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Air Date: October 8, 1996
Program 9641


THE ISOLATIONIST PATH


Guest:

John Ruggie, author,
Winning the Peace: America and World Order
in the New Era


(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely

distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

JOHN RUGGIE, author, Winning the Peace: America and World Order in the New Era: I
think it’s going to be very much more difficult for the United States to pursue an active
internationalist policy after the Cold War. That’s why I wrote the book.

KEITH PORTER, producer: US foreign policy and the path to isolationism on this edition of
Common Ground.

RUGGIE: The title of my book, Winning the Peace, is taken from a fire-side chat by
President Roosevelt only a few days after Pearl Harbor. In which he said, “Last time we won the
war, but we lost the peace that followed. This time we have to win the peace as well.”

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation, I’m Keith Porter.

America may be drifting down a dangerous path toward isolationism. That, according to Professor
John Ruggie of Columbia University. Professor Ruggie has just written a new book titled
Winning the Peace: America and World Order in the New Era. He begins the book with a tale
from his own Cold War experience.

RUGGIE: I was born in Austria and lived there till I was 11. And one day when I was, I
think, somewhere around seven years old, I went by train from my hometown of Graz in Austria to
Vienna. And I had to pass into the Soviet Occupation Zone and I was by myself, without any
parents or any other adults with me, and the Russian soldiers, the Soviet soldiers boarded the
train at the appropriate place and they scared the living daylights out me. They looked very big
and they wore these bulky uniforms and they were carrying rifles and all the rest of it. And I
got a little scared. And the funny thing is that being scared carried over for years and years
thereafter. Whenever I went near, I lived in Switzerland when I was doing my Ph.D. research and
in Switzerland you cross borders every ten minutes, and every time I crossed the border my hands
would start sweating. And it goes right back to that early experience. And what I found sort of,
when I was writing preface, what I found so interesting by way of contrast is how I first met the
other super power. Because not long thereafter there was a knock on the door of our one room flat
and it was the mailman delivering a care package, or whoever it was who was delivering the care
package, with blue stenciled outreached hands and from the people of the United States of
America. We tore it open. It was great. There was canned meat and there was all sorts of stuff,
including Hershey bars. So I say in the preface, “Some people follow the yellow brick road. I
followed the Hershey bars.”

PORTER: And it brought you here.

RUGGIE: Right.

PORTER: That’s great. Now, in the book, a little more seriously I guess.

RUGGIE: That’s pretty serious stuff.

PORTER: I agree. It’s that kind of, those Cold War legends I think are amazing. They are
as powerful as the stories that came out of any other period, World War II or World War I. That’s
kind of what I wanted to ask you about. You compare those periods, the end of World War I, the
end of World War II, and the end of the Cold War. How are those three time periods similar in our
century.

RUGGIE: Well they are similar in the following way. In each instance the United States
has had to make, and I include today, a fundamental choice of how it wished to engage with the
rest of the world, on what basis. Historically, the United States has not, had not been prior to
this century much involved in the way of the world. And by the turn of the century after the
Spanish American War, in particular, the rest of the world was beginning to make its presence
felt and we were becoming a great power and felt, our President Roosevelt and McKinley before
him, felt that the United States had to develop some doctrinal understanding how it was going to
relate to the rest of the world. Was it going to be like a European power and play balance and
power politics. Well, McKinley and Roosevelt tried. It didn’t work. The American public simply
wasn’t interested in playing balance and power politics.

Woodrow Wilson comes along and tries to motivate the American public by drawing on sort of
indigenous American experiences, the quest for democracy, constitutionalism, a commitment to
human rights, and self determination. And in the short run he’s much more successful in that
there was quite a bit of support among the public for joining the League of Nations. But that, as
you know, was the membership in that was voted down in a very complex parliamentary maneuver in
the Senate.

After 1919 isolationism ensued and we stood by as the world headed back toward calamity. The
title of my book Winning the Peace is taken from a fire-side chat by President Roosevelt
only a few days after Pearl Harbor. In which he said, “Last time we won the war, but we lost the
peace that followed. This time we have to win the peace as well.” And Roosevelt developed a
series of institutional frameworks through the international monetary fund, international trade
negotiations, and the United Nations. The primary purpose of which was to anger the United States
into the world order. So that the United States would be a permanent participant and not come in
down the road as the world unraveling or already had unraveled, but it would be at the table all
the time. That was Roosevelt’s desire.

