No country on Earth is as powerful as the United States. The nation dominates the globe militarily, culturally, and politically. It stops other nations building nukes (or, in the case of North Korea, attempts to), it dictates entertainment choices for billions, and it has more money than any other nation by a country mile. China may be expanding, Russia may be interfering globally, and the EU may be the world’s richest trading block, but none of them can hold a candle to the USA.
But what if Washington suddenly decided that this wasn’t the right role for America? What if the world’s most powerful nation essentially waved goodbye to the rest of the world? Would people be happier; sadder; indifferent? Below, we run down 10 possible consequences to the US turning completely isolationist, from the fantastic, to the meh, to the terrifying.
10. Negatives: War in Europe
Europe today is kinda a mess. Brexit, a migrant crisis, and Greek debt have left the continent addled and bickering. As a result, Russia has seen an opportunity to step up its expansionist activities on the EU’s eastern border, most notably in Ukraine. Russian warplanes have begun buzzing the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But, crucially, Moscow hasn’t annexed any territory there yet. The reason for this: the USA.
As the main superpower in NATO, the US is obliged to go to war with any nation that attacks a NATO country. Unlike Ukraine, all three Baltic states are members of NATO. Since a war between Russia and the US would be objectively insane, Putin has wisely held off on an invasion. But take the US out of the equation, and the calculation tips in Moscow’s favor.
Former NATO commanders have predicted a US withdrawal from NATO would lead to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. This would trigger a major war in Europe. The citizens of the Baltics are trained in guerilla warfare. The EU would be duty-bound to try and protect three of its members. With Russia, France and Britain all possessing nuclear weapons, the potential is there for a regional conflict to go supernova. And we all remember what happened last time Europe engaged in a massive regional war (hint: WWII happened).
9. Positives: Avoid War with China
Know what region scares analysts more than the Baltics? The South China Sea. This calm stretch of water is home to more simmering tensions than you can comfortably keep count of. Dozens of countries all lay claim to overlapping parts of it. Some are allied with China, while others are allied with the USA. Although no-one wants a war in the region, there’s the danger that a clash between two minor powers will spiral into a direct military confrontation between America and China. In other words: WWIII.
This doomsday scenario only works as long as there are two superpowers laying claim to the sea. If the USA suddenly steps out, then there’s no-one to challenge China. Beijing gets what it wants, Washington shrugs its shoulders, and WWIII is averted.
The number of lives this would save is beyond measurement. A war between a nuclear China, with nuclear friends Russia and North Korea, and a nuclear US backed by NATO would literally kill billions. While such a conflict isn’t inevitable, it is possible… unless the US were to become isolationist. It might be that no foreign policy would be the best foreign policy of all.
8. Negatives: A Nuclear Arms Race in Asia
For decades, the US has quietly worked to discourage allied nations from getting nukes. By creating a defensive ‘nuclear umbrella’ that covers Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia and parts of the Middle East, the US has allowed those countries to feel safe without acquiring nukes. This in turn decreases the chances of a rogue state starting a global nuclear war. But fold away that nuclear umbrella and shake off the raindrops, and you’re gonna see nukes proliferating faster than you can say “whoops.”
This means a Cold War-style arms-race in Asia. With China and North Korea on their doorstep, South Korea would definitely pursue nuclear technology. Japan might follow suit, if they can get past their memories of Hiroshima. That means you’ve suddenly got four countries, who all hate each other, pointing planet-ending superweapons at each other, ready to fire at the slightest provocation. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this could wind up like the Mexican standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs, only with the apocalypse as the finale rather than some cool Tarantino tunes.
7. Positives: Saving Tons of Money
How much do you think the US spends on its military? Nope, higher than that. Nope, higher still. Keep going, bud, you’re almost there. OK, see that unimaginably huge number in your head? Well, it’s probably even bigger than that. In 2015, the US spent $601 billion on military expenditure. That’s more than the next 7 highest-spending countries combined.
That’s right, the current US military budget could pay for the entire military needs of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UK, India, France and Japan and still have a bit left over to spare. Less than half of that is spent on education in the US each year. In short, it’s a ginormous sum of money, and redirecting it into different parts of the US economy could completely change how America functions.
While some of the $601bn would need to go toward a defensive army to protect an isolationist US, the majority of it would be freed up. It could go into policing, into education, into science research, into maintaining national parks… the possibilities are pretty much endless. It could simply go towards reducing the deficit and freeing future generations from government debt. For Americans, holding onto that moolah would undoubtedly be a win.
6. Negatives: a Loss of US Influence
Today, the world is set up in a way that endlessly benefits America. Foreign countries buy American products, they watch American movies, read American novels, dream of vacationing at Disney World. Trade deals are pro-American. A network of alliances ensures US ideals are being spread in every corner of the world. Values like human rights, democracy and freedom of speech are considered universal standards.
This is all thanks to American ‘soft power’, the use of charity, science research, movies and business deals to spread American influence. There’s a reason everyone in business speaks English, and it ain’t because they all dream of going to Britain. This global influence benefits the US in countless ways. Turn isolationist and all that influence will wither away and die.
