The Case Against Isolationism
From Ukraine to the Buffalo Public School District
ISOLATIONISM (n): “a policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups”
With war raging in Ukraine, ‘isolationism’ is a term that has resurfaced in America’s foreign policy. Should we or shouldn’t we engage? What is our connection to — and thereby, our responsibility to — Ukraine, and to other countries in general?
While isolationism is as American as apple pie, a point of view deeply ingrained in the fiber of Americans and connected directly to how our country was born, I’m beginning to believe this is not the way.
Not only is isolationism not the best path forward for our country, it’s not the right path forward for society, either. I’ve spent a great deal of time researching and writing about motherhood, family, and how American individualism — or what I call the Modern Manifest Destiny — doesn’t allow for community connection. What I’m seeing now is that American individualism is rooted in American isolationism. They are one and the same.
To understand this, we need to examine the colonists and the lengths they took to put an ocean between the Old World and unwanted policies, and the New World, purposefully remote and completely cut off from the past. It’s no surprise then, that the isolationist perspective dates back to these times, as seen in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” where he says “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
Our leaders urged a turning away from Europe, to never entangle ourselves in alliances and wars, and to forge ahead on our singular, self-propulsive mission of independence. This was widely embraced by the public, but was short-sighted.
Just as it is now.
The isolationist point of view with which our country was founded didn’t take the changing world into account. More importantly, we didn’t understand that self-preservation could and should be aligned with connection. We cannot go it alone, at least not successfully or safely, either as individuals, families, or countries.
While isolationism is embedded in our past and present, it is not something we teach our children. We teach kids to not only make friends, but also to join in, to learn how to be part of a group or team. Socialization, as every parent, teacher and child psychologist know, is a crucial part of human development, and taken a step further, it’s important to not only interact with others, but also to help others.
Helping people is a basic tenet of Christianity — “love thy neighbor” — as well as a broad concept embraced by society in general. The simple idea of being a helper begins in preschool, and is encouraged in elementary school and beyond, with daily and monthly social-emotional themes like “Kindness Matters” and “International Human Solidarity Day.” My son’s elementary school called standing up for others, especially those who are bullied, being an “upstander.” It was a word used regularly on the playground and in the classroom, and one I still use today. It signals: “I’m looking out for you,” which, as I’ve grown older, is how I think we should behave in all aspects of life.
Helping others also helps you: on an individual level, you reap the mental and physical benefits of getting outside yourself; within your community, the extension of your efforts makes that community a better place to live; and on a global level, protecting our allies can protect our vital national security interests. As Eric R. Mandel argues in The Hill, “Pulling up the drawbridge of international engagement undermines U.S. interests where we still have sway in dictating a course that serves those interests. Reacting to world events, instead of offering leadership, is a prescription for future disasters.”
Many people, however, mistakenly believe that the opposite of isolationism is war, but America’s periods of isolationism were a direct result of poor foreign policy. With keen diplomacy, active engagement, and strong leadership, we can keep our interests, and those of our allies, safe. Mandel says, “It is the threat of using force that decreases its use.” This is hard for pacifists to get on board with, but every kid facing a playground bully knows this, just as every hiker facing a mountain lion knows this.
Something else to remember as we go against our isolationist tendencies and seek to help others: the world is filled dangerous megalomaniacs who require our active engagement in the protection of peace. To the extent that we cannot and should not exist in isolation, it’s understood that what affects your neighbors, affects you as well. If your neighbor is robbed at gunpoint in their own home, what makes you think your own home is not a target?
Our obligation to help our neighbors is strong in my city of Buffalo. It is called “The City of Good Neighbors” for a reason, and I see how people here look out for our elderly, our veterans, and those in need, even if it’s just to shovel a snowed-in driveway. The obligation to help our neighbors is reflected in our sports community as well. When the Bills Mafia “upstanders” give generously to the charities of the Buffalo Bills’ opponents, they do so knowing it advances their cause as individuals and as a group, but also as a team and as a city.
Sports is the great unifier in Buffalo, the one thing that everyone can stand behind, from the Bills to the Sabres to the Bandits to the Bisons, as is best encapsulated by the hashtag #One Buffalo, which started as a marketing initiative to group these brands under one umbrella. I would argue, however, that it’s a hashtag that should apply to everything, especially when it comes to helping the children of Buffalo Public Schools. Despite our reputation as a being a city of good neighbors, Buffalo still adheres to personal isolationism when it comes to the advancement of ourselves, our kids, and their schools. To succeed, we must be #OneBuffalo in everything, not just sports.
As an education advocate, I see schools as the best way to advance freedom and democracy, at a hyper local level. If America is less secure with an isolationist foreign policy, I believe the same is true for each of the local suburban school districts, should communities remain isolated and choose to ignore the needs of the Buffalo Public School (BPS) district.
Just as with Ukraine, we must ask ourselves, “Should we or shouldn’t we engage? What is our connection to — and thereby, our responsibility to — the children of Buffalo Public Schools?” Dr. Matthew Giordano, the president of Villa Maria College, stated it succinctly in the Buffalo News this week: “improving student outcomes in Buffalo should be a major priority for everyone in Western New York, no matter where you live. The future of our region depends on it.”
What each of us needs to realize in Western New York is that “a policy of remaining apart from the affair or interests of other groups” — aka BPS — does not benefit our own interests. We must recognize how quickly a war at a distance can turn into a war right here. Not only that, but we must override the fear of taking a misstep as an outsider, whether geographically, racially or culturally, and dive into the full and active engagement of helping others.
When “Standardized tests showed that about three-quarters of Buffalo students weren’t able to read, write and perform math at grade level in the 2018–19 school year, the last full year before the pandemic,” when only one third of students attended remote class regularly last year, when “we’re not preparing our children to be a part of the workforce that the future needs,” there needs to be collective outrage and action.
In his Washington Post essay “U.S. isolation is bad policy, even if Americans want it,” Michael Gerson referenced global suffering, saying “It will not work — and it cannot be right — to allow these countries to die behind a curtain.” The same can be said of Buffalo.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, then you can be sure that if we adhere to local isolationism, a falling tide sinks all ships. We do not need to all go down together. We can be upstanders on the world stage, and right here, for the children of Buffalo.