Study after study has demonstrated that, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a wide gap between American elite decision-makers and the wider public. While America’s leaders are internationalists, most Americans are more concerned with domestic matters, including their own economic welfare and security.
Will this lead to a new wave of isolationism, a recurring theme in U.S. politics?
The Republican Party was historically isolationist, but the Cold War saw a sea change in Republican attitudes, and they became committed to a world-wide system of alliances.
Even so, it was Republican Dwight Eisenhower who ended the Korean War after his election in 1952, and it was Richard Nixon who slowly wound down the Vietnam War.
All of this changed with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Europe.
The 1991 Gulf War saw Washington engage in warfare in Iraq, followed by Bill Clinton’s wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. But George Bush’s wars after 2001 have led to war-weariness.
Barack Obama won election against John McCain in 2008 as the “anti-Bush,” but his own foreign policy is totally incoherent. The civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the disputes between Russia and Ukraine and between Israel and the Palestinians, are headaches he wishes would go away.
So what now? If we assume that Hillary Clinton gains her party’s nomination, where does that leave those Democrats who seek a less aggressive foreign policy? Unlike Obama, she’s more of a foreign policy “hawk” than he is.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, is in the midst of a real period of soul-searching. It still has voices who call for a more robust military policy abroad, but it also now contains many who feel America has over-stretched itself and faces huge problems at home.
So the long-dormant isolationist wing of the party may be reviving, and coalescing around the improbable candidacy of libertarian Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Paul has long been wary of foreign intervention and also has spoken out against foreign aid programs. He has recommended that Washington shouldn’t take sides in Iraq’s civil war.
Paul would face long odds, including opposition from the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned Americans about as he left office. Still, stranger things have happened.