Donald Trump has made the 2016 presidential race potentially the most important of the last century. The Constitution repudiates presidential wars: they impoverish the people and undermine the rule of law. Trump, if he heeds our advice, can make the Constitution’s foreign policy the battleground of the campaign.
He did a masterful job of exposing the folly of the war in Iraq. He correctly denounced Hillary Clinton’s Senate vote for that war and her later use of her position as secretary of state to wage congressionally unauthorized war against Libya. Rather than learn from her mistakes, which gave birth to ISIS, Clinton is redoubling her efforts to drag our nation into another unconstitutional war in Syria.
The cornerstone of the Constitution’s foreign policy is the exclusive entrustment of the war power to Congress. We made an unprecedented break with history by making Congress the sentinel against gratuitous wars. This was the most important decision we made in Philadelphia. We understood that from the beginning of all government, the Executive has chronically concocted excuses to go to war for power and fame. While Congress is not infallible, the institution has everything to lose and nothing to gain from going to war.
We recognized that these features of the Executive and Legislative branches were timeless because they reflected personalities of the respective institutions that are as constant as the force of gravity. We examined every prior system of government for thousands of years. Regardless of their state of technology, Egyptian pharaohs, Israel’s kings, Genghis Khan, and King George III were indistinguishable in their gravitation toward needless wars.
The proof of our timeless wisdom is in the results. Less than a century after the ratification of the Constitution, by avoiding presidential wars the United States became the world’s largest economy. We attracted the best and the brightest from everywhere to make America the workshop of the world.
Trump’s goal of regaining our former prosperity will be stillborn without restoring the Constitution’s foreign policy. We were present at the creation of the Constitution, and we left no room for ambiguity about why we gave the war power to Congress. We call on Donald Trump to establish a precedent for every presidential candidate: an unequivocal pledge in writing never to initiate war without a congressional declaration. He should lead, and ask Hillary Clinton to follow. The pledges will make America great again.
Trump is to be complimented for questioning alliance commitments that conflict with the pledge. He has asked why we would protect the borders of other countries when we don’t protect our own. At present, the United States is obligated through treaties or executive promises to go to war to protect 69 countries. During our many years of public service, we rejected the idea of permanent friends or enemies and warned against the danger of entangling alliances. Trump’s “No Presidential Wars” pledge will give him justification to extricate the United States from these military entanglements. Why should we safeguard the borders of almost half of the world’s countries, who will betray us whenever their interests diverge from ours?
In his first foreign-policy address, Trump alluded to John Quincy Adams’s signature statement about the inseparability of foreign and domestic policy:
[The United States has] abstained from interference in the concerns of others. … Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. … She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. … she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. … [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.
The United States is the safest country in history. All the armies of the world couldn’t take a drink from the Colorado or make a track in the Rockies. We now possess more than 7,000 nuclear warheads and the biggest, most technologically advanced Navy and Air Force ever seen. By contrast, when we wrote the Constitution in 1787, the world confronted six empires armed to the teeth: the Chinese Empire, the Russian Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Despite massive superiority in manpower, ships, and weaponry, the British Empire was unable to defeat us in our Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
By avoiding standing armies and entangling alliances, our foreign policy of self-defense unleashed the nation’s resources and focused our human capital on making us the richest nation in history. Our greatest entrepreneurs did not squander their genius on warfare. But then our nation’s leaders became seduced by the lure of the limitless executive power that comes with war. Presidents of both parties replaced invincible self-defense with a global military establishment in the false hope of dictating the affairs of other nations. Presidents concocted pretexts to justify wars against Spain, Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. American jobs were traded away to attract professed foreign allies. The Democratic and Republican nominees have not given the American electorate a choice against unconstitutional presidential wars for more than half a century.
Now is the time for Trump to end overseas adventurism and trumpet the invincible self-defense that made us the envy of the world. We have lost our way in abandoning the Constitution’s foreign policy. A “No Presidential Wars” pledge is the first step to refocusing the genius of our people on production at home rather than destruction abroad. This is the way to make America great again.
We are the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. We are the champion and vindicator only of our own.
George Washington and James Madison are a Virginia businessman and lawyer.