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American Isolationism – Will History Repeat Itself?

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By Morgan Deane:

Donald Trump has been called the most isolationist Republican since Robert Taft.  With his election to the Presidency it is now a good time to remember Taft’s beliefs, history, and two current examples of isolationism.  Robert Taft was an influential Republican Senator who opposed intervention and believed that America should avoid involvement and entanglement in foreign wars. A strong military combined with the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans would leave America safe without the need for intervention. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the build up to World War II clearly displayed the folly of this position. After capturing much of Europe, Hitler began tentative plans for long range bombers that could strike the US, and it was much more difficult for the US to stop him in 1944 than it would have been in 1937. German initiative and victory leads to the biggest drawback of isolationists which is their failure to account for inaction.  Taft’s insistence on nonintervention against Germany would have likely left Europe in the hands of Nazi Germany, and allowed them to complete their final solution and posed a great danger to the United States.

Trump has made contradicting statements regarding Syria, ranging so far as to let Russia do the fighting to he will bomb the expletive out of ISIS.  Generally though, he seems unwilling to commit ground soldiers beyond the advisers we already have there. He clearly said he doesn’t want a no fly zone which he said could start World War III.  It’s important to consider the consequences of American intervention, but the current inaction in Syria is creating a problem nearly as problematic as many of the feared results of American intervention. American inaction helped ensure that the civil war lasted longer, and more of its citizens were killed as a result. Thus far, analysts calculate nearly half a million deaths have occurred in Syria and up to 6 million displaced persons, with about two thirds of that fleeing internationally. Because we failed to arm some rebels, the more militant ones linked to terrorist organizations took the lead. Their “street cred” gains them additional recruits, and they used their military to conquer vast swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory where they behead dissidents, force women into sexual slavery, and commit genocide.  America was finally forced to intervene, but in a far weaker position to do so. Not to mention there have already been attacks by terrorists in France with refugee visas, and there are FBI investigations into potential terrorists in all 50 states. America wanted to avoid a quagmire and didn’t intervene, but America is being forced to deal with the consequences of the Syrian civil war anyway, only they are now doing so from a position of weakness.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the same kind of isolationist response in East Asia which will most certainly lead to a similar situation. Being a regular OpsLens contributor, I previously discussed the unclear nature of President-Elect Trump’s Asian Policy. He may install a Navy Secretary who will increase the size of the navy as well as perform more frequent operations, however, Isolationists point to America’s support for Freedom of the Seas operations in the South China Sea as picking a fight. If Trump aligns with Taft, he will have the honor of becoming the most isolationist Republican leader since.

This is incredibly dangerous as a short summary of Chinese provocation indicates.  China thumbed its nose at the World Court ruling against the Scarborough shoal in the Spratly Islands.  As a response they’ve placed even more weapons systems and missiles on the island even though it was ruled as part of the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone.

Immediately after losing the court case, China operationalized their new advanced weapons systems in the East China Sea. Near the disputed Senkaku islands, they practiced locating and sinking a ship as an obvious message to Japan, who approved with the ruling of the World Court.  Japan has launched their fighter planes over 200 times this year alone in response to Chinese provocation.  Japanese fisherman, operating legally in international waters or in their exclusive economic zone, have continuously been harassed by Chinese naval vessels.

China has illegally built up islands and placed advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks which handle blue water ships, submarine bases, and large runways that can support their advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F 22 and F 35.)  Keep in mind they are doing so in the Spratly Islands as well as others in the South China Sea that are vigorously disputed. (Its true that other nations have done so as well, but not to the extent that China and definitely not with the same degree of militarization.)

When the US performs a Freedom of Seas operation they send an important signal of strength and peace. Because the islands are disputed, these operations reaffirm the importance of international law and prevent the de facto recognition of this territory as China’s.  If international law is disregarded it will be a free for all in this region where disputes are settled by force. (And we see how well this worked out for Syria.) As the biggest military power in the region this would naturally encourage more assertive action by China.  If China aggressively controls this territory they could easily cut off shipping in the region, which almost half of the world’s merchant fleet passes.

In both Syria and the South China Sea, America faces aggressive foes and intractable problems. It is tempting to look at severe issues abroad and make the same suggestions as Robert Taft to retreat from intervention and rely upon America’s unique geographic position to offer a strong defense. But history from World War II all the way to the Syrian Civil War shows us that retreating only allows problems to fester. Chaos around the world spreads until the very problems we ignore, such as terrorists, refugee terrorists, or an aggressive naval power in the Far East, blow up on our doorstep.  The safest prospect, and ironically enough, the best chance for peace, is American intervention.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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