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Recovering the Founders’ Foreign Policy

Some years back I would have described myself as a conservative Republican. My understanding of what that meant was shaped by two leading conservatives of that era, during my college years William F. Buckley, and somewhat later, Pat Buchanan. Both were Catholics who embraced essentially traditional social values, as did I, were suspicious of big government, and were willing to endorse strong national defense in confronting the Soviet Union but reluctant to engage overseas unnecessarily.

Back then there was a certain suspicion of someone who was seen as too assertive vis-à-vis foreigners. Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in part because Johnson was able to portray him as being reckless due to his “conservative” anti-communism. Indeed, for most pre-Vietnam 1960s Republicans, foreign policy was worn lightly with little beyond the usual flag waving, but this has all changed. Now nearly every Republican calls himself a conservative and the label implies a general belligerence in dealing with all foreigners except Israel, coupled with general tolerance for a police-state mentality at home. And, of course, it is all backed up by the Bible.

Even Republican mavericks have to toe the line over the institutionalized craziness. An e-mail last week announced that the Rand Paul-leaning Campaign for Liberty was organizing a drawing for supporters [1] because “…each and every one of us has a God-given right – and duty – to defend freedom. That’s why C4L is giving away a brand new Daniel Defense DDM4 AR-15. The AR-15 will come with Magpul MBU.S. front and rear sights and two Magpul mags.” An AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the M-16 assault rifle, while a Magpul mag is a combat magazine that holds 30 rounds, what we Vietnam-era vets used to refer to as a banana clip.

The irrepressible Sarah Palin, much beloved by faux conservatives and the Tea Parties, as well as anyone else willing to cough up her reported $100,000 speaking fee [2], meanwhile told [3] a National Rifle Association convention audience that those jihadis who are out to get us have to learn that if she were president “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” The audience roared. I am an experienced gun owner myself and consider it a fundamental constitutional right, but I would also note that the freedom of all Americans has been under unrelenting attack for the past thirteen years with little or no resistance from the heavily-armed populace, which compels one to ask: “What are they waiting for?” And, more seriously, when handing out assault rifles and chattering about torturing people to produce a laugh come center stage, it is time to stop and consider whether or not we have finally entered the twilight zone.

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So I no longer believe the Republicans to be saying anything credible and no longer consider myself one of them, even marginally, since Ron Paul retired. Well, what about [4] the libertarians? They want small government or even no government, want people to leave them alone, and aren’t interested in getting involved in overseas wars. But hang around with a few of them for a while and you will discover that their distaste for government sometimes veers into the unsympathetic and the uncaring. What their heroine Ayn Rand referred to as “ethical egoism,” but sometimes without the ethical. They generally believe in the “non-coercion” principle which essentially means that the individual should not be forced to do anything by the state, a viewpoint that sometimes fuels a deplorable tendency to unfairly demonize those they see as agents of the government. Cops, in their view, become homicidal monsters and soldiers are baby killers.

It is hard to imagine what a libertarian foreign policy would look like as it would be a contradiction in terms. Many libertarians want to make the armed forces and intelligence agencies go away to be replaced by heavily armed citizens who have a duty to resist an invader, as long as nobody is pressured into joining in the fight, which would violate individual liberty. Open borders and free trade are also on the agenda with no concern for who gets to come into the country and how many Americans wind up getting harmed in the process, because many libertarians really don’t believe in nationalism.

I will largely pass over progressives (as liberals currently refer to themselves since the “L” word has fallen out of favor) because they are now sadly in power in Washington and are demonstrating their utter cluelessness. There has been considerable jesting [5] about a recent op-ed by one Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining [6] how “Stopping Russia Starts in Syria.” Slaughter, a former Hillary Clinton appointed State Department Director of Policy Planning, is a relative heavyweight within the foreign policy establishment. She is currently at Princeton and wants the U.S. to bomb Syria “until the game has changed” to send a message to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And if one is not convinced by Slaughter’s solution or her highly dubious linkage of two quite separate crises I would point to the empty utterances and perverse “humanitarian”-driven bellicosity of folks named Obama, Rice, Clinton, and Power that have together brought us Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Progressive interventionists are particularly dangerous as they are sitting in the White House and believe they have a mission.

