Gary Johnson and the Case for Isolationism


Gary Johnson’s humiliation (“What is Aleppo?”) at the hands of Mike Lauer of NBC has gone viral. Johnson’s remarkable ignorance of foreign affairs is widely seen as disqualifying. This is not an unreasonable judgement but I will argue that it is mistaken. The knowledge and sophistication of the President herself is of secondary importance. What matters first and foremost is the nation’s grand strategy.

The Libertarians, including and especially Johnson (“No more policing the world”), are Isolationists. Because Isolationism has been demonized for decades Libertarian political entrepreneurs try very hard to avoid the label. But that is also mistaken. Isolationism is and will always remain a viable and attractive grand strategy for the United States.

A grand strategy is a state’s core formula for survival and security in a dangerous world. It serves as the organizing principle of foreign policy. Great Britain’s nineteenth century grand strategy was to maintain maritime primacy and act as an offshore balancer on the Continent. Bismarck’s grand strategy in the 1870s and 1880s was to ensure that Germany was always in a “party of three” among the five great powers. Both grand strategies were informed by the geopolitical positions of the state and were thus very effective.

The first fundamental fact about the United States’ geopolitical position is that vast oceans separate the United States from all other great powers. Because of ‘the stopping power of water,’ even if the United States were not the strongest state in the system it would continue to remain extraordinarily secure. The second fundamental fact about the US’ geopolitical position is that it has been the strongest state in the system for over a century.

Because of these fundamental geopolitical facts, the United States enjoys extraordinary leeway in choosing its grand strategy. Unlike any other great power in the system, the United States can choose its level of strategic engagement outside its home region. Different grand strategies correspond to different levels of strategic engagement. Put another way, the United States can choose to define its national interest more and less expansively and deploy its considerable power resources accordingly. There are five main grand strategies available to the United States which can be ordered by the level of engagement:

  • Pure Isolationism: US forces would be withdrawn to the US homeland. And the United States would strategically disengage from the rest of the world (incl. S. America) leaving it to other powers to sort it out. It would continue to interact with the rest of the world economically and culturally but not in the security sphere. Instead it would husband its own strength.
  • Hemispheric Isolationism: The US defense perimeter would be withdrawn to the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific; thus strategically isolating the western hemisphere. The US would maintain preponderance in the hemisphere but avoid security interactions with Eurasia unless the western hemisphere is threatened.
  • Offshore Balancing: The US would maintain global maritime primacy and prevent other great powers from replicating its feat of achieving regional preponderance. In practice, this means that the US would strive to maintain a favourable balance of power in the two extremities of Eurasia. However, US forces would not be deployed on Eurasian land unless they were necessary for deterrence (as was the case in Europe during the bipolar era). It would also ignore weak states unless there was a clear threat.
  • Defensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. It would take it upon itself to defend the territorial order by the force of its arms; identifying its national interest with the stability and security of the international system. It would seek to contain near peers and grow its retinue of protectorates. US forces would be deployed across the world for deterrence and enforcement of rules multilaterally when it can and unilaterally when it must.
  • Offensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. But instead of simply defending the territorial status quo by the force of its arms it would seek to forge a more favourable international order. It would in effect act as a revisionist hegemon, seeking to “roll back” near peers instead of containing them, and conquering and reconfiguring weak confrontation states where possible.

In accordance with Parkinson’s law of international politics, the definition of US national interest has expanded along with its relative power. In the first century of its existence, the United States followed the strategy of Pure Isolationism. During the 1890s the US shifted to Hemispheric Isolationism. In the short twentieth century (1915-90), the United States deployed military forces in Eurasia to defeat and contain a sequence of potential regional hegemons (Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Union) and sought and achieved maritime primacy in accordance with Offshore Balancing. With the capitulation of Soviet Russia and the advent of the unipolar world, the United States has lurched back and forth between Defensive Hegemonism and Offensive Hegemonism.

Pure Isolationism is not a viable grand strategy for the United States; nor has it ever been entertained as such since the United States emerged as a great power. It would mean the end of the Monroe Doctrine; something that is unlikely to be on the table for a very long time. Offensive Hegemonism is also no longer on the table since it is widely seen to have been tried and failed. The lesson that US policy elites have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the costs of stability operations are simply incommensurate with the expected gains. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it:

Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.

We are thus left with (Hemispheric) Isolationism, Offshore Balancing, and (Defensive) Hegemonism. Loosely speaking, Libertarians prefer Isolationism; Realists prefer Offshore Balancing; and Liberals (esp. beltway foreign policy wonks) prefer Hegemonism.

The Policy Tensor prefers Offshore Balancing but that is not because Isolationism is not viable. Isolationism has the virtue of being cheap. Bringing the boys home would allow the United States to cut its wasteful defense spending. More importantly, the United States would entirely avoid meddling in weak states (which is also true of Offshore Balancing). And perhaps most importantly, it would remove a major driver of friction with other great powers.

A key issue in the coming years is whether a rising China should be contained or accomodated. In particular, Whether, and if so when, the United States should surrender maritime primacy in the Western Pacific. Isolationists would argue that even if China were to become preponderant in Asia, it would not threaten the United States. And this is indeed the case if US national security interests are defined exclusively in terms of the defense of the homeland, which would remain protected even after the exit from unipolarity as a consequence of the insularity of the US homeland and strategic nuclear deterrence.

If however, continued prosperity and international influence are seen as vital US national interests, then Isolationism would likely fail to achieve it. In particular, US access to world markets and resources would be subject to the veto of other great powers who would take the place of the United States in the game of world power. The Isolationists would counter that the United States would not suffer very much at all even if China became the dominant power in Asia because the United States would remain a very attractive trading partner and source of technology and innovative ideas. That depends on the state of the world. If the United States poses no threat to other great powers, they may be willing to grant it access to world markets. If they see the United States as a potential threat, they may not. In either case, the United States could easily survive but it might be poorer and marginalized.

The fundamental issue then is whether global influence is a vital interest of the United States. Isolationists argue that global power and influence are unnecessary and probably immoral. I don’t agree with it but is a consistent and ethical position. And it should be up to the American people to choose. The American people have in fact long been denied this choice. I therefore hope that Gary Johnson makes it to the debates.





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