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The Changing Face of Isolationism

The United States was pretty well isolated from world events by geography for its first 100 years, with thousands of miles of ocean separating us from Europe and Asia. That made it easy to heed the advice of George Washington, who in his farewell address near the end of his presidency, cautioning his country to avoid foreign entanglements. And it served us very well as our country matured, free of foreign interference (with the exception of the British invasion in the war of 1812-14).But by the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was emerging as a world power, and in 1914, two events occurred that served to thrust us upon the world scene – the opening of the Panama Canal, and the outbreak of World War I. Despite strong isolationist sentiment (Why should we get involved? Let Europe fight its own battles.), we were eventually drawn into the conflict.After the war ended, the United States returned to its isolationist position, with the defeat in the Senate of our participation in the League of Nations, which had been conceived by President Wilson as an instrument for preventing future wars. Our isolationist attitude prevailed, even as Germany overran Europe in 1939-41, until it was shattered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We were no longer isolated from the rest of the world.At the end of World War II, we did not repeat the isolationist mistakes of 1919, but became proactively involved in world affairs by taking the lead in forming the United Nations (1945), the rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan (1947-51), and the reorganization of the Japanese government and economy (1947-52). The magnanimity of these actions earned us the admiration of the entire non-communist world, which strongly supported us in the containment of Communism during the 42 years of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War in 1990 left the United States as the world’s only superpower, and despite our misadventure in Vietnam from 1965 to 1975, our prestige and respect remained at a reasonably high level in much of the world.But as we look around the world today, we see a sea of enemies and very few friends, and even those we consider to be our friends are beginning to turn their backs on us. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, until recently a staunch supporter of President Bush and our actions in Iraq, is now challenging Bush’s assertion that his “plan” in Iraq will, or even can, succeed. Other countries are pulling their troops out of Iraq, and even Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has begun to criticize and disagree with U.S. actions in his country. What is even more disturbing is the widespread hatred for the United States in much of the world, and the intensity of that hatred, particularly in the Islamic world, which led to the formation of al-Qaida by Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks on our country.Although the situation has clearly deteriorated in the last six years, there have been other attacks against Americans going back to the taking of 52 American hostages in Iran in 1979, terrorist bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, in which 350 people were killed (241 of whom were U.S. servicemen), the failed 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, the bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and numerous hijackings and bombings of U.S. airliners.Our country now finds itself in a new form of isolationism, one in which we are being isolated by much of the rest of the world because of distaste for, or hatred of, our foreign policy. But that didn’t all come about in the last few years, or even fifty years. Why we are so disliked by so many has its roots in the 19th Century. That will be the subject of my next column.Hal Sundin’s column appears every other Thursday in the Post Independent.Post Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Colo. CO


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