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Opinion

February 7, 2017

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Trump’s leap towards isolation

Trump is trying to take the US back to the 1920s and 1930s when it had adopted a policy of isolationism – a basic refusal to get involved in the affairs of Europe or any other country in the world.

This national mindset was essentially sparked by the turmoil surrounding World War I. At the time, the public and the US government did not want to utilise more time, resources and American lives on conflicts that were oceans away and did not directly affect them. If an issue was out of sight, it was out of mind and just didn’t matter. Trump is trying to similarly capitalise on the fear of the war on terror and trying to revert to an isolationist viewpoint. It is much more difficult to galvanise public support for this approach as the world has become increasingly globalised and everything is interconnected.

After WWI, former US president Woodrow Wilson came up with the League of Nations, an international community of countries that vowed to join hands, abide by a free trade and open-seas policy and resolve disputes to avoid another major war. The League of Nations is the concept on which the current iteration of the UN is built. Wilson, a Democrat, campaigned across the country but the Senate – which largely consisted of Republicans – refused to allow the US to participate in this organisation. Politicians, the media and the public rallied behind the Senate. After experiencing the loss of American soldiers on faraway shores during WWI, there was no desire to get involved in the affairs of other countries.

Many countries joined the League of Nations, including Britain and France. These two countries stood depleted after the war and, bereft of the support of their American allies, were tasked with overseeing the maintenance of world peace.

Over the 1920s, the US experienced the Jazz age – a time of great prosperity and cultural revolution – and the public belief in isolationism was further entrenched, as was their lack of desire to get involved in world affairs. During the 1930s, the US suffered from the Great Depression and felt even less inclined to care about anybody else when they had their own problems to deal with. As a result, Britain and France were on the global stage in the 1920s and 1930s, as fascism spread across Europe and Hitler and his followers gained strength.

More disputes arose and the League of Nations tried to resolve them. But with two fairly weak powers at the helm, the League had no real way of enforcing any of its decisions. Britain and France could not do much. They adopted a policy of appeasement and tried to give in to Hitler’s demands in the hope that he would be satisfied and retreat. This didn’t work and the unrest grew. But the US continued to ignore the crisis. It continued to trade arms, oil and other goods with Germany but refused to take sides in an issue they wanted to remain distant from while continuing to profit. It was only after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 that the US finally got involved.

Trump seems to adopting a similar policy. Based on his fear-mongering and hate speech, Trump’s America is not concerned about the world’s problems – including Syria and the refugee crisis. However, there seems to be a great dichotomy between Trump’s America and the majority of public opinion. This is the fear that Trump is trying to capitalise on by reverting to isolationism.

Trying to pull out of Nato, improving ties with Putin and showing his reluctance to impose sanctions – these strategies are all in line with an extreme isolationist policy. Threatening Mexico with higher tariffs on their imports and trying to encourage domestic production is what happened in the 1920s. But it will not work in the long term. The crash in 1929 show how ineffective this tactic can be.

The Americans and the entire world is going to suffer economically, politically and geographically because of this isolationist approach. If the US makes one false move with the intention of making others suffer it should be prepared to face retaliation like most trading countries did in the 1920s. What if other countries start doing what Iran did after sanctions were imposed on it?

In a globalised world, isolation is impossible and it is doubtful that Trump will emerge successful in the eyes of politicians or the public in his own country and internationally. In the race to isolate the US, Trump might soon find himself isolated.

 

The writer is an organisational
psychologist.

 

 

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