On July 20, I wrote a piece about the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the Ukraine. Some of the pro-Putin comments I received reminded me of an important intellectual error on the right: isolationism. Specifically, I was reminded about how isolationists start out as nationalists, nativists, and patriots but end up as stooges for nasty foreign powers.
To understand why, one must first examine what isolationism is. Isolationism is the idea that a country should avoid foreign entanglements and commitments, that the only criteria for foreign policy decisions should be a direct cost/benefit valuation for the home country. Another country is in trouble? Fuggettabout it. Given that Canada has always played second fiddle to somebody else – first Great Britain, and then the United States, Americans are more susceptible to isolationism than Canadians are.
In truth, much of the appeal of isolationism is inspired from the loony internationist excesses of the cosmopolitan left. The UN is an obvious popularize of isolationism. In Europe, it is the EU: the biggest failed economic experiment since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The costly failures of the EU and the silliness of the UN make the idea of cutting off foreign entanglements appealing.
Unfortunately, isolationism requires a ruthlessness when thinking about foreign policy that few actual isolationists possess. It is common for isolationists to imagine themselves to be ‘realists’, but in truth, they are not as realistic or tough-minded as they think they are. Among other things, it requires watching strong but bad regimes bully weak but good nations with complete disinterest, nations that have much in common with Canada and the US in terms of the rule of law, property rights, respect for the individual, and democracy. Very few people have the stomach to say, over the Russian attack on Georgia for example, or Russia’s recent attempts at parceling the Ukraine, that this is too bad, that while these are good countries, or alternately are countries aspiring towards Western standards, but it is simply none of our business if a KGB goon like Putin destroys them.
The trouble is, most isolationists cannot bring themselves to make such an honest argument. In short, most isolationists are too good for isolationism.
So, what do they say instead?
Like most people when faced with a moral dilemma, they rationalize. Humans are the greatest rationalizers, never more so when they want to convince themselves that they aren’t so bad. And in their rationalizations, they become toadies.
A good modern example of a modern-day patsy is Pat Buchanan. Isolationism led Buchanan to oppose wars that are fought with at least a partial moral goal. He calls them moral crusades. World War II was a moral crusade; at least it was on the English-speaking side. So, for this reason, Buchanan argues that Britain and the United States shouldn’t have fought the Third Reich. Of course, the Holocaust is a major sticking point in this argument, so he is forced to argue that it wouldn’t have happened if Britain hadn’t ‘provoked’ Germany. This is of course magical thinking, for too many reasons to catalogue. If Buchanan had been an honest isolationist, he would have said, OK, the Holocaust was a really bad thing, but it was none of our business. As cold-blooded as this sounds, the correct course of action would have been for the US to have stepped aside and watched from afar. But Buchanan isn’t cold-blooded enough to take his argument though to its logical conclusion, so he concocts an elaborate alternate history of unicorns dancing around rainbows, with the principal hero of World War II (Churchill) cast as a villain. Such is the folly that you lead yourself into believing when you are not intellectually honest with yourself.
An example from the past was Neville Chamberlain. In his case, it was fear and cowardice, which drove him towards isolationism. He didn’t have the guts to confront Hitler directly, so he sold the Czechs out at Munich, rationalizing that Czechoslovakia was “an obscure country, far away.” In reality, Czechoslovakia had 35 well-equipped divisions posted in terrain ideal for defence. If Hitler had been forced to wage a two-front war in 1938. France would likely not have fallen and World War II would have been a much smaller affair. But the Allies refused to stand up to Hitler until September 1939, and the result was the apocalyptic agony of World War II. Such are the fruits of isolationism.
Even worse, if France had stood up to Hitler in 1936, when he took back the Rhineland, World War II would have been reduced to a month-long policing action.
Back to today’s isolationists. Because they are afraid to confront Putin, they end up pretending that he is a good guy, proclaiming him to be a ‘champion of Western values’. What Western values? Like the KGB, or the Russian mafia, or looting one’s own country. The pattern of behaviour is there for all to see. The apartment house bombings, the War in Chechnya (the conduct of which is known for both its brutality and its ineffectiveness), the Invasion of Georgia, the Invasion of Crimea, and now the chaos in eastern Ukraine. But because they are afraid to see the truth, afraid to be honest enough to admit that their foreign policy preferences enable all of this, they refuse to see it. The byproduct of this self-delusion is a Niagara of rationalized excuses for Putin: Georgia attacked Russia, Crimea is traditionally Russian, and who knows who shot down MH17? Even though Occam’s Razor points straight at Putin, they prefer the deferents and epicycles of isolationsim, er, I mean realism.