Full-fledged American isolationism would be devastating – for its own interests, first and foremost

Right for his time, wrong for ours: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)


In his farewell address George Washington urged his compatriots and their descendants to restrict America’s involvement in the world and avoid entangling alliances. He counselled the new nation to stay out of foreign wars and other conflicts to every extent possible. Isolationism is thus America’s first instinct, a prescription handed down through the ages from the country’s very first president. Through this history and its geography, the United States can claim isolationism as a legitimate pursuit of policy. It is hard to level the accusation of “betrayal” to those merely echoing Washington’s most solemn injunction. 

But mistakes can be worse than outright betrayals. Facts change and each generation must fight its own battles. What is wise in one era may be catastrophic in the next. When George Washington wrote his address in 1796, he did so in the context of his time, and his advice for America was calibrated for a young nation in a world not yet even fully explored by man. In 2024, his perspective would most certainly be different.

The Russian view of statecraft, unencumbered by moral dilemmas and reflecting the instincts of a geopolitical predator (and survivor) operating in an anarchic international system, is that “power means, first and foremost, classic military power”. In this, they are right. But it is the United States, the world’s one-time freedom champion, that has not only grasped the full meaning and truth of the militaristic principle that guides Russian policy, but has also placed it at the very heart of its own policy and identity in world affairs.

Beneath the great effusions of liberal righteousness, democratic idealism and global justice pervading modern US foreign policy – epitomised by the running myth of the “rules-based international order” – lies a starker reality: that US power is based on its global military footprint. It is not simply the overall strength of America’s armed forces that underwrites US influence in the world; equally important is the US military’s permanent presence overseas. 

By the end of the Cold War the US maintained some 1,600 military facilities of all kinds – down to single radar stations – across the world. Today some 750 “base sites” are thought to remain, in about 80 countries. This is an estimate, because quite a few sites in key overseas locations used by the US military are not officially recognised and listed by the Pentagon. Of the official number of about 680 distinct sites that are part of the US Department of Defense’s worldwide real estate portfolio, approximately 350 are in Europe. Upkeep costs for all these infrastructures were estimated at $55bn per year in 2021. 

An important caveat is in order: clear data is hard to come by, both in terms of maintenance budgets and even in terms of what constitutes a “base”. There is plenty of double-counting in these official records, as individual areas of some bases – e.g. the local military hospital or maintenance depot – are sometimes listed separately for administrative reasons. By a different count, the number of significant overseas US bases – rather than just “base sites” – was around 66 in 2017, still a vast number. For now, China only has one, in Djibouti and most of Russia’s dozen or so are in ex-Soviet lands.

In personnel terms, the US military currently has approximately 85-100,000 troops stationed in Europe (depending on how rotational formations are counted), over 30,000 in the Middle East, and around 90,000 forward-deployed at the top three strategic locations in the Western Pacific (Japan, South Korea, Guam). A further few tens of thousands US soldiers are spread across other locations around the world.

These troops are of course backed by ships, submarines, planes, drones, helicopters, and a variety of land equipment from tanks and artillery to logistical vehicles or air and missile defence kit, plus ammunition deployed at these overseas military bases which often also function as field headquarters. This combined outlay of US military strength positioned at key points across the world is what supports America’s entire global posture – and, until recently, a semblance of order.

There is now increased allied concern over a potential inwards turn of US foreign policy. In most cases it is prompted by misguided expectations of what a second coming of President Trump might bring. In other cases this angst derives from a more rational, though still exaggerated, reading of the long trends in the shifting balance of world power. In addition to what allies fear, there is also the explicit isolationist push from a growing faction within the American foreign policy and political community, epitomised by the Quincy Institute and of course by the more radical Republican circles.

“Isolationism” means different things to different people, particularly at this point in time when it is a matter of theory rather than practice. Even among the strongest critics of America’s involvement in “foreign wars”, who denounce its overseas footprint and generally US policy as provocative, wasteful and counter-productive, it is not easy to find advocates for simply leaving the geopolitical field of struggle and handing dominion of the world to China. 

After all, confronting Chinese ambitions is pretty much the only broadly bipartisan issue in US politics. Most often, proponents of so-called “isolationist” tendencies try in fact to have their cake and eat it, by signalling a military retreat from the world – sometimes couched in euphemisms like “restraint” – but also expecting the US to somehow retain its primacy in the international system and be able to cut good deals with China and the other revisionist powers. Certainly, none of these “visionaries” ever suggest that the US might have to pay any serious price in wealth and/or security, in the long term, as a result of the policies they propose.

Testing any proposition is best done by taking it to its logical extremity or end-point, even though in practice that stage might very well not be reached. In this case, it is therefore worth considering the consequences of a wholesale US military withdrawal certainly from Europe and Middle East but perhaps also from the Western Pacific, leading to a post-WWI-style isolationism that brings America back where it started a century ago: at home, behind two great oceans, and focused on its domestic affairs.

