Isolationism Without the Peace

One week into his term, President Donald Trump is shaping up to be an isolationist. Unfortunately, he is omitting isolationism’s only redeeming quality–peace.

The term isolationism is often misunderstood. It’s mostly used as a slur for one’s political opponents–especially libertarians and antiwar folks–instead of being openly promoted by a particular group. Indeed, I know of no sitting US politician who self-identifies as an isolationist.

That said, the basic tenets of a truly isolationist political system are easy to infer. They are as follows:

  • Highly restricted international trade
  • Highly restricted immigration
  • No involvement in the internal affairs of other nations

The arguments used to justify each of these planks will vary, but nationalism is likely to be an overriding theme. This description fits well with Trump and his goal to “Make America Great Again”.

Already, he has taken ambitious strides towards achieving the first two planks of the isolationist program.

On international trade, it actually started before Trump even took the oath of office. The most prominent form of this has been his public heckling of individual US companies on Twitter, demanding that they build more factories in the US. After taking office, Trump quickly doubled down by proposing a 20% tariff on goods from Mexico.

The purpose of these policies is explicit economic nationalism. Trump’s goal, whether he knows it or not, is to help US producers (and their workers) by punishing US consumers. On net, economic theory clearly tells us this will be a net loss for Americans overall. And since US workers in the affected industries are also US consumers, it’s not even clear whether that subset of Americans Trump is trying to help will actually be helped. Most likely, this group will have its own winners and losers created by the policy.

On immigration, Trump has also taken several steps forward on his campaign promises. The infamous border wall now has a cost estimate attached to it–some $15B to be paid for by the tariff noted above. However, most of Trump’s plans along the US’s southern border require Congress to appropriate funds to actually be implemented, so it remains to be seen what policy will ultimately emerge.

In areas of immigration wher the Trump Administration believed it had a freer hand, it took more aggressive and controversial actions. Chief on this list is a new executive order issued Friday that reduced the number of refugees the US plans to accept in 2017 and temporarily cut off immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries–Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria.

The executive order was made effective immediately. This caused many travelers from the afflicted countries to be detained when they arrived in the US, until an emergency court order required them to be released. Another bizarre feature of the order is that the wording was not clear regarding whether it applied to permanent US residents. Depending on who was interpreting it, this meant that people who had been approved to live in the US full-time might no longer be able to travel to and from it. This ambiguity ultimately led the White House to issue further guidance on Sunday, clarifying that permanent residents from the affected countries are not covered under the ban.

But while Trump has made significant progress–if one can call it that–on the first two isolationist planks, his actions on foreign policy have proved largely conventional. On just his first full day in office, we got confirmation that the US drone assassination program was still ongoing, when Trump’s first drone strike was carried out in Yemen. Additionally, Trump ordered a special operations raid this past weekend, also in Yemen, apparently resulting in the deaths of several suspected militants, civilians, and one US soldier.

Trump’s actions so far in the Middle East have shown considerable continuity with the Obama years. At least for now, the policies of endless war and anywhere assassinations appear to be intact.

The net result is that Trump’s policies offer one of the worst combinations available. He’s willing to harm the US economy and arbitrarily limit the freedom of those who seek to come to the US for a better life. But he’s unwilling to pursue the sole virtue that isolationism has to offer.

The US is still going to be interacting with the world in a destructive way–with bombs, night raids, and occupation–but the constructive interactions of trade and immigration are going to be limited.

The only upside here is that Trump’s dismal approach may finally help draw a distinction between isolationism and the policies of noninterventionism, espoused by libertarians like Ron Paul. Trump is pursuing isolation without peace; noninterventionism promotes the opposite–peace without isolation. After 16 years of endless, unwinnable wars, noninterventionism is what we need.

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