The other view, of course, is that the United States is part of the world. Our foreign policy is about dealing with the world as it is, not remaking it in our own image. Our image isn't even static -- it isn't exceptional or a gift from God. It's the sum product of the people who live here. It will continue to change, as tacos become comfort food, right along with pizza. These differences break down more or less along partisan lines, as one might notice from the whiff of nativism in the criticisms of President Obama -- that he's a socialist, that he wants to turn the United States into Europe, that he's a Muslim, that he's from Kenya.
Nuclear weapons have been at the center of this debate. For those who hold that the United States has a special historical mission, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles stripped away the protections of two wide oceans, transforming an isolationist party into a fiercely anticommunist -- and now "anti-Islamofascist," whatever that means -- party committed to preventive military actions. Hence the call in Woolsey and Pry's op-ed for a preventive strike against North Korea. One of the criticisms of the Bush administration's preemptive doctrine was its "unilateralism." Well, unilateralism is just isolationism on steroids.
For those of us who see the United States as part of the world, nuclear weapons mean an end to the illusion of isolation and invulnerability. We are a member of the family of nations. And like many families, we don't like all our relatives. But we don't get to skip Thanksgiving. Nuclear weapons, like climate change, pose a shared danger to all nations and compel us to set aside our petty national differences.
For much of the Cold War, the folks Charles and Mary Beard would have called "imperial isolationists" tried to argue that fallout shelters, better nuclear weapons, and missile defenses might provide a technological escape from our entanglement with the outside world. They lost that argument. The simplest illustration is that their calumny about U.S. nuclear weapons policy -- that it amounted to "mutual assured destruction" -- entered the lexicon as a matter-of-fact statement of the reality of the situation. Duck-and-cover drills and Bert the Turtle seemed ridiculous because they were ridiculous. Most Americans accept that we can never be completely secure in a truly global world. Trying to avoid that uncomfortable reality is just fodder for movies like Dr. Strangelove.
Enter the EMP threat. Having dug themselves into a hole on nuclear weapons issues, EMP advocates think they have another shot at winning the foreign policy argument. If the mortal threat posed by nuclear weapons doesn't favor policies that emphasize our apartness from the wider world, what if a nuclear weapon were detonated way out there in the blue?
It is a clever solution, politically, but one that I suspect is ultimately doomed, just as the effort to promote civil defense only served to highlight the fool's errand of trying to restore a sense of invulnerability. I mentioned Steuart Pittman early on in the column. Pittman helped coin the phrase "assured vulnerability" to criticize the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' recognition that nuclear war was not winnable. Pittman had led civil defense efforts during the Kennedy administration, before resigning out of frustration to focus on his law practice and pen the occasional article promoting civil defense. He died in February. In his obituary, his wife answered a question I had long wondered about: Did he himself have a bomb shelter?
"We started it, anyway," Mrs. Pittman told the New York Times, "But after half a day's digging, we gave it up."
It's good advice really. When you are in a hole, stop digging.