Everyone carries around at least one burning issue — a subject that they regularly return to as the most pressing concern, or the untried solution to all our problems — usually one that’s drawn and shaped by our own experiences. That’s why so many people active or invested in manufacturing industries have been alarmed about low-cost foreign products displacing U.S.-made goods. But, such concerns — as real as they are — are isolated to those who feel the pinch of foreign competition, and those who see a weakness in our free-trade system because of our unwavering deference to low costs. That explains why boycotts of Wal-Mart never really take hold.
There are numerous concerns with similarly serious, but "limited," impact on public policy. Illegal immigration is a serious problem in some states, less so in others, and the subject remains a sore point for many people even though it barely concerns others. The threat of domestic terrorism was a broad but loosely defined concern through most of the 1990s, but it became a matter that galvanized the national will after September 11, 2001. The simple point is that serious issues remain serious and little more, until external factors spur previously disinterested people to lend their concern and force a reaction.
In the case of foreign competition, that’s a point that may have been crossed in February when a state-owned firm from the United Arab Emirates was approved to take over management of six East Coast port facilities. It was a matter that somehow escaped widespread attention until it was nearly final, one that seemed so galling in the simplified reporting on which most people based their reactions. Finally, it was a matter that despite the legality and good sense presented by its defenders could not stand up to a working alliance of people’s "pressing concerns."
Weeks or months from now many of us may have forgotten this takeover attempt, or it may remain with us as the flash that ignited a new isolationism.
Everyone who has studied U.S. history understands isolationism. It’s the catchall phrase for protectionist trade policies, immigration quotas, and non-interventionist foreign polices that shaped much of the early 20th Century. It did not develop without causes. Our great-grandparents were reacting to their own pressing concerns: the strength of domestic agriculture and manufacturing; the radicalism and anarchism of foreign political movements; and the spiritual exhaustion that followed World War I. Isolationism, however, became the backdrop to slow economic growth and dangerous inattention to simmering social and international crises. If today our interests are converging into a new brand of isolationism, it won’t be without good causes, nor will it be an effective reaction.
U.S. manufacturers need to recover their dynamism, and they need a commitment from the consuming public to support their innovations. Local, state, and federal governments must find the will to accept immigrants while containing and deterring illegal activity. And, as a nation our foreign affairs must hew to the ethical and moral principles that shape us, rather than the concerns that incite us.
None of this deprives any of us of our personal concerns, but it behooves us to discern what’s right from what’s right for us.