Chief Political Correctness High Priestess Diane Rehm, with one of her often-biased radio panel discussions, recently carried this ancient back to the late 1930s' Great Debate, framed as "isolationism" vs. "interventionism" in foreign policy. (Full disclosure: I was a teen-age member of William Allen White's Committee for Defending America by Aiding the Allies. Contrary to rumor, on Dec. 8, 1941, I was not refunded my $3.50 contribution taken from my weekly 25-cent "allowance.")
"Neo-isolationism" is in full cry - however, much-eclipsed - as unemployment precludes any campaign debate on anything other than the economy. But in that infamous cliche of Friedrich Engels (falsely attributed to Karl Marx), history repeats itself, first as drama and then as farce.
For if Pearl Harbor proved the futility of isolationism even with the trace of truth in Clare Boothe Luce's infamous charge that "FDR lied us into war" 9/11 brought us a new understanding of the mortal dangers lurking "out there."
There were indeed strong arguments in 1939 for staying out of Europe's (and Asia's) incessant wars: the nauseating Versailles double-cross of President Wilson; the failure of the League of Nations, in part because of America's failure to participate; and cowering Britain and France feeding sacrificial victims to the aggressors, among others. But most importantly, there were two vast oceans seemingly providing a safety net. At the time, we didn't know Japan's naval skills or what Hitler's evil economic genius, Dr. Hjalmar Schact, could do with a unified European economy under the Nazi heel.
There are today matches for the old isolationist arguments, as seemingly inconclusive foreign wars may have proved Washington cannot be the world's policeman. Billions lavished on government-to-government aid and unparalleled private generosities have not produced "a new world order." Compared to the horrors of life in Third World societies and a pampered Europe caught in failed efforts at unification, even an America in semi-recession still looks good. Preserving our "isolation" is tempting for defending our liberties.
So, once again, the false trumpet calls Americans "to come home" and leave the world to its own devices. Isolationism's advocates say, "Pull up the drawbridge, build a Fortress America, and save our young men and women sacrificing their lives" for the likes of, for example, a Pakistan. That supposed ally in the war on terrorism takes our aid billions, while all the while playing at an amateurish Machiavellianism, destructive to its own survival, as a device to level the playing field with Washington.
But minimizing ties with the rest of the world remains a goal only for the blinkered. Destroying the old shibboleths in new rhetoric is easily accomplished:
• In 1939, the longest-range Soviet artillery reached only 14 to 22 miles. Sometime in the future, North Korean or Iranian intercontinental ballistics missiles (or existing Russia or Chinese weapons) could traverse thousands of miles reaching Washington, D.C., in 30 minutes.
• In 1939, international trading (exports and imports, goods and services) accounted for only 7.6 percent of gross national product, our total economic activity, and, ultimately, our wealth. In 2011, international commerce accounted for 31.5 percent of GNP, its tentacles reaching into every aspect of our daily lives.
• In 1939, it took two weeks for a one-ocean battleship to steam from a Pacific base to the Atlantic. In 2011, it takes only 10 to 12 days to move one of our dwindling fleet's nuclear-powered carriers from the largest naval base in the world at Norfolk to the Persian Gulf.
President Obama's answer to our dilemma is to "lead from behind." But in a world where U.S. military expenditures and commensurate power are greater than all other allied militaries combined, the very potential for U.S. leadership can move mountains. When it is not applied as in the growing Syrian morass it plays as much of a role as when activated. The vacuum the Obama administration has created has only aggravated world tensions and the potential for new disasters. Reducing U.S. commitment may be possible, but with our European allies and Japan edging toward extended recession, it seems unlikely that relative roles will change.
The comedian-folk philosopher Oscar Levant encapsulated the primitive urge brilliantly with his quip, "Stop the world, I want to get off." But our astrophysicists tell us how after "the Big Bang," the expansion of the galaxies continues incessantly. Dealing with the world multiplies proportionately. We may be able, with more astute policies, to slow world events. But escape is the grand illusion.
•Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.