What We Talk About When We Talk About Isolationism
The rise of China notwithstanding, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower. Its military (and, to a considerable extent, political) hegemony extends not just over North America or even the Western hemisphere, but also Europe, large swaths of Asia, and Africa. Its interests are global; nothing is outside its potential sphere of influence. There are an estimated 660 to 900 American military bases in roughly forty countries worldwide, although figures on the matter are notoriously difficult to ascertain, largely because of subterfuge on the part of the military. According to official data there are active-duty U.S. military personnel in 148 countries, or over 75 percent of the world’s states. The United States checks Russian power in Europe and Chinese power in South Korea and Japan and Iranian power in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey. In order to maintain a frigid peace between Israel and Egypt, the American government hands the former $2.7 billion in military aid every year, and the latter $1.3 billion. It also gives Pakistan more than $400 million dollars in military aid annually (not including counterinsurgency operations, which would drive the total far higher), Jordan roughly $200 million, and Colombia over $55 million.
U.S. long-term military commitments are also manifold. It is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the only institution legally permitted to sanction the use of force to combat “threats to international peace and security.” In 1949 the United States helped found NATO, the first peacetime military alliance extending beyond North and South America in U.S. history, which now has twenty-eight member states. The United States also has a trilateral defense treaty with Australia and New Zealand, and bilateral mutual defense treaties with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. It is this sort of reach that led Madeleine Albright to call the United States the sole “indispensible power” on the world stage.
The idea that global military dominance and political hegemony is in the U.S. national interest—and the world’s interest—is generally taken for granted domestically. Opposition to it is limited to the libertarian Right and anti-imperialist Left, both groups on the margins of mainstream political discourse. Today, American supremacy is assumed rather than argued for: in an age of tremendous political division, it is a bipartisan first principle of foreign policy, a presupposition. In this area at least, one wishes for a little less agreement.