Finally there are the realists. Put simply, for realists foreign policy and the use of force overseas is to serve national interests, a basically nineteenth-century notion. That would make sense, but only if one assumes that the United States has an extraterritorial and extrajudicial right to arrange things overseas to suit its own needs, as the enforcer of some kind of latter day Pax Britannica. That certainly can be challenged and the realist agenda itself can be considered to be somewhat light on ethics. Whether it is right to entertain regime change if one has an interest to do so, as the case was made [7] with Mohamed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, certainly can be questioned, and even a “realistic” analysis of the results of that particular intervention would suggest that the ensuing blowback made the entire venture counterproductive.

The point of all of the above is that for too many of the political class, ideological packaging conditions and ultimately trumps sensible policies, meaning that reasonable discussion across party lines becomes impossible. Former CIA Officer Paul Pillar calls it [8] a “Tyranny of Labels.” Ironically there is quite a lot that most Americans would probably agree about if one could get past the ideological divisions and return to the initial organization of the federal government by the Founders. What did they expect from the newly minted War Department and the Department of State? According to the Preamble [9] to the Constitution, the federal government exists “for promotion of the general welfare” of all citizens. Both war and relations with foreigners were seen as instruments that, when needed, were intended to benefit the American people. The tendency to introduce other extraneous agendas and interests through the conflation of defense and foreign policy into a “national security” package is a relatively recent development.

The Founders’ reluctance to embrace a standing army reflected the view that war making should be limited to the ability to defend the nation’s borders. It would not include fighting a war in Ukraine as a form of forward deterrence. Likewise, an ambassador, as the personal representative of the president, was not intended to function as an offensive weapon. He was delegated to serve as a channel for extending the protection and assistance of the United States government to its traveling citizens and to serve as the conduit for negotiating treaties that would facilitate that function. It was never expected that the U.S. ambassador should serve as an instrument to interfere with or critique the sovereignty of the Turkish Sultan or the Russian Tsar.

If there is any confusion about the objectives of U.S. diplomacy, they should be dispelled by George Washington’s Farewell Address [10], in which he stressed the need to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” In spite of his own revolutionary experience, Washington would not have approved of sending ambassadors overseas to openly meet with opponents of the local government, and cultivating “regime change” would shock him. He would agree that while it is accepted practice for an ambassador to report on developments in the country to which he is assigned, involvement or interference in local politics should never be on the agenda.

A return to constitutional concepts of diplomacy and war making might not be as difficult as it seems. It would largely be a change of tone requiring a ratcheting back from the past decade’s policies made on steroids and the restoring of a respectful interaction with the world, what George W. Bush once referred to [11] as a “modest and humble foreign policy.”

Nearly all Americans understand that the primary role for U.S. armed forces is to defend the United States. Most would also accept that the State Department should protect and assist U.S. citizens overseas and facilitate functional interactions with all foreign nations. We Americans can agree to disagree over what foreign crises constitute genuine threats, but most would likely admit that the use of force as a first resort over the past 13 years has been an expensive failure. Getting rid of the blinders that mandate what a conservative, libertarian, progressive, or realist is “supposed to do” or think and getting back to basics would be an enormous step forward, freeing the government to return to what should have always been its primary mission: reducing its footprint overseas and acting in a minimalist fashion to secure the “general welfare” of all Americans.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "Recovering the Founders’ Foreign Policy"

#1 Comment By spite On May 6, 2014 @ 6:26 am

“because many libertarians really don’t believe in nationalism”, a false accusation, it is more accurate to say that libertarians don’t believe that liberty should be sacrificed using the excuse of national security, realpolitik or any other clever arguments that all in the end restrict individual freedom.

