American History26 Mar 2008 02:23 am
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
–John Donne, “Meditation XVII”
In the 200 plus years since George Washington’s farewell blandishments against the peril of “foreign entanglements,” we have seen that such entanglements are as difficult to resist as a hurricane or some other comparable force of nature. Nevertheless, in recommending a kind of isolation, our first president touched upon a strain of thought that has been visibly present in all eras of American history down to the present day, from the 17th C vision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “The City on the Hill” to the contemporary antiwar and nativist movements. This isolationist temperament is predicated on the complementary notion that the United States enjoys a special destiny, distinct from other societies—a notion often referred to as American Exceptionalism—that derives from its virtue as a democratic experiment.
Like all learned men of the Enlightenment era, the founding fathers were great students of classical history; overwhelmingly, scholarship of this nature led to conclusions that equated expansion through power politics with institutional decay, fruitless internecine strife, and, finally, collapse. The most famous republics in historical literature—Athens, Rome, and Florence—all conformed to such a trajectory. Leaving aside the political expediency of isolation for a young, undeveloped nation of relatively little might, it is possible to see how Washington’s admonition drew on these historical lessons and, further, wed them to a conviction about the importance of national purity to democratic health.
Though the international influence of the United States has not been static since 1796 (indeed, as of March 2008, it appears to have traveled solely in one direction), opposition groups have continually invoked the catch-all of American democratic purity in their arguments against foreign policy initiatives that call for increased association with other nations and cultures. In particular, war and militarism have frequently been seen to expand the power of the executive branch of government at the expense of vital, American civil liberties, and lax immigration policy has been conceived as force of cultural erosion that will hasten the dissolution of national homogeneity necessary to maintain a properly American spirit.
Ignoring the particular moral or practical merits of these kind of arguments with respect to whatever issue was at hand, be it Irish immigration, the Spanish American War, or nuclear disarmament, one may claim that they represent an abiding popular demand that government conform to the principles that inspired the “American experiment” and were codified by its 18th C framers. The American masses, by now extracted from every corner of the globe, appear to have assimilated to the idea that the United States is unique, and regularly testify that her “foreign entaglements” will only drag her down.