Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders support what is being referred to as a more “isolationist” foreign policy for America—and that’s undoubtedly part of their appeal.

Americans have grown weary of the U.S. acting as the police for the world, of constantly intervening in the affairs of other countries. Many have asked, “Why does it always have to be us?”

[Image: Michael Sloan/CS Monitor]

As Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out for the New York Times this past weekend, Trump’s isolationist stance has pitted him against the Republican “neocons” who were the driving ideological force behind the George W. Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq. But interestingly, as Heilbrunn reminds readers, in the first half of the 20th century the Republicans were the advocates of a more isolationist foreign policy:

“The neocons are right that a Trump presidency would likely be a foreign policy debacle, not least because of his unpredictable personality and penchant for antagonizing foreign leaders and publics. But they are wrong in asserting that he is somehow a danger to the traditional principles of the Republican Party. On the contrary, Mr. Trump represents a return to the party’s roots. It’s the neocons who are the interlopers.

The extent to which the neocons and their moralistic, crusading Wilsonian mission overtook the Republican foreign policy establishment, beginning in the 1970s, was so nearly complete that it can be hard to remember that a much different sensibility had previously governed the party, one reminiscent of Mr. Trump’s own positions: wariness about foreign intervention, championing of protectionist trade policies, a belief in the exercise of unilateral military power and a suspicion of global elites and institutions.”

Over at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison has clarified that Trump isn’t so much an isolationist as a nationalist—that he doesn’t want to so much wall of the U.S. from the rest of the world as to beat it.

Regardless of what term is most proper, it’s worth asking if the U.S. would be best served in the near future by worrying more about its own affairs and less about those of other countries. When it comes for foreign policy, many Americans seem genuinely confused about the justification behind the U.S.’ “policing” activities in recent decades. In some cases there have been clear nationalist motivations, such as protecting American economic interests or preventing a situation from developing into a security threat to the U.S.

But in other cases, the motivation seems to be an obscure humanitarian principle that the stronger has a moral obligation to aid the weaker, that the national has an obligation to the global. This principle may be problematic for the U.S. on both the practical and the theoretical level:

Practically, of course, it is impossible for the U.S. to come to the assistance of every nation experiencing a “crisis,” and it’s very difficult and controversial to come up with further principles to decide who we help and who we don’t.    

Theoretically, I’m not quite sure that the U.S. has a consistent, coherent, and clearly-articulated ethos behind some of its foreign interventions. Saying it’s the “humanitarian” thing to do really just puts off the question, for the concept is so abstract as to be unhelpful.

In Christian spirituality, perhaps, one could find a justification for pouring oneself out like a libation for the sake of others—expressed in its most extreme form in Dostoevsky’s famous maxim “I am responsible for all.” But I highly doubt that the U.S. government is consciously relying on Christian revelation in formulating its foreign policy. And even if it was, they might not be doing the best job of interpreting it, for many theologians would shrink back from applying the reasoning encapsulated by Dostoevsky in a whole-scale fashion to the national and international levels.  

In the American education system over the past few decades, there has been a widespread effort to inculcate a more global mentality and responsibility in students. But interestingly, it looks like there’s a good likelihood that a more nationalist or isolationist mentality will be in the White House next year.