Is The US Turning Isolationist?
The reaction in the press and general public in the United States to Barack Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for diplomacy and efforts to rid the world of nuclear arms is symptomatic of a disturbing and growing trend towards isolationism in the country. Former right wing ideas about leaving the UN, stopping immigration, and turning our backs on the world except for military solutions are catching hold on independents, and present a dangerous sign of troubles ahead.
Reaction to Obama Nobel Peace Prize Win
Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. Normally this would be a cause for celebration, and for most of the world, it was. They have high hopes for the man, and sincerely appreciate the fact that the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet is no longer a delusional war-monger. Obama is the world’s most respected leader, ranking ahead of even the Dalai Lama.
However the world perception goes far beyond the relief that there is no longer a conservative wingnut with his finger on the button. Obama has hit the reset button with Europe, Russia, the Muslim world, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. We live in a community of nations that is like a neighborhood, and the US has been that neighbor with the cars on blocks in the yard, the neighbor with the kids that egg other houses, the neighbor that throws raucous parties until dawn. A reset in relations was severely needed.
Beyond a mere reset, instead of being the bully on the block, We are once again talking to our neighbors and consulting their opinions on things, instead of dictating to them what is going to happen. This diplomacy is essential in this world which seems to shrink more every day, where resources are become increasingly scarce and inevitable differences of opinion could always spill over into open confrontation and bloodshed. We need to talk to each other, and use that as the primary source to not only resolve conflict, but to prevent it in the first place.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Obama has been recognized as being a bold leader in terms of nuclear disarmament. During the Cold War, the US and USSR amassed tens of thousands of these weapons of mass destruction, even though by some estimations, only 100 detonations spaced evenly around the planet could lead to the extinction of our species, and explain the Fermi Paradox once and for all. While the Bush regime antagonized Russia by abandoning the ABM, chemical weapons accords, and other bedrocks of international arms control, Obama is clearly in favor of strengthening them and building new safeguards of international peace. He gave the powerful speech in Prague last April where he set out his ambitious agenda for this, and short of some international crisis, expect to see some deep cuts in our arsenal by the end of his presidency in 2016. A few excerpts:
“To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year. …To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned. And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.”
While the world reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Barack Obama has been enthusiastically received by most of the planet (outside the Taliban), as a well deserved honor, the news in the USA didn’t carry this message. Instead, main stream media outlets like CNN adopted the theme based on the right wing talking point questioning whether he really deserves this award. The MSM seemed to repeat over and over that this was ‘controversial’ and continued to ask if Obama has actually done anything to merit this award. The infamous Fox ‘news’, known for their blatant record of disinformation, went so far as to call the Nobel Committee ‘a well known leftist organization’. In that perhaps they are correct, since only 6% of the nations scientists are Republican (usually but not always equated with conservatism), and peace certainly tends to be the dominion of the left (while military aggression is core to right wing philosophy). While foreign invasions are counter to isolationist philosophy, the reasons why conservatives have latched onto this will be detailed later.
Why would there be such a discrepancy between the media coverage between the US and the rest of the world? The answer boils down to the disturbing trend in America towards an openly isolationist mind set.
Charles Lindbergh speaking at a right wing rally for Isolationism in Pennsylvania, 1941
Right Wing Origins of Isolationism
Much of this attitude tends to stem from the right wing. Although the conservatives in America have traditionally been more isolationist than interventionist, including both WWI and WWII, their rationale is a bit different today. The conservative base of the Republican party has pushed for cuts in UN funding, even withholding payments on occasion. They also oppose reforming the UN Security council structure, where a single veto from any permanent member can kill any resolution, after which they criticize the UN for being ineffectual. Many conservatives today even advocate a complete withdrawal from the world body that we helped found. ‘US out of the UN’ is one call, ‘UN out of the US’ is another.
The right wing in America was the ones who pushed for unilateral withdrawal from important international treaties such as the ABM and not joining others like the World Court. The right wing was the ones who virtually unilaterally invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq under false pretenses and manufactured evidence. UN Chemical Weapons inspectors were actively searching for the supposed WMDs that Bush claimed there was solid, yet secret evidence about. The ‘Coalition of the Willing’ was not a true international alliance. The right wing continues to support US involvement in torture and rendition, things that are a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although this is far too rampant from many nations around the world, and to be honest, Obama is guilty of not being bold enough to quicken the pace of ending such practices.
Either way, unilateralism is a form of isolationist philosophy in the sense that instead of reaching out to work with others around the world, backs are turned on cooperation.
There is also the issue of the military. 4.5% of the world’s population lives in the United States, yet it consumes 25% of its resources, and spends 50% of the world’s military budget. In other words, the US spends as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. Despite this, conservatives in both parties continue to push for even greater funding for military projects and further military intervention in foreign lands, today that push being for strikes on Iran. Although this may seem to be counter to an isolationist policy, it is a form of it if one considers that unilateral military actions turn their back on international diplomatic efforts.
Speaking of unilateralism and its impact on the world around us, the lack of participation by the US in an international legal body speaks volumes about isolationism. The US withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in 1986 under Reagan. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands prosecuted Slobodan Miloševi? for war crimes under intense US pressure, yet despite Clinton signing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the conservative George W. Bush quickly halted our mandatory participation in it. How can a country use an international legal body to prosecute others, yet not be held by the same standard for violations of human rights?
Most societies have a conservative side that is rooted in traditionalism resistant to cultural change. In terms of migrations of populations, this conservatism tends to frame this as ethnocentrism, viewing cultural and ethnic diversity with suspicion and sometimes hostility. In modern day Anglo-America, this has translated into prejudice against any new group immigrating to the country, today, that being predominantly Latino.
