Rattner ’15: No such thing as isolationism

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In today’s media and public discourse, government policies and current events typically get categorized into two camps: domestic and foreign. But the two cannot be divorced and should not be treated separately.

The New York Times, think tanks and even presidential debates label issues as either American or foreign. The truth is that little of what goes on in the United States does not affect other countries, and the last century has shown that oceans no longer isolate us from Eurasia and Africa.

The United States has nearly a quarter of the world’s GDP and, for better or worse, is scrutinized and respected by other countries. Indeed, our domestic policies as much as our actions abroad are analyzed by foreign democracies.

National issues should be discussed with regard to how they affect not only the United States but the rest of the world. Ignoring the ramifications of our actions, even domestic ones, is narrow-minded and selfish.

Immigration, for example, is generally considered a domestic policy issue. Debate focuses on how regulations affect American jobs and wages. But more attention should be given to the cost of human capital exacted on immigrants’ countries of origin. A 2012 National Science Foundation study found that among Indians who got a doctorate abroad in science, engineering or health, only 5.2 percent were working in India. Some consideration should be given to how the loss of this talent affects a country with dire infrastructure and medical needs.

Even where we might not have a direct impact, actions within our borders are scrutinized by others. The most private of domestic issues, like marriage laws, can have global consequences. The battle fought here between evangelicals and young voters is fought across Africa as well. Some American Christians have given strength to the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act at the same time that our government’s support for gay rights bolsters activists.

Similarly, problems abroad are largely considered with regard to only their direct and immediate impact on the United States. This filter leaves most issues out of the conversation.

Reuters tracking in 2012 found that despite events in the Middle East, including the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, no aspect of our foreign policy was considered the most important issue among even 5 percent of voters. Except in the case of war, international issues rarely decide American elections.

But we should not pretend that we can opt in and out of foreign issues or that events abroad do not have a significant effect on us when the impact is not immediately apparent.

The Syrian Civil War poses no imminent threat to the United States and will not be solved by unilateral American intervention, but that is not to say we cannot ease the suffering. The refugees flooding into Jordan and Lebanon are not begging for American missiles — they want basic necessities and education to prevent a lost generation.

Aside from the compelling humanitarian argument for our aid, a more cynical person should consider the long-term effects of our isolationism. A refugee crisis and a generation of uneducated children can lead to regional instability, terrorism and global health epidemics. Even something like a civil war that is inherently domestic and unrelated to the United States can have repercussions on our soil.

Making the world’s problems America’s problems is a dangerous road, and arrogance has led to quagmires in the past. But that does not mean there is not more we could be doing, and at the very least we should be paying greater attention to these issues.

Unfortunately, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found that 61 percent of Americans thought we spent too much on foreign aid. It also found that the average American believes over a quarter of our budget goes to foreign aid. Twelve percent thought aid was over half the federal budget. The real number is closer to 1 percent.

Our politics and culture seem to perpetuate a belief that we can label ourselves as isolationists and interventionists, or that some issues are national and others international. But this categorization encourages us to ignore the repercussions and secondary effects of government policies. Even those who do not want to send money or troops abroad should consider how actions within our borders ripple beyond them. Those who think we can effect change abroad only through airstrikes should consider what President Bill Clinton called “the power of our example.”

The media and academia must do more to present the larger significance of a story and blend national with international coverage. The New York Times should not do away with geographically organized sections, but in reading about New York City’s e-cigarette policies, we should also learn how they might affect European cities or Chinese manufacturers. Presidential debates should not be divided between domestic and international issues but rather ask candidates how Russia’s invasion of Crimea affects our relationship with Puerto Rico.

In a world of intercontinental missiles and Instagram, we cannot pretend that any issues are restricted by distance or sovereignty.


James Rattner ’15 can be reached at

  • dogindorm

    well done james!