By Ryan McMaken, Mises Institute | September 18, 2023
Former Vice-President Mike Pence is very concerned that Republicans are not sufficiently enthusiastic about aggressive, unnecessary wars. In a speech on Monday, Pence claimed “Some Republican candidates …[are] embracing a new and dangerous form of isolationism.”
“Isolationism” is just a slur used by hawks to describe any policy that falls short of further expanding US interventionism across every region of the globe. Fortunately for Pence and his ilk, no such thing is happening. Not even close. No Republican candidate argues in favor of closing any military bases, reining in CIA meddling, withdrawing from NATO, ending defense commitments in east Asia, or even cutting military spending. The closest any candidate comes to the isolationism Pence mentions is Vivek Ramaswamy who has opposed expansion of NATO and called for a “minimal footprint” in the Middle East—whatever that means. These, of course, are reasonable policies and would be a step in the right direction, but could hardly be described as “isolationism.”
Trump and Ron DeSantis both are probably isolationists in Pence’s book, but both of them are worse than Ramaswamy. DeSantis has vowed to declare war on Mexico, and Trump’s primary concern about NATO is merely that members other than the US don’t pay their “fair share.” Trump also clearly has a certain bellicose obsession with Iran and China that hardly have anything to do with anti-interventionism.
For conservatives like Pence, however, there is no corner of the planet earth that does not demand near-constant US war spending, drone bombing, spying, regime change, or worse. The typical interventionist response is to label anyone who disagrees an isolationist or pacifist. (So-called “progressives,” of course, are just as bad.)
Pence uses all the usual prowar buzzwords as well. He invokes “appeasement” as a means of suggesting that anything other than constant intervention is akin to enabling the next Hitler. In the mind of the American interventionists, it’s always 1938. (The more realistic historical parallel is 1914, not 1938.) The use of the term “isolationist” meanwhile is designed to suggest a type of naïve disarmament and complete withdrawal from the world.
Historically, however, American opponents of Pence-like warmongering have never supported isolationism as Pence imagines it. Rather, the anti-interventionist tradition is one of neutrality focused on increasing international trade and friendly relations with all. In his introduction to his great book The Costs of War, John Denson describes the benefits of this type of foreign policy known as “armed neutrality.” Denson begins by describing how some reacted to the book:
Some readers and reviewers also asked if the book is advocating pacifism or isolationism. The answer is emphatically “No” on both counts. There are “just wars” in American history, as Murray Rothbard describes in his first article in the book. Our Founding Fathers advocated, as does this book, that the United States should adopt a foreign policy of a well-armed neutrality, with no military alliances which would drag the U.S. into unnecessary wars which do not constitute a clear and present danger to its security. One element of the “just war” theory is that it must be defensive. Many presidents have tried to make American wars appear to be defensive by provoking the other side into firing the first shot. These presidents include Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson. Ludwig von Mises stressed, as did the Founding Fathers, that we should be involved in the global economy with free trade with all nations of the world, and with no favored nation status applied to our trading partners. However, foreign trade should be at the risk of the entrepreneur or capitalist, and without subsidies of the government or the military aid of its armed forces. Our military forces should be limited to the defense of the United States, and not for the assistance of certain special economic interests abroad. But our armed forces should be the best equipped and trained in the world and ready to engage in a defensive war.
A defensive military looks very different from one designed to occupy foreign countries, engage in “regime change, ” or provide defense guarantees to a dozen foreign regimes.
A truly defensive military wouldn’t have a standing army at all, and wouldn’t have an archipelago of bases on foreign soil across the globe. A defensive military does not require 5,000 nuclear weapons.
Non-interventionism is not isolationism, and isolationism was not the policy of Washington and Jefferson, nor is it advocated in this book. In fact, the original U.S. foreign policy was the same philosophy as that espoused by all people who believe in free trade, such as Cobden and Bright in England. The original U.S. foreign policy was trade and commerce with everyone, not isolationism. The choices are not simply isolationism or being the world policeman. The third alternative is the original U.S. foreign policy of global free trade, a non-interventionist military policy with a well-armed neutrality for the defense of the United States, and no military alliances.
It is appropriate that Denson mentions the great British advocates of neutrality Richard Cobden and John Bright here. As radical classical liberals and members of Parliament in the nineteenth century, both were very familiar with the realities of international war and were major figures in their movement—which, by the way, had won major political victories in the first half of the century. Or as Jeff Riggenbach put it: “Cobden and Bright were among the most radical and most important of 19th Century English liberals.” Both also sought neutrality as the proper, moral response to the constant machinations of foreign states. Specifically, they supported constant engagement with foreign peoples and foreign governments in pursuit of peaceful exchange. Murray Rothbard put it this way:
such laissez-faire “extremists” as Richard Cobden and John Bright of the “Manchester School.” Cobden and Bright took the lead in vigorously opposing every British war and foreign political intervention of their era and for his pains Cobden was known not as an “isolationist” but as the “International Man.” Until the smear campaign of the late 1930s, opponents of war were considered the true “internationalists,” men who opposed the aggrandizement of the nation-state and favored peace, free trade, free migration and peaceful cultural exchanges among peoples of all nations. Foreign intervention is “international” only in the sense that war is international: coercion, whether the threat of force or the outright movement of troops, will always cross frontiers between one nation and another.
One might say that so-called “isolationism” is the true internationalism. Meanwhile, interventionists like Pence incessantly seek out new enemies to isolate, embargo, sanction, and cut off from the rest of the world. As we’ve seen with Russia, interventionists seek to do with any nation that shows insufficient obeisance toward NATO’s schemes in Ukraine. The interventionists tell us this is necessary because Moscow invaded a sovereign country. This is an obvious lie since Washington did the same thing in Iraq twenty years ago. The interventionist impulse is to alienate, divide, vilify, bomb, kill, and endlessly sow international discord. Yet it is the proponents of peace and trade, we are told, who are the “isolationists.”
The interventionists attempt to justify their aggression on the grounds that it somehow keeps Americans safer. Yet, it’s difficult to see how the regime’s efforts to incessantly give half the world reasons to hate the United States make the average taxpayer any safer. The interventionist logic might seem reasonable to people to believe absurd propaganda slogans like “they hate us because we’re free.” But in reality, invading, bombing, sanctioning, and threatening a wide variety of foreign states—and their hapless populations—makes no American safer.
If the interventionists actually cared about ordinary Americans, people like Pence would be calling for more diplomacy, expanded trade, smaller military budgets, and a focus on the defense of North America. This policy is quite different from robbing the taxpayers to pay for more losing wars, the ongoing occupation of eastern Syria, and mounting brinksmanship against nuclear-Armed Russia. The robbery will never end until people like Mike Pence are finally sent packing.
Ryan McMaken is executive editor at the Mises Institute.
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Republished with permission from TIPP Insights