And then of course the Cold War broke out and the Rooseveltian schemes didn’t go very far, but
anti-Communism became the basis for American engagement. And here we are after the Cold War. In
1947, Newsweek wrote that the Truman Doctrine, which was enunciated in response to the
Soviet threat, had finally put America into world politics to stay. All right, now the Cold War
is over. Are we in it to stay? And if so, on what basis. Anti-Communist rhetoric no longer
resonates, cause there aren’t any Communists left, aside from China and they’re become
market-Communists very rapidly…

PORTER: And don’t forget Fidel Castro.

RUGGIE: …and Cuba. Who is sort of gnat more than a threat. So that hardly provides a
basis for American engagement. There are no over-arching threats to American security. It’s just
in this kind of an environment no over-arching threats, no motivating ideology is the kind in
which I most fear. The American people saying, “Well, why should we? We have problems at home. We
need to rebuild our domestic economy, we need to retrain our labor force, we need bridges that
need building, our schools are crowded, all the rest of it. Why do we care about the rest of the
world. Let it take care of itself, we have problems at home.”

Now my reaction to that is, of course we need to take care of our internal priorities. But if you
let the world go to Hell in a hand basket, it will go to Hell in a hand basket. And the United
States in the final analysis can’t exclude itself from the deleterious consequences of our
turning away from it. So that inevitably as conflicts break out or as terrorists’ attacks
continue, we are going to be drawn in. And like Roosevelt in 1945, I feel it’s best to be in from
the beginning so that we have a hand in shaping the course of events. As opposed to waiting for
things to unravel and then sending out, you know, the 82nd airborne.

PORTER: If we wanted to, is there any way to go back to 1919? To our position in the
world at that point?

RUGGIE: No.

PORTER: The way the American people apparently wanted things to be in 1919.

RUGGIE: No and we couldn’t do in the inter-war period. The rest of the world didn’t go
away and we did have interests in the rest of world. The only thing that our neutrality laws, for
example, in the 1930s assured was that we let the bad guys determine when and how we were going
to intervene. There was no question that ultimately we had to intervene, because our interests
were at stake. But so, you know, somebody like Hitler, or Hitler specifically could have been
stopped by just about anybody in Europe in the mid 1930s and even into 1936. By 1939 he was
unstoppable by anybody in Europe. Wouldn’t it have been better to stop him earlier and avoid
World War II altogether. It’s that kind of thing that I’m arguing here in the book. The need for
vigilance and engagement.

PORTER: In the book you talk about some different pathways that may lead us to
neoisolationism. Talk about those paths that you see open to us if we venture down them that may
lead to this neoisolationism.

RUGGIE: OK. Well one is an old sort of standby, it is the tradition of political realism.
Sort of the Kissengerian approach to international politics. Says that you basically itemize your
interests and you pursue your most vital interests and you pursue other lesser interests less
intensely. So you have a clear hierarchy in other words. And only the most vital interests
deserve our direct engagement. The problem with that is, and this happened after 1919, we set the
threshold of what qualifies as a vital interest so high when there is no external threat like the
Soviet Union that almost nothing qualifies. We can always say, “Well, that’s an interest, but
it’s not really that important. There are other things at home that are more important.” And it
begins to sort of, whatever the reverse process is of a snowballing effect, all right, it becomes
less and less likely that you will pay attention and take action. Because you set the threshold
of what qualifies as a vital interest so high. That’s point number one.

Point number two, we have been since the end of the Cold War suffering from the legacy of
so-called Powell Doctrine.

PORTER: All or nothing.

RUGGIE: The all or nothing military doctrine. If we can’t go in and wipe them out in a
100 hours, we’re not going to go in because we don’t want any quagmires. Well if you follow that
strategy then the United States can’t get involved in most of the conflicts in the world today.
Because they’re not of a nature that you can resolve them in 100 hours or even 100 days. They’re
nagging conflicts, many of them involving collapsed states, ethnic rivalries, and so-on and
so-forth that take a little bit more time. So if you apply the Powell Doctrine in addition to
very high thresholds of what constitutes a vital interest you might as well close up shop and
throw the key away.

The third potential scenario is actually an ironic one. Because so many people believe that
isolationism today is inconceivable because of economic globalization. And economic
interdependence is so high that we are going to be swept into the world into participating in
international management, if you will, whether we like it or not. My response to that is as far
as I can see the American people, the American public at this point in time is far more concerned
with the negative effects of economic globalization. In terms of wage stagnation at home, in
terms of the export of jobs. The giant sucking sound of jobs heading South, as Ross Perot put it
last time around in the election. We’re lucky if we don’t end up on a protectionist track, so far
from drawing us into active engagement internationally. Economic globalization is just as likely,
if not more likely, to unleash a populist protectionism in this country ,which would drive us
away from international engagement rather than from active involvement.

