Time for a `New Isolationism'

THE collapse of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the spread of democracy from Johannesburg to Santiago to Ulaanbaator - how are Americans to react to these fundamental changes? Perhaps we can begin with the realization that we have before us an incredible array of choices concerning our new ``grand'' strategy or national mission. The current range of foreign policy options is arguably greater than at any time in the post-World War II era. Some political leaders fear that the American public, especially the younger generations, will choose isolationism. Their fears are justified. For with the end of the cold war, the strategic rationale for maintaining military forces capable of projecting power into every global corner has dissolved.

In the third world there exist no more credibility tests. The Persian Gulf aside, this area of the world has been of relatively minimal intrinsic value to the United States. Instead, throughout the cold war, the third world has served primarily as an arena in which to demonstrate our resolve vis-`a-vis the ``Red menace.'' Our ability and willingness to counter perceived Soviet aggression in Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and Central America supposedly demonstrated our ability and willingness to counter possible Soviet aggression in Western Europe and Northeast Asia - areas which because of their military-industrial potential were of immense intrinsic value to us.

Now, for all intents and purposes, it no longer matters what happens in Vietnam, Angola, and Nicaragua. Because no countries of any significance seek to emulate the Soviet economic and political model (whatever it is these days), all talk of dominoes is archaic. And Moscow's decreasing ability to maintain order within the Soviet Union itself renders ridiculous all fears of a globally expansive Soviet Union.

The Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal is still massive, of course. So is ours. Consequently, arms control reductions aimed at a more stable nuclear balance should continue to be a major foreign policy priority. But it is becoming almost impossible to dream up scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used to achieve political goals.

So the post-cold-war strategic environment offers the US the option of drastically retrenching militarily. At the same time, however, we cannot revert to the extreme isolationism of the pre-cold-war era - an isolationism which forsook security alliances and multilateral commitments. The reasons are twofold.

First, our vital interest in ensuring stability on the Eurasian continent requires from us a continued security commitment to Western Europe and Japan. In order to reassure the new Germany and Japan, as well as their neighbors, that they need not unilaterally develop their own nuclear capability (and thus create the continent's most volatile and explosive environment ever), the US will have to maintain, although in reduced form, its security relations to these countries.

The second reason stems from the nature of the new threats to our nation's security. These include our large trade imbalances and our increasing dependence on foreign capital for our standard of living; environmental challenges such as ozone depletion, global warming, and natural-resource exhaustion; and nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile proliferation in the third world.

These threats cannot be addressed except through international collaboration. And this reality - our decreasing ability to deal unilaterally with the greatest threats to our interests - not only supports the contentions of the decline-school theorists, but also demonstrates convincingly how current international conditions make impossible any return to the extreme isolationism of yesteryear. But a significant reduction in our military presence abroad is easily possible.

Competing with the new isolationism for the hearts and minds of the New Generation are the pro-democracy crusades of the Right and the pro-development missions of the Left. The post-cold-war era is a time of great hope and idealism, and it is natural that such ambitious agendas are rapidly gaining support. But while these crusades and missions deserve our support, that support must be highly qualified.

Those in search of new crusades need look no further than the proverbial doorstep. Given the racial and ethnic tensions that at times threaten to tear apart our cities, there is enough to keep preoccupied those interested in perfecting the democratic experiment. And in a country whose capital city boasts an infant mortality rate higher than Jamaica's, surely there are worthy domestic missions.

In short, a new isolationism - one focused domestic reform and intent on strictly evaluating our foreign commitments while cognizant of the new international threats to our interests - has much to commend itself to the American public.

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