There is a growing isolationism in the modern GOP. The party is no less hawkish on foreign policy, but there is an increasing suspicious and hostility towards the outside world. This isolationism reached a climax last week, when Governor Scott Walker voiced support for a border fence separating the US and Canada.
Isolationist has long been a piercing insult in American politics. A favorite of Republican hawks, the label has been used to dismiss the foreign policy views of everyone from Obama and Clinton, to Rubio and Rand Paul.
President Obama has only increased military engagements, and there is no sign of any American withdrawal. So clearly the term has been misused. But there is more to isolationism than foreign policy restraint. Hostility towards trade, immigration, and diplomacy are all aspects of an isolationist approach. And their prevalence is increasing in the modern GOP.
Opposition to relations with Cuba, and a general hostility towards free trade, and a sheer stubbornness to contemplate any Iranian nuclear deal are just a few examples of this isolationism in the Republican Party. These positions exist despite the Cuban trade embargo costing the US an estimated $1.2 billion in annually, and America’s economy strength relying heavily on its status as the world’s largest trading nation—with $2.3 trillion goods and services exported in 2013. As for the Iranian nuclear deal, it will not turn Iran into a liberal democracy (it was never intended to), it still the best way to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
But no policy exemplifies this isolationist streak better than the desire to literally build a wall to cut off the outside world.
Building a wall along the US-Mexican border has been a staple of GOP politics for many years. This is despite the existing border fence, covering about a third of the southern border and costing the US government $2.4 billion, having utterly failed to stem the flow of immigrations. This may be a good thing, since the US economy relies heavily on the hard work of undocumented immigrants. When Arizona issued its own state-wide crackdown on undocumented immigrants in 2007 and 2010, it proved to be economically disastrous.
But at least a southern border fence is a vaguely plausible solution to an immigration issue that actually exists. The same cannot be said for a fence along the Canadian border.
Despite the absurdity, this concept has now been openly contemplated by at least one mainstream presidential candidate, Scott Walker. Speaking on Meet the Press, Walker stated that the idea of a northern border fence was “a legitimate issue for us to look at.” Walker has since attempted to water down his remarks, claiming the reactions are “a joke.” But the mere fact a Republican Governor, and prominent presidential candidate, would even contemplate such an idea is a sad reflection America’s political debate.
This is not 1812, and the US isn’t going to be invaded from the North. Canada is not only a US ally, it is a member of the “Five Eyes” group—an unparalleled intelligence sharing relationship that exists between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Illegal immigrants are not flooding over the border, and any security threats quickly known by both countries security forces. Securing the Canadian border is both pointless and absurd, and the estimated $15 billion price tag would make even Donald Trump think twice.
Thankfully, not all Republicans share Walker’s policy preferences.
Both Rand Paul and Jeb Bush both ridiculed Walker’s idea. More importantly, both have resisted other aspects of the growing isolationism in the GOP. Paul has shown support for trade and diplomacy by backing the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Jeb Bush, to his credit, has been a consistent supporter of substantive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship, even describing illegal immigration as “an act of love.”
Neither are perfect, and both are trailing Donald Trump in the polls—a candidate whose opposition to trade and immigration makes him the most isolationist candidate in the race, as well as someone poses a serious threat to US relations with China and Mexico. But their resistance to isolationist policies does provide some hope for the GOP.
Opposition to international engagement has not always defined the GOP. Ronald Reagan, perhaps more than any president in living memory, exemplified open engagement with the wider world. He embraced free trade, supported immigration, and negotiated with the Soviet Union. Republicans have long idealized Reagan, it is time for them to begin matching policy with rhetoric, and cease their growing isolationism.