PORTER: What I like about this analysis and what I found so interesting about it in the
book too, was that in each of these scenarios that you’ve setup on the surface level they imply
engagement. They say, “Oh sure we’re going to be engaged in the world.” But then you spin out the
path of how that course of action takes us to a form of isolationism.

RUGGIE: That’s right, that’s right. And in fact if you look carefully at the isolationism
of the 1930s, the one element that the various brands or component parts of the isolationist
movement had in common was a commitment to protectionism, stemming from a desire to shield the
United States against the adverse effects of international economic trends and a unilateralism in
security affairs. A unilateralism which said no one is going to tell us when to intervene or for
what purpose, only we as a nation will decide when and how to do that.

But then we go back to my threshold issue. The threshold kept rising. Italy invades Ethiopia,
it’s not important. Japan invades Manchuria, it’s not important. Hitler starts ravaging his
neighbors, it’s not important. It’s not a vital interest. When does it become a vital interest?
Well, when the Japanese finally attacked Pearl Harbor. Two years into the war we’re finally
shell-shocked literally into an understanding that there was no way that we could isolate
ourselves from world political developments.

PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with John Ruggie, author of
the newly released book Winning the Peace. Ruggie is the Burgess Professor of Political
Science and International Affairs at Columbia University.

Printed transcripts and audio-cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the
broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit,
non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.

You talk a lot in the book about this intersection between traditional military security and what
you’ve already discussed the sort of global economic issues. Tell us what you found there about
the way those issues interconnect now that they didn’t 50 years ago.

RUGGIE: Well I think 50 years ago they ran on separate tracks much more then they run
now. The tradeoffs are much more complicated today. When you look at East Asia for example, East
Asia is fastest growing economic area in the world. For us, for the United States it’s economically
the most, increasingly the most important area after the North American continent itself.
Increasingly there are greater opportunities for us in East Asia than there are in Europe, which
is a much more mature as an economy and therefore not growing as rapidly. But you look at East
Asia through security lenses, it’s also the most unstable area or I should say, there are other
areas of the world that are unstable, unstable and able to impinge on US interests. Africa is
terribly unstable, but it doesn’t threaten American interests directly, typically. But East Asia
certainly does.

If a war, if I had to bet, one; if a war is going to break out in the next ten years and if so
where? I’m not sure what the probability is that I would assign to it, but I would bet on East
Asia. The Korean peninsula, the Chinese-Taiwan issue; China borders on 15 of its neighbors, it
has border disputes with most of them, it claims off-shore oil fields in the South China Sea,
it’s a rising power like Germany was before World War I, and we are not very good historically.
We, meaning the international community at large not simply the United States at accommodating
new rising powers. We don’t know how to admit them into the club without there being a lot of
elbow pushing and every once and awhile a real fight.

So you look at East Asia from the economic point of view; fabulous, growth opportunities,
expansion, exports, all the things the Clinton administration likes to talk about. You look at it
from a security point of view, potentially very unstable and could cause the whole thing to
unravel. So if you’re making foreign policy in that area, you cannot say, “OK, security policy is
over on this side of the table. Economic policy is over on the other side of the table.” The two
have to be interlinked, because they impinge upon one another so closely. So the tradeoffs
between the spheres are much more intense and much more important today then they were in the
1930s.

In the 1930s we had lots of economic interests in Europe, for example. And the private sector was
deeply engaged in European post World War I reconstruction. It has zero impact on our political
interests or engagement.

PORTER: We’ve talked some here about the dangers. You’ve warned us about the dangers of
neoisolationism and its father, I guess, unilateralism, and the high threshold and the all or
nothing. Let’s talk about the benefits, the positive side of being actively engaged in the world
on a multilateral basis. What’s the upside here?

RUGGIE: The upside is in the long run, it is in the interest of the United States and of
the rest of world for us to have a stable international security order. One in which major
conflicts that could destabilize the international order as a whole do not occur. That disputes
are settled through peaceful means or every once and awhile through the show of force. And every
once in awhile by hitting somebody over the head with a two by four if you have to. So the
everything in everything that we care about depends on that kind of stability in the world.
Whether it’s continued economic growth, whether it’s our own national commitment to human rights,
whether it’s our own national commitment to the expansion of democracy.

And to, as I said already, economic opportunities; exports and jobs. Everything hinges on there
being sort of a fundamental stability in the international order. These are all as Quint
essential American objectives. They’re very practical objects. Economic opportunity is a very
practical objective, but we ain’t going to have any. You know we didn’t export a whole lot to the
Bosnians while they were at war. Except before the arms that were coming in through back
channels. That’s fundamentally the upside is that, just like historically abroad and historically
at home, stability is prerequisite for all the other things that we care about.

