HJS and Tobias Ellwood Host Harley Lippman in Parliament for Conversation on US Isolationism

London, 8th May 2024 – The Henry Jackson Society has hosted a panel discussion at the House of Commons, bringing together distinguished speakers to address pressing concerns about global leadership, US foreign policy, and underlying threats to world order. The event, titled “The Dangers of US Isolationism”, featured insightful perspectives from prominent figures in politics, diplomacy, and military strategy. Central to the discussion were the underlying challenges posed to European and global security by the possibility of further US isolationism in combination with greater posturing from states opposed to Western Liberal world order. These issues create a stark picture of the reality the UK must face in times of greater geopolitical instability. The speakers addressed why the world has entered such a turbulent period and provided solutions to both mitigate these issues while addressing the possible international scenarios that may arise from instability in the international system. Several areas of consensus emerged among the diverse perspectives advanced by the speakers. The decline of US leadership and engagement in global affairs, whether due to isolationist tendencies or shifting public priorities, presents a significant threat to the Western-led world order. There is deep concern over the potential ramifications of a second Trump presidency on NATO and international stability. This would enable adversaries like Russia to exploit the situation and threaten European security. Additionally, the speakers underscored the need for increased defence spending and collective action among Western nations, particularly in Europe, to counter rising authoritarianism and safeguard democratic values. It was imperative for proactive leadership from the US to uphold global stability, defend the world order that could be achieved via a renewed commitment to collective security, increased defence expenditures across Western states who also adopt a strong stance against authoritarian regimes seeking to undermine democratic principles.

Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP

Chaired by Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP, a former Minister in the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, the panel discussion delved into the historical significance of the transatlantic relationship. Mr Ellwood, drawing on his dual British-American citizenship and experience as former minister of defence, highlighted the US and UK as predominant leaders in the Western alliance. However, he expressed growing scepticism about transatlantic predominance, noting the UK’s increasing risk aversion, reduced military expenditure across the NATO alliance and the corollary that is the reluctance to confront threats. Similarly, Mr Ellwood observed a pattern in US presidents initially campaigning on reduced internationalism to prioritize domestic issues, yet eventually realizing the importance of global engagement, illustrating the US’s position as a reluctant world leader. Tobias Ellwood highlighted the compounding effects of diminishing Western leadership, as evidenced by the UK’s withdrawal from global stewardship, and the concerning rise of US isolationism among elements of the public and Republican Party. Despite these challenges, he remains cautiously optimistic that increased defence spending can address these issues. Emphasizing the urgency of the situation, Mr. Ellwood echoes Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s warning ‘world’s red lights are flashing’, stressing the imperative for proactive leadership from both the US and UK on the world stage.

Harley Lippman

Harley Lippman, an expert in US geopolitical affairs with a focus on Gulf security, Israel and Palestine, highlighted the disinterest among Americans in global commitments. He stressed that defending the world order ranks low in American priorities, attributing this apathy to the perceived failures of US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades. Harley Lippman argued that reduced US leadership has emboldened authoritarian states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea to challenge Western democratic values more aggressively. He warned that these nations’ offensive actions contrast sharply with Ukraine’s and Israel’s defensive postures, alongside broader defensive stance taken by the US and NATO. Harley Lippman attributed the more emboldened posture of the ‘axis of resistance’ partially to former President Trump’s foreign policy stance of wanting to avoid “never-ending wars.” Harley Lippman expressed concern that a significant crisis such as a 9/11 might be necessary to shift American citizens’ foreign policy perspectives. Currently though he estimates that foreign policy concerns do not have any bearing on 85% of American voters. Lippman then shifted focus to Ukraine, stressing that Ukraine needs the support of the US far more than Israel does. Mr Lippman affirms that Israel has control of its current situation and that it will survive without support, this is in contrast to Ukraine, which faces an existential crisis and a realistic prospect of defeat. Mr Lipman warned of Russia’s expansionist ambitions, predicting further Russian aggression spilling over to Poland and Baltic states if Russia was undefeated in Ukraine. This could potentially escalating into a broader NATO conflict. Harley Lippman therefore suggested a solution to the War in Ukraine being to ‘forget about America’ arguing that that a more cohesive European combined force would create a more legitimate deterrence against Putin’s territorial pursuit. Consequently, Harley Lippman advocated for greater European military autonomy and resilience in the face of assertive adversaries, urging increased defence spending and collective action as a means of demonstrating to Russia and China that Europe will defend its democracy. Harley Lippman criticized the reluctance among a large amount of US Republicans to support Ukraine, citing how most Republicans state Ukraine’s issues with corruption as their primary reasoning – in addition to Republicans not wanting to spend $100bn on defending another country’s border when they can’t even defend their own border. Lastly, Harley Lippman believes that many Republicans, mostly secretively, share the same traditional ideological values with President Putin which are protectionism, nationalism, anti-wokism amongst others with the Russian state, making these Republicans less forthcoming to provide Ukraine with weaponry to defeat Russia. Harley Lippman concluded, expressing fears of a potential “World War Three” if current US trajectories continue unchecked, placing responsibility on Europe to counter Putin’s ambitions.