“It is hard to imagine what a libertarian foreign policy would look like as it would be a contradiction in terms. Many libertarians want to make the armed forces and intelligence agencies go away”.
Yes, many intelligence agencies would have to go away (including the CIA), likewise the military is too big and too expensive. A libertarian foreign policy would be closer to the founders foreign policy than anything that this author is trying to sell.

#2 Comment By arrScott On May 6, 2014 @ 7:10 am

It’s not just a change in tone at the State Department that is needed. In many countries – entire regions of the world – most of the activity that we think of as “diplomacy” is carried out by uniformed officers of the Department of Defense. That, plus the fact that the United States has not won a war since we changed the name, leads me to think it’s time we restored that department to its prior name, the Department of War.* Perhaps the subtle reminder to foreign officials that our colonels and generals are not ambassadors but war fighters will help them choose to prefer to conduct actual diplomacy with us, on traditional terms, rather than accepting our military-led outreach in the name of “defense.”

*Yes, technically the Department of War became the Department of the Army in 1947, with the Department of Defense rising out of whole cloth to house the now-demoted service departments, but in practice the Department of Defense was the Department of War with a new name and a few offices absorbed from the Navy.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 6, 2014 @ 7:18 am

” . . .or think and getting back to basics would be an enormous step forward, freeing the government to return to what should have always been its primary mission: reducing its footprint overseas and acting in a minimalist fashion to secure the “general welfare” of all Americans.”

How about a policy that reflects a foot print required fir defense. The preamble of the Constitution that applies only citizens of the US as opposed to citizens and the illegal hordes siphoning off our welfare. reads,

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

That common defence does not by definition suggest minimalist as we might understand its contemporary use.

Though I understand, ‘small as possible’ to our defense. In todays interplay, that might be larger than most would like.

#4 Comment By Sean Gillhoolley On May 6, 2014 @ 9:04 am

“Both were Catholics who embraced essentially traditional social values, as did I, were suspicious of big government, and were willing to endorse strong national defense in confronting the Soviet Union but reluctant to engage overseas unnecessarily.”

I don’t suppose you even realize how condescending this statement is. For one, you are claiming that your values are the traditional ones. I am Canadian and I assure you that your values have never been in the mainstream here, and are, thus, not traditional. To look at the entire history of the USA and come up with traditional values, we would have to accept; 1) slavery, 2) women don’t count, 3) only those who own property have a voice in government, 4) Corporations were charters, not contracts. Those are radically different ideas than has been seen in the USA in over 50 years, some much longer. Just because they are the values that you cherish does not make them traditional (and I do not mean my list of 4). Why cling to tradition when progress means improvement?

#5 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On May 6, 2014 @ 10:00 am

another fantastic read from PG. once Americans understand the definition of – and as such – develop the ability to recognize “plutocracy in action” it all makes sense. the preamble to the Constitution cites “common defense” as a core principle or building block in terms of the United States. unfortunately, the Department of Defense has become more “offensive” in nature. and why not? the WWII and the Marshall Plan brought Coca Cola, American cigarettes, and Hersey bars to Europe. remember “It’s A Wonderful Life”? Sam Wainright became a millionaire manufacturing plastic airplane canopies during WWII. re: the Randian libertarians, I’ll step back a bit further. sure, it would nice to have a government that one never sees/hears, but in Larry McMurtry’s novel of the American west, “Lonesome Dove” the over-the-hill Texas Ranger “Gus” laments how the Rangers (law enforcement, military) did not defend the nation/state if Texas, so much as they “cleared the way” for bankers, railroads, and ranchers. history is indeed, written by the victors.

#6 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On May 6, 2014 @ 10:05 am

excuse me, what I meant to add was, with regard to Larry McMurtry vis-à-vis Ayn Rand, the government was a bad thing, ‘cept when it was wiping out buffalos and native Americans so the “private sector” could build the railroads.