PORTER: Let’s talk about a few current issues that come up in your book Winning the
Peace
, and get your thoughts on them. NATO expansion. Good thing, bad thing?

RUGGIE: A tricky thing. I have a view on NATO expansion which is somewhat different from
the prevailing view in Washington. There’s general bipartisan support for NATO expansion. And I’m
not in principle opposed to NATO expansion either. I worry about the American led NATO expansion
for which there is bipartisan support. And I’m troubled by that on several grounds. The one that
has been talked about somewhat, although not a great deal in Washington, is that the more America
led the expansion, is the more it poses problems for Russia, for democratic Russia, the more it
offers opportunities for nationalists and communists in Russia. To argue to the domestic
electorate that as far as the United States is concerned, clearly the Cold War isn’t over because
we’re pushing the alliance that contained the Soviet Union right up now to the borders of Russia.
Now, I don’t think we need to do that. We don’t need to encourage communists and nationalists
factions in Russia in order to stabilize Central and Eastern Europe. So that’s one thing that
worries me.

Another thing that worries me is that it gets the Europeans, the West Europeans off the hook. I
mean, damn it we helped them reconstruct after World War II. There’s absolutely no reason why
they can’t do the same thing now, vis a vis Central and Eastern Europe. Nothing would help Poland
more. Nothing would help stabilize economic transition and democratization in Poland more than a
reform of the common agricultural policy of the European Union. But with all the attention
focused on NATO expansion the Europeans very cleverly have managed to say, “Well, you know
expanding the European Union is very complex and very costly. We can’t do that before the
beginning of the next century.” Bologna. Expanding NATO is far more problematical. And we’re
allowing the West Europeans to get off the hook on something that ought to be primary duty. We
ought to back them. We ought to back them certainly, but it ought not to be on our tab to the
extent that it’s turning out to be.

The third reason is, relates to the theme of the book in my underlying fear about
neoisolationism. And that is that it’s going to take some time for the United States to find its
feet in the new era. And my book was, one purpose of the book was to help us find our feet in the
new era. But it’s going to take us some time and it’s going to be, there’s going to be some
turmoil domestically in terms of domestic politics among conservatives and liberals, among
unilateralists and multilateralists, and all the rest of it. And there are going to be things
said and things done, including what are commitment to Europe should be. Are we really willing to
risk New York for Warsaw. That kind of stuff. I would rather not hinge the fate of Eastern and
Central Europe so closely to those political debates as is bound to happen, unless the expansion
is more European led.

So the bottom line is, yes I favor an expansion of Western Security Organization into Central and
Eastern Europe. But I would like for it to be more European led, less uniquely reliant on the
United States. Making greater use of the West European Union, which the Europeans have designated
as their common security and defense umbrella than is now the case.

PORTER: All right. One final area for you. Do the issues in Winning the Peace give
us any guidance as we watch the US presidential elections play out?

RUGGIE: To some extent. I think on a semi-superficial level the administration is more in
favor in engagement, particularly multilateral engagement. And the republicans are more favor of
either unilateralist internationalism, i.e., the US relying on its own means to get the job down
or tends in quasi neoisolationist directions. So that yes to some extent there is a replay of the
argument that I talk about, which occurred in 1919 and 1945 again today between the two political
parties. But as long as candidate Dole remains a leading figure in the republican party, I think
he serves as a barrier against the republicans sliding too far in the direction of
neoisolationism. Because he is, I think, personally an internationalist. By the same token, as
long as President Clinton remains an influential figure in the democratic party the United States
sense of engagement isn’t likely to take on any messianic streak, because he’s the ultimate
pragmatist. And so we have, in fact, quite a bit of overlap in the center. What looks like at
first glance clearly opposite approaches. When you look more closely, actually veers more toward
a cautious centerism for the time being. Which I think is all to the good and for the moment is
probably all we can expect.

PORTER: Are you all concerned about the loss, perhaps in both parties even, of
internationalist viewpoint that is sort of well defined and out front?

RUGGIE: I think it’s going to be very much more difficult for the United States to pursue
an active internationalist policy after the Cold War. And that’s why I wrote the book. What I
want to stress in the book, what I wanted to stress in the book was not to allow this to get out
of hand. Yes, the Cold War is over and we don’t need the intense engagement that we felt it,
compelled to exercise during the Cold War. But international stability is still a primary
objective, not only in and of itself, but because of everything else that depends on it. And as
the world’s only super power, if we don’t remain systematically engaged I can see an unraveling
very quickly. And we would be deeply deeply remorseful, you know, a few years down the road. But
we can’t, one of the things about history is that can’t replay the tape. It only plays once.

PORTER: That is Professor John Ruggie, author of Winning the Peace: America and World
Order in the New Era
. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

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