Barak Seener

Barak Seener continued the discussion by expressing his concerns about the decline of US political leadership in global affairs. Central to Barak Seener’s viewpoint is that there has been a significant decline in the belief of US exceptionalism that the US is a ‘Shining City on a Hill’ amongst the US public. This resultantly has greatly impacted US political leaders’ reluctance to promote US values globally. Barak Seener attributes a significant portion of the responsibility for this decline in US exceptionalism to the policies of President Obama. Mr Seener argues that Obama oversaw a decline in the US taking unilateral action, instead engaging in multilateral frameworks like the G20 and seeking to ‘lead from behind’. In undertaking this approach, Barak Seener argues that Obama’s policy empowered adversaries such as Russia and China. This viewpoint, Barak Seener argues, has been advanced by elements of the far left, which advocates for iconoclasm of US history and rejecting its values towards highlighting the struggles of nations perceived to be oppressed by the US-led international order. Mr Seener believes that this narrative underscores a broader ideological tension within American politics and is aided by globalisation, which has ‘eroded’ the traditional foreign policy objectives of America. Barak Seener argues further that recent times have seen a convergence of far-left progressivism and far-right nationalism in the US and the West, resulting in support for isolationism on the world stage. This ideological fusion neglects the historical foundation of US foreign policy where exceptionalism spilled over to interventionism. Instead there are calls for American independence, protectionism, and disengagement. Barak Seener believes this trend, combined with inadequate defence spending by countries like the UK, has emboldened authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, and Iran, which are employing diversionary belligerent tactics due to their own economic challenges. Seener points to economic decline in Russia, slowing growth in China, and Iran’s infrastructure struggles and sanctions, alongside shared cultural narratives, as reasons for increasing contestation of the international order. He suggests that Russia harbours imperialist ambitions, China seeks regional and global dominance, and Iran aims to assert itself among ‘infidel’ powers due to its messianic narrative. Barak Seener argues that authoritarian regimes are crafting coherent nationalist narratives with metaphysical underpinnings. In contrast, the Western world is more concerned with the dilution of its ideology. This is in accordance with its materialist and modern ‘progressive’ values, which is antithetical to the nationalistic impulses of these authoritarian regimes. Mr Seener stresses the imperative for Western nations, including the UK, to bolster global stability through heightened defence spending, warning against eroding traditional Western values due to the convergence of the opposing ideologies of China, Iran and Russia. Declining values and nationalism in the West emboldens autocratic regimes and undermines the longstanding world order that has upheld peace and stability.

General Sir Richard Sherriff

General Sir Richard Sherriff, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, drew on his extensive experience under US command and commanding US troops to declare himself ‘both an Atlantacist and a Europhile’, emphasizing the catastrophic impact of US isolationism. Sir Richard Sherriff detailed that as to the issues of US isolationism or the rise of authoritarian threats are concerned, the opinion of military Generals has no bearing, and that this issue is purely of the political domain, reflecting the broad militaristic view that the decision of politicians is what has led to the current world order. This led Sir Richard Sherriff to express deep concern about the implications of a potential second Trump presidency, particularly on NATO’s effectiveness. Sir Richard Sherriff warned that if elected, President Trump might render NATO incapacitated by ordering the US to assume a less active role. Sir Richard Sherriff speculated that a Trump-led deal to end the War in Ukraine would likely benefit Putin emboldening further Russian aggression against Poland and Baltic states. Sir Richard Sherriff predicted that despite any deal brokered by Trump, the conflict would persist due to Ukrainian resistance, with Putin’s ambitions extending beyond Ukraine to Georgia, Moldova, and potentially the Baltic states within three years. Sir Richard Sherriff emphasized that US isolationism would have severe international consequences, especially for European security, advocating instead for integrating Ukraine into NATO and increasing European security regardless of US politics. To maintain UK security in the current complex environment, Sir Richard Sherriff called for defence expenditure targets of 4 or 5%, criticizing the UK government’s recent raise to 2.5% as ‘pathetic’. Sir Richard Sherriff noted the challenge of convincing taxpayers of the need for increased military spending speculating that it might take a ‘long telegram’ or ‘Sputnik’ moment to make the UK aware of the threats it faces to its security. Sir Richard Sherriff concluded by warning that US isolationism could result in a wider war in Europe, emphasizing the urgency of proactive measures to address geopolitical threats and strengthen European defence.


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