Isolationism is a foreign policy approach in which a nation prioritizes its own interests by limiting its involvement in international affairs (Urbatsch, 2010; Vernon, 2016). By keeping interventions to a minimum, countries adhering to this principle tend to focus more on domestic affairs.
A substantial example is the United States in the early 20th Century (between World War I and II). The country adopted a stance of isolationism, drawing back from international commitments and focusing primarily on domestic issues. Similarly, today, North Korea is well-known as an extreme case of an isolationist state.
1. American Isolationism Pre-WWII: This policy finds roots in the early 20th century. After involvement in World War I, America enacted a policy of isolationism to avoid further involvement in European conflicts (Kupchan, 2020). The country focused on internal growth and advancement while maintaining a distance from international politics. A key example of this was the 1935 Neutrality Acts, limiting U.S. involvement and trade with nations at war. (For instance, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the United States strictly followed the Neutrality Acts, refraining from providing support to either side.)
2. Japan’s Sakoku Period: This period represents Japan’s institutionalized and strict isolationist policy during the Edo period (1603–1868). The Japanese shogunate controlled foreign influences by restricting the entry and exit of people and goods (Midford, 2020). Only selected trading partners, like the Dutch and the Chinese, were allowed limited access through specific ports. (For instance, during the Sakoku period, any Japanese citizen who left the nation and later returned was put to death as a measure to preserve Japan’s seclusion.)
3. North Korea’s Self-reliance (Juche): North Korea presents an ongoing example of isolationism (Caisova, 2018). Post the Korean War, North Korea adopted the policy of Juche, or self-reliance, to insulate the nation from global influence. It seeks to be self-sufficient in all aspects and severely limits its engagement with the rest of the world. (For instance, during the severe famine in the 1990s, North Korea maintained its isolationist policy, refusing several international aid proposals that contradicted the government’s Juche ideology.)
4. Albania under Hoxha’s rule: Enver Hoxha, as the long-time leader of Albania post-World War II, enacted strict isolationist policies. Outside influences were silenced, and internal ideologies were strengthened. The regime rejected alliances and help from both the west and east during the cold war. (For example, Albania severed diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1961 due to ideological differences and fears of making concessions.)
5. Bhutan’s Isolationism: The Kingdom of Bhutan, tucked away in the Himalayas, historically led a policy of isolation. The country was essentially closed off to the rest of the world and chose to keep foreign influences at bay to preserve its unique culture. Even modern technology was initially restricted. (For example, Bhutan introduced television only in 1999, much later than most countries, to prevent possible negative influences of foreign media.)
6. China’s Era of Isolation: In the 15th century, under the Ming Dynasty, China adopted an isolationist policy (Buzan & Cox, 2013). Overseas travels were discouraged, and foreign trade was significantly curtailed. Instead, the country focused on developing agricultural efficiency, strengthening its military and fortifying the Great Wall. (For instance, Admiral Zheng He’s famous exploratory fleet was disbanded, and shipbuilders faced the death sentence if they were found constructing sea-going ships.)
7. Swiss Neutrality: Switzerland’s policy of neutrality, rooted in the 19th century, can be considered a form of de facto isolationism. Aimed at avoiding international conflicts and maintaining peace internally, Switzerland refrains from participating in political alliances and military conflicts. (As an example, during both World Wars, the country remained neutral and refrained from involvement, despite the significant conflicts occurring around them.)
8. Paraguay under Dr. Francia: Under the rule of Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia in the early 19th century, Paraguay had a period of stringent isolationism. Foreign trade was eradicated, and travel was heavily restricted. The aim was to create a utopian society free of foreign influence. (An example can be seen in the policy that any citizen wishing to marry a foreigner needed to apply for a special permit from the state.)
9. Turkmenistan’s neutrality: Since its independence in 1991, Turkmenistan has adopted and maintained a self-declared policy of permanent neutrality, which was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1995. This stance limits the nation’s engagement in international conflicts and alliances. (For instance, Turkmenistan has stayed notably neutral and self-contained, even amidst the upheaval surrounding Afghanistan in recent decades.)
10. Myanmar’s Isolation Post-Independence: After gaining independence from British rule, Myanmar adopted a policy of isolation. The country, under Ne Win’s rule from 1962, nationalized industries, and limited foreign influence with the aim of creating a socialist state. (For example, from 1962 till the late 1980s, Myanmar restricted foreign visitors and permitted only one state-run daily newspaper.)
11. Tokugawa Shogunate’s Isolationist Japan: Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan was largely isolated under the Tokugawa shogunate. The nation focused on internal policies, centralizing the political system, and limiting contact with the outside world. (For instance, the policy of Sakoku, or closed country, was imposed, and traders and missionaries from Europe were expelled.)
12. Iran Post-1979 Revolution: The Islamic Republic of Iran opted for political isolation post the 1979 Revolution. International relations were redefined based on Islamic principles, and Western influences were strongly resisted. The country follows an independent policy curtailing foreign influences in political, economic, and cultural matters. (For example, even during Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iran did not seek extensive foreign support and maintained its policy of self-reliance.)
13. The Hermitage of Bhutan: Since the 17th century, Bhutan has been an isolationist nation. The country followed a policy of deliberate isolation, intended to protect the country from potential threats and influence from neighboring nations. (For instance, Bhutan has only established diplomatic ties with other countries gradually, recognizing India only in 1968, and not joining the United Nations until 1971.)
