One man’s isolationism… another’s non-interventionism.As David Boaz points out in a topical post, “isolationism” has long been a verbal big stick carried by war-making presidents and their supporters whenever anybody dares to question the wisdom of a particular exercise of militay power. Happily, as a graph from the Pew Research Center, also cited by Boaz, points out, there is a definite popular trend in the direction that the U.S. should mind its own business (rather than meddle in other countries’ affairs).

By any standard of interventionism, at least where military or overt intervention was concerned, Calvin Coolidge was by instinct a non-interventionist. With WWI still fresh in everyone’s mind, people were wary of active meddling in foreign affairs and there was a majority in favor of a hands-off course – just as there was a majority for “normalcy” in the nation’s economic and fiscal management.

Coolidge thus steered a very careful course, refraining from advocating U.S. membership in the fledgling League of Nations but offering somewhat tepid and qualified support to U.S. participation in the World Court. The only major foreign policy initiative of the Coolidge years was the Kellogg-Briand Pact that renounced war as an instrument of national policy. While critics are quick to point out that practically allof the pact’s signatory powers were embroiled in another disastrous world war just a decade later, the pact has in fact served as the legal basis for international norms characterizing the threat or use o military force in circumvention of international law as unlawful, and indeed for the establishment of the notion of crimes against peace.

Coolidge sought to reduce the legacy of military interventions in the hemisphere.  Faced with escalating crises in both Nicaragua and, more importantly, Mexico, Coolidge relied on diplomacy, dispatching Henry L. Stimson to mediate the civil war in Nicaragua (from where he had recalled the U.S. Marines, only to send them back in 1927 in the face of the Sandino insurrection), and Dwight Morrow as ambassador to Mexico. His explicit instructions to Morrow were to keep the U.S. out of war with Mexico, at a time when the hawks of his day were demanding U.S. military involvement.

As in his economic policies, Coolidge was perhaps the last true conservative in foreign policy. Certainly, presidents of every political stripe have been none too reluctant to employ U.S. power abroad. And, just as is true in the case of government expenditures and the national debt, maybe there ought to be a debate about the wisdom of America being policeman to the world. I think it’s encouraging when Republican presidential hopefuls, rather than toeing the George Bush-John McCain neoconservative line, begin to question whether the U.S. needs to have “boots on the ground” all over the world.