It started with Tim Pawlenty in the New Hampshire debate and is currently being thrown around by nearly everybody. Not since Pat Buchanan ran for president 20 years ago has this word been used so freely. In common usage, the word “isolationist” can have any number of meanings, most often pejorative.
Fortunately, there is an academic meaning, and it serves as an excellent measuring device to gauge the level of hyperbole in any political discussion. From Dictionary.com:
the policy or doctrine of isolating one’s country from the affairs of other nations by declining to enter into alliances, foreign economic commitments, international agreements, etc.
A further understanding can be gained from the Oxford Companion to U.S. Military History:
Isolationists seek to preserve the United States’ freedom of action… isolationists often favor unilateral military action, what some call the doctrine of the “free hand.” Indeed, an isolationist can be stridently nationalistic, endorse military preparations, sanction certain forms of imperialism, and engage in outright war…
It is the unilateral nature of an action that defines the isolationist. For the isolationist, being pro-war or anti-war is dependant on an alliance. Our bombing of Pakistan fits in with the isolationist world view, assuming that any given isolationist thinks Pakistan needs to be bombed. Since our involvement in Libya also involves NATO, this would not be isolationist, since any involvement with NATO is part of an alliance.
In its common usage, at least in Republican Party circles, an isolationist is somewhat akin to a pacifist. Historically, isolationists and pacifists have often been on the same side of political battles. That side has almost always lost. Fear of another powerful totalitarian has shaped our thinking since WW II.
The resulting globalism has produced a growing sense that our leaders have led us down a dead-end street. Is it a coincidence that high unemployment and a dieing manufacturing base occurred shortly after NAFTA and the Free Trade Agreement were signed? Is it coincidence that the wholesale corruption of congress by Wall St. happened shortly after globalizing American banks by abolishing a set of rules that had served the people since 1935? And while we’re at it, does it do us any good to be part of an alliance with Europeans who, after running out of ammunition 3 days into the conflict, can’t even oust a minor nuisance like Kaddafi?
True to form, the politicians and pundits use the term mostly as an attempted smear of their opponents, with no reference to the downside of their own world view. Like one’s captivated by sunlight sparkling on the waters surface, they ignore the crosscurrents underneath; willing captives of an unexamined party line.
America is not just an experiment in democracy. It is an experiment that produces results. If those results are found lacking, it is up to the experimenters to question the assumptions, redefine the parameters, adjust the variables. Our only political misfortune, is that this only happens when a party is out of power.