The Sleeping Dragons of Isolationism

The Hobbit is an excellent allegory about the dangers created by Isolationism. The film The Desolation of Smaug brings this point home with both the Woodland Elves and humans at Lake-town. The book, originally written in the 1930s, corresponds with the United States passing multiple “Neutrality Acts” in an effort to avoid getting involved in “another” European war. Highlighting this attitude while Germany was in the midst of re-arming, Americans in college were taking the “Oxford Pledge” that they would never defend the United States under any circumstances.

We are lucky the Greatest Generation proved this was a minority view.

Dragon_iStockIsolationism is a political doctrine of non-engagement with any other country. It is not pacifism, but simply not interacting with countries. An Isolationist government generally requires an extremely strong military to deter any attack. Moreover, if the Isolationist country is challenged, they would need to deliver a massive attack to make an example of an aggressor country. While there is no merit to proportional responses, as they generally only lead to other attacks, an Isolationist country would need to respond to a small threat by leveling a city if challenged militarily. Few countries have the stomach for such a hawkish foreign policy.

The key isolationist in The Desolation of Smaug is Thranduil, the Elvenking. Thranduil has memorable lines such as “Other lands are not my concern. Here in this kingdom we will endure,” upon learning of a growing foreign policy threat. Moreover, his solution to hearing from an Orc prisoner that “Your world will burn. Death is upon you. War is upon you,” is to double the watch and close the border. Instead of facing a threat early, Thranduil’s policy was to wait for it to get worse.

The counter to Thranduil is Tauriel (who is not in the book), who takes the point of view that those who are fighting evil should not be abandoned, whether it is Dwarves off to reclaim their homeland from a dragon or the Orcs who are building their army for future aggression. Her worldview is It is our fight. With every victory they grow stronger. When did we let evil grow stronger than us?”

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit while the United States thought it could avoid another Great War by ignoring Europe. One such individual was Senator Gerald Nye who argued World War I had been fought solely for business purposes. Senator Nye would push through multiple “Neutrality Acts” that would prohibit trade with nations at war, somehow thinking that non-involvement would lead to a safe result with Hitler. The Neutrality Act of 1935 called for the following:

…[T]he prohibition of the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war to belligerent countries; the prohibition of the transportation of arms, ammunition, and implements of war by vessels of the United States for the use of belligerent states; for the registration and licensing of persons engaged in the business of manufacturing, exporting, or importing arms, ammunition, or implements of war; and restricting travel by American citizens on belligerent ships during war.


Case law applying the Neutrality Acts had Judges referring to areas engaged in war as “the forbidden zone.” United States ex rel. Koentje v. Reimer, 30 F. Supp. 440, 440-441 (D.N.Y. 1939). Examples vary, but many include ships en route to Europe being turned around after a nation was declared a combat area by the President. In one such case, merchant sailors tried recovering a months wages for breach of contract when forced to turn around on the way to Norway. The Court held there was no recovery, because the contract had not been breached, because the ship was not legally permitted to go to Norway. Hopkins v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., 175 Misc. 109, 110 (N.Y. City Ct. 1940).

Riding barrels to Lake-town is not the same as taking a ship to Norway. However, there is a common theme in both: Europe and the Lonely Mountain both had dangerous dragons.

Isolationism does not provide any protection against a fire-breathing nation. In The Hobbit, Smaug could just as easily burn the Woodland Elves and Lake-town just as he did the Dwarves in the Lonely Mountain. Correspondingly, Germany could have threatened the United States if it had completed the development of long-range bombers, rockets capable of crossing the Atlantic, or the goal of fleet of Bismark super-battleships to shell the East Coast, or an Atomic Bomb. Letting Europe burn would not make America safer.

Luckily for world history, there were Americans willing to risk their citizenship to sneak to Canada to get to England to join the RAF. Moreover, it was a good thing Churchill knew how to stand his ground after Chamberlain’s foolish appeasement with “Peace in Our Time” and France’s quick defeat. Furthermore, thank God for Franklin Roosevelt with “Lend Lease” and winning a third term in 1940.

Threats to national security do not get better with age. Watching a threat, whether it is a dragon slaughtering Dwarves or tanks rolling over a country, cannot be ignored until the threat comes to your border. The best time to fight a threat is at the beginning, not after it has started invading other countries.

The United States cannot hide behind Isolationism, either from fear of quagmires or the naive idea that abandoning all overseas bases will make us safer.  An active foreign policy is required to influence friends through engagement and help those being tormented by a dragon. Ignoring the world only empowers those who would burn it down.