#7 Comment By SDS On May 6, 2014 @ 10:08 am

IF seriously thought about; most (serious) libertarians would applaud the direction suggested; maybe not the final destination; but certainly the direction. Unfortunately; even libertarians are not immune to believing they must push the “Party” line and never consider the real-world applications/implications of it. A bit more thought and less knee-jerk reaction from all sides would be welcome.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 6, 2014 @ 10:08 am

“I am Canadian and I assure you that your values have never been in the mainstream here”

That is baloney – and I will tell you why. Canadians, with their inferiority complex, have been forever bellyaching over the tiniest differences between those English who rebelled versus those who remained in thrall to foreign monarchy. In truth, to the rest of the world, there are no two nations more similar in culture than English speaking Canada and the United States – not a similarly shaped and colored dime’s worth of difference. There is no nation with a foreign policy more aligned with that of the United States. There is no greater trade volume than between the two. Most of the Canadian population lives within 150 miles of the U.S. border. The language, music, film and television programs are culturally identical. The materialism is just as endemic.

#9 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On May 6, 2014 @ 10:48 am

Switzerland seems close to the ideal you are advocating. It is an old, federal republic, embracing a pluralism required by its different communities. It leaves its neighbors alone and focuses on making money and living a good life. It is armed well enough to defend its borders, and need not be armed more, because it doesn’t go around picking fights with people under dubious pretexts. It can spend the savings on a strong, economy-supporting infrastructure. It enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world, since it does not throw its money down the rathole of military adventurism.

(It is over regulated and over taxed, but we will leave those issues aside, given that this discussion is focused on appropriate foreign policy.)

#10 Comment By FatHappySouthernBoy On May 6, 2014 @ 11:36 am

“Why cling to tradition when progress means improvement?”

Because “Progress”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

“1) slavery, 2) women don’t count, 3) only those who own property have a voice in government, 4) Corporations were charters, not contracts.”

1) Slavery existed in Canada until 1833

2) Women couldn’t vote in Canada until 1916, and even then only in Manitoba.

3) Prior to that voting was restricted, by law, for women, minorities, and people of foreign descent. Leaving pretty much white males. To be fair my 5 minute search didn’t tell me if only landowners were allowed to vote in Canada back then, but I bet I could find it written somewhere if I were more motivated.

4) Again this is pretty much everywhere. Business isn’t the same as society, their rules and traditions differ not just from societies rules and traditions but also from business type to business type. So don’t dump that on the US please.

#11 Comment By Jude On May 6, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

Fran;

Having lived in Canada, your comments regarding Canadians are ignorant and inaccurate. In fact, from a “cultural” perspective, save for shared programming, Canada is culturally closer to the UK, no surprise, than the USA.

Canada has a Parliamentary Government. Thankfully, abortion is a non-issue and fully funded by Canada’s national healthcare. Repeat, Canada has national healthcare. Like the UK, Canada is virtually a one sport nation (Hockey).

Regarding foreign policy, Canada is much less a USA lap dog than the UK. Canada was neutral during the Vietnam War. In the first Gulf War, Canada’s participation was limited to Naval and Air units. There was much opposition to the second Gulf War and Canada only provided limited naval forces.

#12 Comment By Jude On May 6, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

If only Progressives in this country would stop pandering to the right wing by using foreign intervention and national defense issues to appear “strong” to supposed swing voters.

While Obama took far to long to disengage the USA from Bush’s follies, at least Obama so far has resisted any new interventions save for when clear international consensus exists and then in a supporting role.

Wasn’t it a Republican who said “speak softly and carry a big stick”? Hard to believe.

#13 Comment By KXB On May 6, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

One of the reasons that we cannot have a more honest debate about US foreign policy is the role of money. The short version is that people with money are listened to while people with money are not.

Take California. By demographics, where there is no clear ethnic majority, what would be the foreign policy as expressed by the citizens of CA? Well, why would Latinos care about Israel/Palestine? The large Iranian population may wonder why their country of origin is the target of such hostility, given that Iran has not attacked its neighbors in almost 200 hundred years. But, Jewish donors with deep pockets will probably care about I/P and Iran.

