Charles Kupchan | March 18, 2021
Professor Bruce Jentleson joined Charles Kupchan, a former senior director on the Obama National Security Council and Senior Fellow and Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, in a conversation about his new book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World and the implications of American isolationist sentiment on foreign policy and national security.
Prof. Kupchan highlighted the history of isolationism within America, noting that for much of America’s history it was a politically isolationist country (although not economically isolationist). The tide turned in 1890 as the U.S. came to see itself as a wealthy country that could become a great power; this culminated in the Spanish-American War that turned the U.S. into an “Imperial Republic.” During the beginning of the 20th century, there was a distinct divide between strategies and values, with Republicans leaning isolationist and strategic or pragmatic, with the Democrats leaning towards value-oriented. This changed with FDR, who was able to merge the two approaches into policy that was interested-based but value-oriented. His sweep through history ended with the Biden administration, noting that Biden has a unique moment of American history and its implications for foreign policy. In particular, he noted that for many Americans there is “too much world and not enough America,” but there are the beginnings of a bipartisan consensus on China, which could be a much-needed counterweight to neo-isolationism on both sides of the aisle.
During the Q&A, Prof. Kupchan went into more detail about American isolationism and exceptionalism in the context of current events. He discussed the impact of the pandemic and the potential for “vaccine diplomacy” to create new opportunities for economic and foreign policy, the potential to separate political and economic isolationism now as it happened in the past, and what American exceptionalism and domestic terrorism mean for American foreign policy today.
The event closed with Prof. Kupchan’s assertions for what needs to happen for a successful foreign policy agenda and grand strategy for the United States. He suggested that the foundations for bipartisan liberal internationalism have cracked, which is evidenced by Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class.” He noted that Presidents cannot assume that they can conduct foreign policy with broad public support, and that will shape the decisions and policy tools used. He suggested that Presidents have to take an “inside-out” approach to foreign policy: building the base of support at home, connecting the ends and means, and investing in domestic programs.