This is perhaps the way in which the conservative xenophobia is best illustrated. The right wing media, especially talk radio has been spreading conspiracies against the ‘danger’ of the fictional North American Union [NAU] and the equally as hallucinatory common currency called the Amero for many years. Although the creation of the European Union certainly demonstrates the emergence of stronger international treaties and larger supra-national cooperative entities, it is still a paranoid delusion to think that there is some New World Order conspiracy to forge a NAU. In fact, the fears of a North American Union seem to be a guise under which an anti-Latino prejudice is cloaked.
Another way this xenophobia is disguised is in the frame of anti-illegal immigration. Anytime there is a serious economic discrepancy between nations, there is going to be the motivation for those seeking a better life for their loved ones to migrate. The disparity in wealth between the US and Mexico/Central America is quite large, and considering the immense time frames and bureaucratic nightmare that taking the permitted path is, there should be no surprise as to the number of undocumented immigrants. Some conservative outlets have even gone so far as to liken this wave of immigration as an invasion. This quasi-racist fear is making serious inroads into the general public, with rhetoric openly hostile towards Latin American culture becoming commonplace in conversation, especially in the South.
There could be the temptation to misconstrue the trend towards cultural diversity as simply being opposed to the current dominant culture, but this oversimplification mischaracterizes the situation. For instance, I am particularly proud of my Nordic and Germanic roots, and try to honor my ancestors by remembering where I came from and being the best human being I can be. However, I do not let this reverence consume my vision, and feel it is important to explore and celebrate the differences of culture that exist in this world.
In domestic terms, we are a melting pot, and should have nothing to fear from mixing the best elements of a new culture into ours.
Evidence of how this ethnocentrism is taking root can also be found in the recent debate over reforming the health care system in America. There is an unsubstantiated claim that the current bill will give free health care to illegal immigrants. This irrational fear has been spread by Republican leaders, including the rude outburst by Joe Wilson when Obama was addressing a joint session of congress. It has also made the rounds in conservative media, although would never have taken root with such a large percentage of the population unless this isolationist ethnocentrism had not previously taken hold of the minds of millions of Americans.
Other Areas of Spreading Isolationism
This growing isolationism is evident in other areas as well. Many are not only doubtful of man-made global climate change despite an overwhelming body of evidence supporting it, but see it as an international conspiracy to implement a new tax in America. The recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus (Swine Flu) has been met with open skepticism, with some people claiming the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is a tool of the World Health Organization (WHO).
After 911, the government implemented mandatory photographing and finger-printing of foreigners entering the country from many places around the world, even those who were just changing planes. Yet when countries such as Brazil adopted this policy for Americans as a result, it caused an uproar. This policy only underscores a greater underlying arrogance from the US, who often view foreigners with suspicion.
Even though there are some geographic barriers between Anglo-American culture and other parts of the world, Americans tend to shun exploring the cultures on other continents, including our neighbors to the south. Places like Cabo and Cancun don’t count, they are sheltered colonial resorts which do not represent the greater culture of Mexico. Those who have traveled to far off lands and explored other cultures can find their stories sometimes fall on deaf ears when they return home. Americans travel less, and when they do, usually do not visit other countries.
Most people in the US only speak one language: American English. Most people on the planet speak multiple languages.
This cultural arrogance even extends to sports. The most popular sport in the world is football (called soccer in America), yet it has failed to catch on in most parts of the United States. Notable exceptions would be Seattle Sounders and a few others in more liberal areas who seem to have quite an enthusiastic following. American football, while being an intense game, is only popular in the US and Canada. The NFL did try to set up an expansion into Europe in the 90s until 2007 (called NFL Europa), but the sport failed to catch on. This strategy has worked to an extent in baseball, where other countries in the America’s and Japan have become fans, but often American sports enthusiasts soundly reject most sports of other countries.
One area where American isolationism does not seem to be prevalent is in the area of cuisine. Although our diet has evolved from primarily English and German tastes, early dishes and spices were influenced by African, Caribbean, Central American, and Asian palates. This is true today, with Chinese and Indian restaurants being found in some smaller towns on the plains, and a cosmopolitan menu offered in almost every urban center.
Isolationism is Dangerous
The dangers of this isolationist philosophy are multifaceted.
For starters, xenophobia is only a short step away from open racism. We have already witnessed many problems that stem from this, including the Minute Men (an anti-immigration group) being accused of thug tactics such as systematic home invasions and murder. There is also the danger of the erosion of freedoms of everyone. The ACLU has documented that two thirds of all Americans live in border zones where constitutional rights are routinely violated. These tactics are clearly illustrated by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, whose tactics are unconstitutional and a clear violation of human rights. As long as people in the US continue to view this wave of Latino immigrants as ‘potentially hostile’, they seem willing to surrender their freedoms in a vain effort to stop it.
“Those who give up liberty for security deserve neither”
The purposeful shunning of other cultures and nations is quite evident in the stunning ignorance of Americans in terms of geography. For instance, most cannot locate Russia on a map, despite it being the single largest country by area on the planet. This lack of understanding transcends educational enlightenment however, and shines a beacon on the danger of what could happen in the future if we don’t embrace other places and faces on the planet. This could severely hamper efforts to stop the things that our species is doing that negatively impact the environment. It could lead to the loss in the competitive edge in the business realm. It could lead to easily preventable misunderstandings that could escalate into war.
This trend towards an isolationist philosophy in America runs counter to the global pattern of increasing interdependence and will certainly be unhealthy for our nation’s future.