The result would be a world that grew slowly less compatible with American values, and more in-tune with Chinese ones. Instead of Beijing teenagers learning English, American kids who wanted to get ahead would be learning Mandarin. Instead of children in the developing world learning about liberty and Abraham Lincoln, they’d be learning about Chairman Mao and Communism. A new, global generation would rise who see America the same way we see France or Portugal; as bygone superpowers whose importance is more historical than practical.
5. Positives: A Newly-United Europe
Remember the Baltic threat we talked about earlier? For decades, Europe has functioned on the basis that the US has got its back. Take away that perception and it could lead to chaos. On the other hand, it could lead to a Europe that’s more-united than at any point in history.
Think of Europe as a little town in the Wild West where everyone’s always squabbling. France and Italy are keep bickering over whose house is nicest. Greece has blown the town budget on nights out at the saloon. Germany’s always bossing everyone around, and old man Britain has decided to knock down his house and move onto the prairie. Then, one day, the sheriff disappears, taking his guns with him. With raiders like Russia and ISIS circling this helpless settlement, the townsfolk could collapse into panic and in-fighting… or they could pull together, grab their guns and use their newfound cooperation to defend their home.
People tend to come together in the face of a common threat. Faced with an existential threat on their doorstep, Europeans may respond to an inward looking America by cooperating more, becoming self-reliant, and putting their substantial differences behind them. The result could be a newly-united Europe, stronger, happier and less-dysfunctional than at any point.
4. Negatives: A Loss of Security
It will come as no surprise to hear that a lot of people kinda hate America at the moment. Like, a LOT. There are terrorists from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran (among others) who would love nothing more than to kill a bunch of innocent Americans in a horrifying conflagration. And they’re gonna keep on trying, even if the US withdraws from every single country in the world. The reason they (usually) fail? International cooperation.
Shared intelligence by allied agencies stops countless terror attacks every single day. Massacres in the US, Germany, France and the UK have been foiled in 2016 thanks to international cooperation. The US alone relies on a network of 80-90 friendly agencies, plus countless informers globally, to keep US citizens safe from car, gun, and bomb attacks. If the US were to become truly, truly isolationist, Washington would have to withdraw from these networks. As a consequence, the chances of another 9/11 would increase drastically.
That’s not to say another attack would definitely happen. But the likelihood of it would shoot up. For a country that wants to escape the problems of the world, the US might ironically find that the world’s problems came looking for it instead.
3. Positives: No More Costly Foreign Wars
It’s a rare argument that you win with just a single word. The isolationist/interventionist argument comes extremely close. That word: Iraq. Turn inwards, and the United States would never have to deal with another costly, damaging, horrific war like that again.
The Iraq war cost the US over $2 trillion. It killed nearly 4,500 Americans, and wounded nearly 32,000. The BBC reported that it killed up to 500,000 Iraqis. It led to the rise of ISIS, who killed hundreds of thousands more. It destroyed America’s image abroad, and caused countless, needless divisions at home. By most estimates, it was an absolute disaster. The Afghanistan war before that was little better. As of 2016, the Taliban have taken back huge swathes of the country. The Libya intervention led to more chaos and another ISIS foothold. To find a successful US intervention, you probably have to go back 17 years to Kosovo.
Were the US to turn inwards, stuff like this would stop happening. There would be no money hurled into a black hole in the Middle East. No American lives needlessly wasted. Stable but repressive countries would remain stable but repressive, rather than collapsing into ISIS-infested hellholes. Add all this up, and suddenly isolationism doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
2. Negatives: The Rise of China
China is the next global superpower. There’s no avoiding it. The question for the US in the 21st century is simple. Does Washington want a world where it shares global superpower status with China? Or does it want a world where China alone rules the planet?
Because that latter option is what’s gonna happen if the US turns inwards. And while an expansionist China would be very good for some, it would be less-good for those who believe in American ideals.
China is a repressive, authoritarian state that openly dismisses democracy. With both the US and China ruling the future, there’s a good chance that some balance could be reached, allowing both systems to flourish. In a scenario where China alone is in charge, then democracy would wither and die across the world. We’d be entering another age of dictatorships, like those that gripped Latin America and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Only now, there’d be an unstoppable interventionist superpower willing to fight to ensure democracy was stamped out wherever it raised its head.
We’re not trying to paint China as a boogeyman here. The nation has an awesome, ancient culture, a raft of brilliant innovators, and billions of friendly, wonderful citizens. But the ruling Communist Party ain’t among them. A world where Beijing was in charge rather than Washington would be a sad one for nearly all of our readers.
1. Positives: Focus on Domestic Issues
In the end, it’s worth remembering that isolationism comes from a simple desire. To see your country look out for you first, and the rest of the world second. After decades of successive governments spending more time focused on Europe or Asia than on their own citizens, millions of Americans might find it comforting to live under a government that cared firstly about them.
That would mean saving money used abroad and directing it to Americans at home. It would mean putting American jobs ahead of free trade and lining the pockets of big business. It would mean directing the Federal government’s energy to tackling domestic issues, rather than spending Congressional time discussing problems in faraway places like South Sudan, Zimbabwe, or eastern Ukraine. For believers in isolationism, this alone would likely be enough to more than make up for all the myriad negatives mentioned above.