Isolationism is Not an Option
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
I received a typical American education. In high school, I was taught that the United States’ love of isolationism was a root cause of World War II. I vividly recall my teacher preaching that the United States must remain active in the defense of democracy because of our position as a global political, economic, and military power. After participating in GMF’s Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF) program, I understand the wisdom my history teacher shared in the lesson so many years ago. As part of the fellowship I traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria — the country I was most excited to visit because it is so far from the sleepy Alaskan ski town I call home.
For five centuries Bulgaria faced the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire. Russia, Bulgaria’s neighbor to the north, eventually liberated the country. Since then, Bulgarians have long valued their friendship with Russia, fighting alongside them in many wars but, as one presenter explained, “Bulgaria was not always on the right side of history.” Bulgaria sided with Germany in World War I and II and with Russia during the Cold War. However, 28 years ago for the first time in modern history, Bulgaria chose to align itself with Europe, winning its democratic freedom the day after the Berlin Wall fell.
American leaders at the time understood that Bulgaria’s strategic location was critical to ensure democracy’s stronghold near the Middle East.
American leaders at the time understood that Bulgaria’s strategic location was critical to ensure democracy’s stronghold near the Middle East. They also understood the country’s long and complicated friendship with Russia. The U.S. thus became the lifeline holding Bulgaria’s democratic freedom in place. However, with all its beauty, Bulgaria’s democracy is fragile at best. “Corruption is strong in the Bulgarian government and most of the nation’s media outlets are owned by a leader of the Bulgarian mafia,” described one of our presenters. The public feels that they can neither trust the media nor their elected officials. In the midst of this unrest, Bulgaria also continues its internal tug-of-war over maintaining its hard-won democracy or embracing its friendship with the historic savor: Russia. Russia’s recent invasion of Bulgaria’s closest northern neighbor, Ukraine, underscored the importance of Bulgaria’s strategic location and why it must hold steadfast to its democracy. One Bulgarian leader shared that, “Bulgaria’s democracy is not sustainable without America,” making the historic U.S. commitment critical to maintaining Bulgaria’s freedom.
President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, if enacted as described in his inaugural address, could have devastating effects on Bulgaria and the world. History has taught us that the United States must leverage its economic power, political clout, and military might to ensure that democracy continues to gain a foothold in countries where dictatorships, corruption, and fascism have thrived in the past. To focus all our energy internally would be a major mistake. “Thankfully,” said one presenter, “for all of President Trump’s rhetoric, America’s foreign policies haven’t really changed.” Let us continue to hope. In the words of my high school history teacher, “Isolationism is not an option.” The United States and the world cannot afford it.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.