Isolationism: Definition, Policy & Examples

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  • 0:00 Isolationism: A Policy…
  • 0:53 What Is Isolationism?
  • 2:11 Examples of Isolationism
  • 7:10 Modern Isolationism
  • 7:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
Isolationism can be found in many countries' histories, including the United States. There are many motives and methods for steering clear of entangling alliances, both military and commercial, even in a modern and interconnected age.

Isolationism: A Policy of Steering Clear

It's a natural thing to try and steer clear of trouble. Discretion is, as the saying goes, the better part of valor. But there's a fine line between staying out of a fight that doesn't concern you and wading into a conflict that requires your intervention. As a result, there's an extremely fine line between historical significance and irrelevance.

Isolationism, as a general perspective, is the belief that one's nation should stay out of wars and conflicts that don't concern it. In a more specific policy sense, isolationism is a set of policies that result in non-intervention: an avoidance of political/military alliances that may lead to war, or tend to, as George Washington put it, 'entangle our peace and prosperity' in the problems of other nations' 'ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice.'

What Is Isolationism?

Isolationism refers to a general attitude of noninterference with other nations, or with the avoidance of connections that may lead to disruption, conflict, or war. It's the geopolitical equivalent of your mother telling you to 'stay away from those kids down there,' seeing as how it's born from a rather negative view of interdependence.

Many people conflate isolationism with two very related, yet not precisely identical, concepts. Non-interventionism, for example, means an avoidance of military alliances that can lead to war; this is the sort practiced most famously by Switzerland. Protectionism, alternatively, means using high taxes on imports, called tariffs, to prevent foreign trade from affecting domestic trade.

Non-interventionism is a sort of external isolationist policy, aimed at keeping one's nation away from other nations which may end up doing it harm. Protectionism is more of a domestic isolationist policy, designed to both promote one's own industries and commercial interests, while limiting the impact of foreign trade or business. International neutrality is somewhat rare, and isolationism, when it's talked about, is usually described as a contributing cause to some global problem (World War II). So, when most people talk about isolationism, they're generally talking about the first type, which is easily the most famous.

Examples of Isolationism

Just about every nation on Earth that has foreign connections has flirted, for a time, with isolationism. There are lots of reasons for it, beyond just a generally xenophobic dislike of others. Probably the most common one, though, is some sort of ugly, destructive event in the nation's past. Nations that have adopted isolationist stances often did so after something very bad happened to them, or that they did to themselves.

China, for example, became much more isolationist after its civil war, which ended in 1950. In incorporating communism, China was aiming for economic independence and self-reliance. This was notably difficult to maintain, however, and in recent decades, China has become a global trading power.

Japan spent over 200 years, from the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries, with effectively closed borders, proving that it's easier to be isolationist when you're living on an island. This came after a similar period of civil, quasi-feudal warfare, and only ended after Commodore Matthew C. Perry, in 1853, effectively brought the modern era with him into Tokyo Bay by steaming in, uninvited, with four U.S. naval vessels.

Switzerland is probably the world's most famous neutral nation, and it's oldest since 1815. Though the Swiss maintain a military and still serve in some international missions, most famously as the official guard of Vatican City, protecting the Pope, the nation does not maintain or observe any international military alliance. This has worked out fairly well, keeping the Swiss out of both World War I and World War II - no easy task in the middle of Europe, though being surrounded by mountains helped.

Even Great Britain developed an isolationist streak at times, despite developing a global empire, leading to the phrase 'the sun never sets on the British Empire,' and supporting it with the world's finest navy. Prior to 1939, when Adolf Hitler's Germany was consolidating power and territory in defiance of post-World War I stipulations, the British tried to steer clear of the mounting trouble, desperate to avoid another slaughter like the one Europe experienced in World War I.

In America's case, there have been several notable examples of isolationism, especially early in its history, as the nation's leaders tried to adhere to Washington's plea for international neutrality. It grew almost absurd during Thomas Jefferson's presidency, when after repeated seizures of American ships by Britain and France, the U.S. Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, a classic example of economic isolationism. At this time, the U.S. announced it would do no business with either nation and managed only to plunge itself into a nationwide financial disaster.

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