#14 Comment By cameyer On May 6, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

Jude, are you kidding about Obama? He sends special operations forces all over the globe at his discretion He uses drones against the enemies of foreign countries. He has not closed one of the over 100 US bases residing in foreign countries. He was quick Libya on a humanitarian agenda but quicker to substitute regime change as his rationale.

#15 Comment By Andrew On May 6, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

@KXB

Good point. In short: I stated many times before, I will reiterate–there is no real conservatism, nor formulation of coherent real foreign policy without national self-identification. US is a torn “nation”. She lacks real national foreign policy consensus. US has foreign policy consensus among the so called “elites” but this one is a totally different animal.

#16 Comment By Jett Davis On May 6, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

@cameyer There are actually over 700 U.S. military bases worldwide (not on U.S. soil).

#17 Comment By Jett Davis On May 6, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

@spite Actually, a libertarian foreign policy wouldn’t be hard to imagine. Essentially, it would amount to unilateral disarmament.

#18 Comment By KXB On May 6, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

@Andrew

“US has foreign policy consensus among the so called “elites” but this one is a totally different animal.”

And to be considered an “elite” means giving large contributions. What other explanation is there for Sheldon Adelson?

#19 Comment By Ken Hoop On May 6, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

Please note, all.
Ron but not Rand Paul was enough to keep Mr. Giraldi in the GOP.
And after Rand’s performance so far, can’t say that I blame him.

#20 Comment By Adam On May 6, 2014 @ 6:56 pm

War and the threat of it is probably the biggest stimulus program running in this country. It’s certainly the only one Republicans support(at least when they’re not in office, when they’re in office, stimulus works). How many people would be displaced if we shut the whole thing down? Where would the folks that work at Homeland Security go? I can’t think of another place that pays you that well for turning out report after report full of gibberish. Nope, our security apparatus is one giant government jobs program(with the obligatory siphoning from the big money folks) and it will never be dismantled.

#21 Comment By Dan Phillips On May 6, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

“William F. Buckley … (was) willing to endorse strong national defense in confronting the Soviet Union but reluctant to engage overseas unnecessarily.”

I think Buckley’s reluctance is often overstated. I find little real difference between him and other “conservative” Cold Warriors of the time.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 6, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

” . . .Latinos care about Israel/Palestine? The large Iranian population may wonder why their country of origin is the target of such hostility, given that Iran has not attacked its neighbors in almost 200 hundred years. But, Jewish donors with deep pockets will probably care about I/P and Iran.”

I won’t correct these comments I will just frame them as the problem with libertarian philosophy, if they are meant in that vein.

For both groups and all others, not mentioned, because when you come to the US and become a US citizen —

We expect you top forsake all others. Which is exactly why libertarians should be handed their hat on the matter. What they want is a open country that protects their desire to do as they please minus any real allegiance to that which protects and fosters their right and ability to do so.

Citizenship has more than just privileges. One pays a price. For Latinos and Iranians who become or who are citizens — owe their allegiance here first or get gone. And that allegiance is why they should care. In the same manner that Japanese, Germans and Italians who were citizens did the same.
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#23 Comment By Johnny F. Ive On May 7, 2014 @ 1:03 am

People tend to create models to manage complexity and those models will always be lacking. I think Iain McGilchrist nails the fact that these “models blind us from others:” [12]

Jude, even if there is an international consensus on war and sanctions doesn’t make it right. Also I’m still trying to get over the fact that Canada’s leader is Harper. I didn’t realize Canadians had a Connecticut Yankee in Texas streak.

I don’t like the word “progressive” because it is associated with imperialism, eugenics, top-down socialism, a love of bureaucracy, and scientific racism. Libertarians use progressivism as a crutch to prove that they are right while discounting the fact that the failings of Manchester liberalism inspired Marx and Engels. I think socialism is a great idea but it turns into animal farm with such a huge population. I’ve seen adherents of progressivism state in kinder words that it is a wishy washy belief system like conservativism that blows with the wind with its own pragmatic slant but deep down doesn’t mean anything except whatever people say it means at the present moment.