First of all, from a military standpoint, the US would cease to represent a determinant factor in global security. Its position would be similar to China’s today. The US might well retain the most technologically advanced military, including a powerful navy and space forces with a global reach. But its ability to project power in a meaningful way – i.e. to engage in a major state-on-state war for example – across either of its two oceanic boundaries, would be severely impaired if not made impossible in absence of overseas bases with pre-positioned logistics and other war materiel that can sustain a sizeable long-range campaign and act as jump-off points for operations against presumptive continental-based enemies. 

To this would be added, at that hour of need, all the difficulties with maintaining or resurrecting vital alliances which will have certainly been hollowed out with the retreat of US military power from the global scene. In all the major wars it fought in the 20th century, whether the two world wars (with the exception of the Pacific campaign), Korea, Vietnam, Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, the US relied on local or regional allies – and/or its own bases – to provide essential logistical support and staging points for the amassing and then employment of US forces at scale. In our times, it is not at all clear that once the US pulls out and collapses its global military footprint – and therefore many of its alliances such as NATO – it will ever be able to come back even from a practical point of view, let alone in political terms.

Secondly, any large-scale – let alone complete – US withdrawal from a regional theatre such as Europe or the Middle East would destroy US political influence there, and very likely have much wider effects. Again this point appears to not be well understood at all among those politicians playing fast and loose with the notion of some kind of US exit from NATO or its only slightly softer version, a so-called “dormant NATO”. 

They often assume that US “protection” is a form of generosity towards ungrateful and delinquent Europeans, a one-way bad deal for America. The ingratitude is certainly real but it is principally tied to a latent cultural anti-Americanism which is reprehensible and unpardonable on its own terms given that Europe owes its freedom – from the Nazis and then the Communists – to the United States. European ingratitude is not a political question precisely because the US has enjoyed the greater political advantage from this arrangement all along. 

The fact is that for 75 years US protection of Europe has bought Washington D.C. not just a great measure of geopolitical control over the affairs of the continent, but, by aligning behind it all the “West” – chiefly represented by European states and their close allies across the world – the US has been enjoying the role of “leader of the free world” with all the legitimacy, diplomatic power, and therefore global influence that this position brings. 

If anything, it may be said that by paying to protect Europe, the US got the rest of the world at a discount. Step away from the Old World, break the transatlantic link, retreat behind the Pond, and all that the United States means for the world – or what is left of that meaning after the mistakes of the post-Cold War era – all of its prestige and influence, will be gone. Betraying the most fundamental principles of its own policy over the past century, America will become just another country with technology and nukes. What would be the point of the US in the world, then? It may be doubted whether the still-young US polity could survive this blow to its self-identity. 

Finally, a US that wound down its military and geopolitical posture and aimed at a form of isolationism would soon lose control of events and, particularly, of its economic destiny. The “multipolar” world so arduously promoted by Putin, Xi and their useful idiots in the West as the natural and rational successor to the US-led international system we have broadly known since 1945, is not the equitable solution to global strife and American “imperialism” that so many believe. 

There is no Concert of Vienna-style management of world affairs, or some kind of Bismarckian balance of power arrangement awaiting on the other side of US primacy, where an isolationist America “only” loses its dominance but otherwise gets to preserve or even increase its prosperity at home, and to sort out all of its domestic issues in peace, without the “burden” of international commitments and entanglements. There isn’t even a winning posture to be created against China, by re-directing resources from a complete withdrawal “just” from Europe and the Middle East. 

No; all these outcomes are but dreams, hopes and half-baked, unquestioned assumptions from the new breed of foreign policy wishful-thinkers that has arisen of late as an extremist reaction to the neocon excesses of the previous generation. The simple fact is that once the US gives up and removes its military pieces from the global chessboard, the initiative is handed definitively to the enemy. 

In such a situation, Europe, the Middle East and Asia will all fall under a neo-Tripartite rule, dominated by China, with Russia and Iran locking-in the political futures of their respective zones of influence. These cold-blooded geopolitical power-players will not relent until the US is rendered impotent for good; they will not make the mistake of seeking a genuine “co-existence” or “co-evolution” with America. Only fools can imagine that “civilisation states” with millennial histories (of sorts) like China or Russia, and their deep pools of accumulated resentment over the past century against the West in general and the US in particular, would fail to press their advantage once Washington concedes strategic positions in the world. 

The US would be squeezed from international markets through a variety of means, as it loses military leverage in different geographies whose trade patterns would gravitate towards the new overlords in Moscow and Peking. It would see itself cut off from global resources, and the dollar – which even as things stand today faces an uncertain but not predetermined future over the long term – would certainly lose its reserve currency status, leading to economic devastation in the debt-laden US. But long before this, the already-fractured US society will likely have to reckon with new levels of domestic strife.

So, there is no balancing to be done, there is no new system or order to be co-created with Putin or Xi and their successors from a position of weakness. The idea of America cutting its global losses and retrenching at home – or just in the Pacific – to fight another day, is a fallacy. That day will never come. Perhaps a new arrangement for global stability, even a détente, is possible in the future; but the US and the West could only engage in that process from a position of strength, and that makes all the difference. 

In the end, the only game to be played is the one underway right now, from Ukraine to the Middle East, to Taiwan. America doesn’t get to quit and thrive in peace; it must hold fast and double down, to win.