14. Fortress Albania: From the late 1940s to the mid-1980s, under Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime, Albania became one of the world’s most isolated countries. Foreign travel for Albanian citizens was essentially impossible, and foreigners were rarely granted access into the country. (For instance, Albania’s relations with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were severed during this period, intensifying its self-imposed isolation. Relations were not re-established until well after Hoxha’s death in 1985.)
15. North Korea’s Closed Society: North Korea represents one of the clearest modern examples of isolationism. The policy of “juche,” or self-reliance, means the nation is closed off, limiting most outside contact and influence. (For instance, North Korea’s response to the global Covid-19 pandemic involved closing borders, not even letting in humanitarian aid, which underlines the extent of isolation.)
Isolationism Pros and Cons
Isolationism has its advantages and drawbacks. These negatives and positives are pivotal for understanding the rationale that prompts nations to resort to this doctrine.
Isolationism may offer some electoral gains for politicians, which is a key motivating factor.
Isolationist policies often stem from public sentiment back home, where citizens desire the state to prioritize domestic affairs over international issues (Urbatsch, 2010).
An example of this can be seen with Brexit (Vernon, 2016), where many British citizens were for leaving the European Union to regain control over national legislation and border security.
Moreover, isolationism allows states to conserve resources.
Stepping back from international commitments means less foreign aid, reduced military spending, and fewer resources committed to diplomacy.
For instance, the U.S., during its isolationist phase, significantly reduced its military expenditure in the interwar period (1918-1939).
Declining to participate in world affairs, however, does have its drawbacks.
Ignoring global issues can cause unforeseen problems.
Climate change is a prime example (Stephens, 2022). The refusal to participate in international cooperation can exacerbate environmental threats that, in the long run, will affect both the isolationist country and the world.
Furthermore, with global economy interconnection, disentangling oneself from international trade agreements can mean potential economic repercussions.
This was seen in the Brexit referendum aftermath, where the U.K. faced significant challenges in negotiating new trade deals, both with the European Union and other countries (Vernon, 2016).
Finally, expressing disinterest in global politics may result in loss of influence. Not engaging with other nations or showing reluctance can lead to other countries taking the lead.
A case in point is the power vacuum left by the U.S. pulling back from its global leadership role, with China quick to position itself as a robust global contender.
Here are some more pros and cons:
|Aspect||Pros of Isolationism||Cons of Isolationism|
|Economic||1. Protection of domestic industries from foreign competition (Chalberg, 1995).|
2. Reduction of dependency on foreign nations for goods and services.
3. Preservation of local jobs by reducing outsourcing.
|1. Limited access to global markets can stifle growth and limit the benefits of economic globalization.|
2. Risk of economic stagnation without external stimuli.
3. Inability to benefit from global technological advancements or trade practices.
4. Vulnerability to local economic downturns without diversified external revenue sources (Vernon, 2016).
|Political||1. Maintains national sovereignty without foreign entanglements.|
2. Greater focus on domestic issues.
3. Reduced risk of being dragged into foreign conflicts.
|1. Missed opportunities for global leadership and influence.|
2. Potential perception of being disengaged or weak internationally.
3. Missed opportunities for diplomacy and alliance building.
|Security||1. Limited involvement in foreign disputes reduces risk of retaliation or involvement in wars.|
2. Focus on domestic security can strengthen internal defenses.
|1. Potential alienation of allies leading to reduced shared intelligence or military aid.|
2. Lack of forward engagement can result in late recognition of emerging threats.
|Cultural/Social||1. Preservation of domestic culture and values without external influence (Chalberg, 1995).|
2. Reduced risk of societal disruption from external forces.
|1. Potential for cultural stagnation without external stimuli.|
2. Reduced diversity of thought and experience leading to narrower worldviews.
|Technological||1. Domestic industries might innovate to compensate for the lack of foreign technologies.||1. Limited access to global technological advancements can slow progress (Chalberg, 1995).|
2. Reduction in collaborative international research and development.
|Environmental||1. Potential for more localized and tailored environmental policies.|
2. Reduced dependence on global supply chains might lead to more sustainable local practices.
|1. Lack of global cooperation can hamper global environmental efforts, such as climate change mitigation (Stephens, 2022).|
2. Missed opportunities for sharing best practices and solutions.
Isolationism represents a fundamental choice about a nation’s place in the world, balancing national interests and international responsibility. Its implications can be far-reaching, impacting everything from economic prosperity to global power dynamics. Isolationism, thus, isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy, but rather a strategy tailored to the specific needs and aspirations of a nation.
Buzan, B., & Cox, M. (2013). China and the US: Comparable cases of ‘peaceful rise’?. Chinese Journal of International Politics, 6(2), 109-132. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pot003
Caisova, L. (2018). North Korea’s foreign policy: the DPRK’s part on the international scene and its audiences. New York: Routledge.
Chalberg, J. (1995). Isolationism: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
Kupchan, C. A. (2020). Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Midford, P. (2020). Overcoming Isolationism: Japan’s Leadership in East Asian Security Multilateralism. Stanford University Press.
Stephens, J. C. (2022). Beyond climate isolationism: a necessary shift for climate justice. Current Climate Change Reports, 8(4), 83-90. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40641-022-00186-6
Urbatsch, R. (2010). Isolationism and domestic politics. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54(3), 471-492. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002709357891
Vernon, J. L. (2016). Dealing with isolationism. American Scientist, 104(5), 258.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]