#24 Comment By Anne On May 7, 2014 @ 8:03 am

What do they do when they fail? They add to their ballooning personal debt — begun just to get a college degree — by paying out hundreds of dollars for a professional resume revamp, and continue competing for whatever jobs in their field haven’t yet been outsourced. In the meantime, they make out applications at Starbucks or wherever service sector jobs are available, and wonder if they should go into even more debt to go back to school to qualify for some sort of life’s work a person can count on. But what would that be? And how long will that last, realistically? Why does it feel like you cannot win for losing? Welcome to Philosophy 2014.

#25 Comment By Immortal Gentleman On May 7, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

“I would also note that the freedom of all Americans has been under unrelenting attack for the past thirteen years with little or no resistance from the heavily-armed populace, which compels one to ask: “What are they waiting for?”

I have asked more or less this same question many times of the gun-toting, chest-thumping, NRA crowd and all I ever get are blank stares or weak rationalizations.

It must be that for most, their dirty little secret is that tyranny is just fine with them, so long as they see themselves as being aligned with it.

#26 Comment By Andrew On May 7, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

@KXB

And to be considered an “elite” means giving large contributions. What other explanation is there for Sheldon Adelson?

True. This, plus to be a recycled “elite” graduate (good ole’ boy or girl) from the Ivy League schools. Preferably, having degree in something which doesn’t require any serious skills.

#27 Comment By Jude On May 7, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

Camayer;

That is exactly what I mean by “pandering to the right wing.” Obama does these things for domestic political reasons, not international ones.

Just look at the right wing obsession with Benghazi. Too bad they did not react with such vigor against the incumbent administration when 3000 Americans where killed by a terrorist attack.

Suppose Obama stops the drone attacks, then terrorist actions kills Americans somewhere. Imagine the right wing outcry. Same with surveillance programs. We don’t know and never will know the effective of these programs. However, if Obama stops them and an incident occurs, the condemnation of Obama would be non-stop,

#28 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 8, 2014 @ 4:07 am

I would be curious to know what you are talking about here.

“Just look at the right wing obsession with Benghazi. Too bad they did not react with such vigor against the incumbent administration when 3000 Americans where killed by a terrorist attack.”

Benghazi would not be an issue if this admin had simply avoided their tendency to pretend nothing went wrong. Cover up went wrong and then proceed to lie about all of the preceding including placing blame where it belongs on their door step.

The fear of accountability that consumes this admin. is daunting.

#29 Comment By eclecticdog On May 8, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

“Getting rid of the blinders that mandate what a conservative, libertarian, progressive, or realist is “supposed to do” or think and getting back to basics would be an enormous step forward…”

Not one of the supposed liberals/progressives listed is any such thing. Fighting Bob La Folette, Teddy Roosevelt (sans the imperialism) they are not.

#30 Comment By parental guidance On May 8, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

God I love reading Phil’s stuff. Clarity and bracing common sense. He gives somewhat short shrift to “realists” but as I see it he has a lot in common with them.

The wisdom of our first president can’t be repeated often enough.

#31 Comment By Doven Hooker On May 10, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

Mr. Giraldi, that was as clear, succinct and sober an assessment as I have read in a very long time. God bless you. God save us.

#32 Comment By Brett Champion On May 26, 2014 @ 8:57 am

The world that the Founders lived in has long since disappeared. While many of the rights they championed are still relevant to modern people and government, one thing that clearly isn’t relevant is how they would have handled US foreign affairs. The Founders lived in a world without WMDs, where it took weeks to cross an ocean, and where the US wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top of the list of targets for people with bad intentions and the means to carry them out.

That of course doesn’t mean that US foreign affairs has been handled well over the last 20 years. It hasn’t. But the fact that the Clinton, Bush-43, and Obama administrations have been inept at best in their handling of America’s foreign policy does not in anyway make the way the Founders interacted with the outside world a viable foreign policy for America in the 21st century.