The alternative to isolationism is “intrusionism”, the commandeering of independent states and of individual freedoms by self-appointed prophets who “know better” than the rest of us. Viewed against that arrogant polarity, isolationism is a moral imperative.
I don’t like the word “isolationism” because it is inaccurate. The idea behind minding your own business isn’t to ignore your neighbor’s need or misery, but rather to give disease a chance to heal itself. “First do no harm,” warns the Hippocratic Oath. The unpleasant aspects of illness, like fever and vomiting, are Nature’s way of curing the body. The physician who rushes in with symptom-suppressing miracle-drugs may actually facilitate the disease’s spread, or at least slow its eradication, by mitigating painful but necessary side-effects with concoctions that imbalance the metabolism.
So for the tampering, well-meaning intruder in foreign affairs. Does it benefit a society in the throes of civil war for an outsider to invade with massive force and declare a victor? Did it work in Iraq? Is it working in Libya or Afghanistan? Did the Brits make it work in northern India when they created East and West Pakistan, a nation whose halves were separated by a thousand miles? Are we helping our next-door neighbor Mexico to solve her many and enduring problems by receiving millions of her poor into our welfare state and pouring millions of dollars out of our economy—in the form of illegally earned wages—back into the corrupt legal and political status quo down south?
If you hear your neighbors arguing through an open kitchen window, do you charge over with a baseball bat and demand that they make it up? If you see your neighbor spanking his child and you are convinced of corporal punishment’s brutality, do you rush in and grab the offending hand from behind? Or do you report the brute, perhaps, to child services? Are you happy with the odds of a foster-home relocation’s producing a good outcome for the little tyke? Are you sure—are you really sure—that a spanking is all that bad? Are you as confident as Moses with the Tablets that your way is right and the other way wrong?
Of course, the slaughter of children is hardly comparable to a spanking; but then, we were told (falsely, as it turned out) that tens of thousands of innocents were being ethnically purged in Bosnia as the Clinton Administration sought to wade through a morass of scandals… and we ended up destroying the electrical supply to several hospitals whose patients, in some cases, died as a result. How many children have been caught in the crossfire of weapons distributed by us to Syrian rebels? (Vladimir Putin beat me to the publisher with this observation, by the way: I have not borrowed it from him.) How many children, for that matter, have been killed by guns that our all-knowing elite supplied to Mexican cartels?
The isolationist (if I must use that word: I would prefer “responsible adult”) doesn’t sit on his hands in such circumstances—but neither does he rush in with drawn sixguns like a drunken cowboy. He clears and cultivates his own garden so that it offers a stark contrast with the misery reigning elsewhere in the world. Then he offers seed and fertilizer and perhaps a marketplace to those who would like to replicate his setting (on terms that benefit his peace and security, naturally). His entire approach is pursued in utter transparency and punctilious probity: his does not double-deal or pass cards under the table. Immanuel Kant was once mocked by Benjamin Constant for claiming that deception is wrong in all circumstances. Constant scoffed that Kant would tell the truth even if, having granted shelter to a frantic suppliant, he then opened his door to a crazed murderer chasing the poor wretch and demanding to know whether his quarry had fled into the house. Kant could not recall having ever made any such remark, but he accepted its premise and defended the position that, yes, lies are lies, and are always wrong. His case is but half-made in a famous little essay: I have often wondered why he didn’t point out that the “yes” answer need not be accompanied by yielding the doorway, and that indeed we cannot know in real life just which stranger at the door is the dangerous lunatic. What he stresses, instead, is that the liar owns all the consequences of his lies. If the refugee, for instance, should slip out the back door while you are urging the murderer to look elsewhere, then the two may meet just in time for one to finish off the other—and the crime, in some measure, will be on your head.
So for foreign adventurism: the do-gooder, the child-saver, who thrusts himself into a quarrel unrelated to his vital interests is responsible for all the ripple-effects of that intrusion. This crusader can scarcely know how many innocents might have died if he had stayed at home and employed peaceful persuasion; all he can know for certain is that the innocents who may die in any exacerbated mess he leaves behind are, at least indirectly, his victims. It is a patriotic-posing cliché that we clearly prevented Hitler from killing millions of Jews, since he had already slaughtered millions when we stopped him; and that critics of World War Two are thus condoning mass murder, and retroactively licensing an even more nightmarish atrocity than the Holocaust. Yet it would have been materially impossible for the Nazis to purge as many tens of millions as did Stalin and Mao, an apocalyptic harvest facilitated by our strategy in the war. Indeed, had Hitler been preoccupied with a war in the east and thus strongly motivated to preserve peace at his back to the west, we could very likely have prevented his death-camp gambit entirely through diplomatic means. As it was, Hitler’s central-European allies gleefully ransomed off a great many of their Jews to Western intercessors before the Fuhrer put his boot down.
My ultimate objection, then, to the word “isolationist” is that it rhetorically scuffs over an unimpeachable moral fact: that we have free will in making better or worse choices, and that we are obligated to extend to others the opportunity of making similar choices. We are all isolationists, like it or not, in the sense that we must answer for what we do personally; and we are all duty-bound to be isolationists, in another sense, insofar as we respect the individuality of other creatures. It is not our right as beings of freedom to usurp the decision-making of our fellows. Though their choices may be clearly wrong to us, they cannot recognize that wrongness and learn from it if we imperiously highjack the process. A child who is never allowed to speak does not grow up to be an adult who always speaks the truth. This, indeed, is the fundamental conflict between Christianity and Islam: a pauper who doesn’t steal because his neighbor’s hand has been lopped off is a terrified pauper, not a mature believer who understands that possessions must not enthrall him.
Within our society, as well, we are fighting this same battle—and those of us who believe in freedom are losing. Our children are not allowed to fail in school or at the games they play. Individuals are not allowed to fail in the struggle to bring home a monthly check. Companies are not allowed to fail no matter how sloppy their business practices. Our government is not allowed to fail no matter how absurdly far it extends its commitments beyond the bounds of solvency. The globalists are taking it to the isolationists—translation: the people who want their lives managed (or want to manage others’ lives) are winning converts to Big Brother’s creed in droves and hordes from the ranks of those who want to succeed or fail on their own effort and to respect that sacred right in their neighbors. “Intrusionists” are everywhere. They claim the right to keep other nations—and other individuals, including fellow Americans—from making choices that they themselves would not advise. They claim the parent’s right to dictate rules to the child, and to exact punishment when a rule is disobeyed. They are well meaning, they tell us (and themselves): a dubious assertion, since shackling the activity of another free, sane adult scarcely smells of good intention… but if we would only stop squirming and let them work out the kinks in their autocratic agenda, then we would eventually see that we are much better off having them as our heart, our brain, and our god.
The lazy sign over their soul to this devil, while dangerously childish adults around the world grow more dangerous and more childish as a result of not facing squarely the consequences of their own actions. (Ruin may flow from corrupt pretext as well as righteous consequence: were we to assassinate Baschar al-Assad, the true cause of his demise would remain so murky that he would likely achieve martyrdom to many.) Unelected bureaucrats and heads of state who spit on their electors draw the strings tighter and tighter. Centripety has trumped centrifugy. The collective has engulfed the individual. Salvation is now determined by statistical preponderance. The single soul no longer matters—and the god to whom that soul was dear no longer exists. The new god, Progress, is at once the forward-struggling hive and the more efficient hive of the future toward which we struggle. And we worship that hive-god—we worship ourselves collectively in him—by grinding down every unitary obstacle that offers resistance.
Sneer at isolationism if you will. Just be aware of what ideas and forces you embrace in doing so.