Over time, however, American control of the UN and of its allies declined even as its worldwide commitments multiplied. As a result, U.S. foreign policy became both less effective and more costly, and domestic criticism of it increased. The Vietnam War, in particular, spawned critics who argued that there were limits to America's power and that, in consequence, the United States should withdraw from some of its more exposed positions and reduce its international commitments. These critics were often referred to as "neo-isolationists" and sometimes even applied that label to themselves. A leading scholar of American foreign policy, Robert W. Tucker, applauded their position in his book A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? (New York, 1972).
Yet major spokesmen for this point of view, such as Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon, Ernest Gruening of Alaska, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, George McGovern of South Dakota, and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, or George F. Kennan, who as a foreign service officer had been the first to advocate "containment" of the Soviet Union, were not isolationists in any meaningful sense. All favored increasing the role of the United Nations, the maintenance of key alliances, and new attempts to reach agreements with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. None suggested, even remotely, that the cure for current problems might be found in a return to the foreign policies of the 1920s or 1930s.
The Vietnam War, to be sure, had a traumatic effect on both American policymakers and the American public. It caused President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for reelection, assured the defeat of his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, in the 1968 election, and produced major reassessments of American military and strategic policies. But the lessons that were drawn from the failure in Vietnam did not seriously question America's international commitments. They concentrated instead on the clearer and perhaps more limited definition of American goals, the avoidance, where possible, of no-win situations, and, above all, the avoidance of American casualties in future conflicts.
The internationalist consensus thus remained largely intact, and all subsequent presidents vigorously exercised their presumed prerogative of world leadership. Richard Nixon traveled to China in 1972 to definitively change that nation's relationship to the Soviet Union as well as to the United States. President Jimmy Carter tried policies based on the ideas of the Trilateral Commission, a private group of American, Western European, and Japanese businessmen, and in 1979 negotiated a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in Maryland.
Ronald Reagan outdid even Woodrow Wilson in what Frank Ninkovich has defined as crisis internationalism ( The Wilsonian Century, Chicago and London, 1999). "Our mission is to nourish and defend freedom and democracy" runs the socalled Reagan Doctrine he enunciated in his State of the Union message in 1985. "We must stand by all of our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent …—to defy Soviet-supported aggression." Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, launched the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and brought a number of European and Middle Eastern allies into it. President Clinton, throughout the 1990s, played a direct role in conflicts throughout the world, from Ireland to Israel to Yugoslavia and even beyond.
Throughout these years, isolationism has, to be sure, remained in the area of public discourse. But it has remained there largely as a bogeyman. All presidents since Nixon have defended their policies by labeling their opponents isolationists, and they continue to do so. On 8 December 2000, President Clinton traveled to Kearney, Nebraska, for a foreign policy speech in which he warned his listeners against "isolationist sentiment," and at his confirmation hearing on 17 January 2001, incoming Secretary of State Colin L. Powell found it necessary to assure the Senate that under his guidance the United States would not become "an island of isolationism."
Political commentators continued to treat such allegations with great seriousness. The American Enterprise Institute as recently as 1996 found good cause to publish Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism, and publications on both sides of the question abound. Yet isolationism is no longer a serious prescription for American policy. With the possible exceptions of the pseudo-populist industrialist Ross Perot, an independent candidate for president in 1992, and Patrick Buchanan, a disgruntled Republican who ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, no responsible leader has proposed withdrawal from NATO or the UN or urged the United States to go it alone in a world still considered dangerous, even after the end of the Cold War and the relative triumph of both democracy and free-market capitalism. Ironically, even Buchanan's A Republic Not An Empire (Washington, D.C., 1999) contains a section entitled "The Myth of American Isolationism."
The persistence of isolationism as a talking point half a century after its effective demise led some scholars, particularly in the field of security policy, to redefine the term, sometimes in quite sophisticated ways. Eric Nordlinger's Isolationism Reconfigured (Princeton, N.J., 1995), for example, sees isolationism essentially as the unilateralist component of the traditional American foreign policy that is wary of entangling alliances and, therefore, as a permanent counterweight to the traditional policy's internationalist component that has carried the day since World War II. In somewhat similar fashion, Frank Ninkovich has defined isolationism as the "normal internationalism" he attributes to the Founders. The Wilsonian counterpart to that which has dominated U.S. foreign policy for the past half century he calls "crisis internationalism."
Either redefinition does away with the need to explain isolationism or to account for its appearance, especially in the 1920s. For that reason, both lend themselves to the development of ingenious and highly persuasive analyses with substantial postmodernist appeal. They do so, however, by dealing scarcely, if at all, with the objective reality of that isolationism that was an important phase in the development of American foreign policy. That phase has now been superseded, and reentry into it seems no longer possible, even if a nostalgic longing for it survives.
Born of the universal aspiration for unrestricted national sovereignty and the peculiar relation of the United States to the rest of the world in the nineteenth century, isolationism was staunchly defended and raised to the level of dogma when world events in the twentieth century threatened America's traditional foreign policy consensus. In a shrinking world with an increasingly global economy and ever more deadly weapons that can be delivered anywhere, however, it is an untenable position for a country that has gone to great expense to develop and maintain a fully global military reach, dominates virtually every international institution or agency to which it belongs, and labors ceaselessly to remain the center of global finance and of world trade.