unless they are convinced that achieving these objectives will enhance the national interest.

The isolationism that is gaining momentum is especially pernicious given the prospects for political change in the greater Middle East. If there is an issue where vigorous American leadership and American interests are organically related, it is the contemporary struggle for democracy in the Arab world.

Benefits from European revolutions

Here it is worth recalling just how much the United States benefited from the revolutions of 1989-91 that swept the Soviet empire.

For 40 years, a huge swath of Europe had been ruled by forces that imposed totalitarian rule at home and formed an alliance of implacably anti-American countries.

The Soviet bloc experienced uprisings or other challenges to Soviet hegemony in at least four countries – East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland – that posed threats to global peace. On more than one occasion, incidents involving the US and the Soviet Union threatened to escalate into armed conflict between nuclear superpowers. Political reform in the developing world was thwarted by governments influenced by Marxist ideas or juntas that invoked the communist menace to stifle change.

The events of 1989 have led to democratic rule in Central Europe, the Baltics, and the Balkans. Most of the states in the region are members of the European Union or aspire to EU membership. The region is no longer a flash point of global conflict; these are normal countries that suffer the problems that normal countries suffer.

True, developments in Russia have been disappointing. But Russia today does not pose a major military threat to Europe or the US, notwithstanding its serious aggression against Georgia in 2008.


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