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The Complicated History of US Isolationism

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In an event released on February 11, Kluge Center Director John Haskell interviewed Charles Kupchan on his new book: Isolationism: A History of America’s Effort to Shield Itself from the World.

Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs in the School of Foreign Service and Government Department at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that he began considering isolationism in the 1990s, at a time when the US was committed to deep involvement in foreign affairs. Kupchan wondered if the American people would want to “put on the brakes” after interventions in the Balkans and other parts of the world during that time. Instead, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism resulted in a renewed focus on the world outside of US borders.

Still, Kupchan said, this only proved to be a “temporary resurgence of internationalism, because those wars [didn’t] go so well, and we begin to see by the second term of George W. Bush a sense that we may have bitten off more than we can chew.”

Kupchan said he found reading about the prevalence of isolationism in the US before World War II to be an “eye-opener,” particularly in comparison to the late 20th century where “the United States was, essentially, running the world.” Then, the Trump administration’s turn towards isolationism, Kupchan said, confirmed to him that the idea had renewed relevance.

Haskell and Kupchan went on to outline the history of the idea of isolationism in American politics, from a long initial period where isolationism was the guiding principle through a rapidly-changing relationship to the concept in the 20th century. They then discussed the shifts brought on by the post-Cold War world that have altered the US role in the world, as well as predictions for the Biden presidency.

The full event is available to watch here.

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