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Standing Athwart American Hegemony

Pursuing global primacy isn't a conservative foreign policy.

The foreign policy of National Review’s David French may be many things—idealistic, costly, dangerous, to name a few—but it is not conservative.

French recently made the case that America must maintain “its post-World War II role as the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the Free world,” lest the earth slip into a state of regional, and perhaps global, conflict and chaos. If America retreats or withdraws its tentacles from any of the far reaches of the earth, the “vacuum” will be filled with “powers hostile to international peace and security”—so the argument goes.

Ironically, French maintains that guaranteeing the “safety and freedom” of our planet, with its 7 billion inhabitants, will “not mean that we’re the world’s hegemon, controlling all the Earth’s peoples from Washington, D.C.” This claim isn’t supported by the facts. To date, the United States of America has just under 200,000 troops deployed in over 170 countries around the world and spends more than $611 billion dollars per year on defense—more than the next eight countries combined. Managing 200,000 troops in 170 countries necessitates global hegemony and requires a strong, centralized, administrative state in Washington, D.C. to both levy taxes (or more likely, go into debt) for an undertaking that includes a vast network of government agencies and contractors to staff the operation.

As conservative icon Robert Nisbet noted in his 1988 Jefferson Lecture, the War State of Woodrow Wilson begat the 20th century administrative state, and forever centralized our political life: In short, a big military always precedes and necessitates big government. Americans will never restore limited, constitutional government unless we return to a more restrained, prudent, and realistic foreign policy espoused by our founding fathers, as well as the conservative intellectual tradition.

Writing in National Review in 2014, Sen. Rand Paul quoted William F. Buckley Jr.’s reflection upon the perils of American foreign policy in the aftermath of the Iraq War: “The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country.” The hubris that Buckley attributes to interventionist foreign policy is fundamentally antithetical to conservatism and mirrors the hubris found on the left on matters of domestic policy. One can imagine a Democrat making a similar claim as David French but instead referring to the federal government’s role in healthcare, education, or infrastructure. According to this logic, Washington must guarantee the “health, education, and mobility” of all Americans, lest the far reaches of our country slip back into the chaos of illness, ignorance, and provincial living.

We have come to a point in America where we can no longer fathom a domestic or foreign policy without the expensive and intrusive influence of Washington in every corner. A truly conservative policy agenda must recognize the limits of the administrative state and have faith that, when the heavy hand of Washington recedes, an organic mix of mediating institutions in domestic affairs and a balance of powers in foreign affairs will stabilize our nation and world.

Fortunately for conservatives who care about foreign affairs, we have a wealth of knowledge at our disposal to help us think more like George Washington and less like Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps John Quincy Adams’ oft quoted 1821 address provides the best framework when he states that, “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Americans can be patriots and champions of freedom, at home and abroad, without actively meddling in the affairs of other nations, especially in the Middle East.

Ludwig von Mises explained that “History has witnessed the failure of many endeavors to impose peace by war, cooperation by coercion, unanimity by slaughtering dissidents. . . A lasting order cannot be established by bayonets.” Are the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan more stable and free than they were sixteen years ago when the United States began our War on Terror? Or do our actions abroad, particularly those involving use of force when there is no immediate national security threat, have unintended consequences that cause more harm than good?

In an effort to at least make the executive branch more accountable to the people for its interventions overseas, conservatives in Congress should reassert their constitutional authority to check the President’s military actions with the War Powers Resolution, which states that the President can only introduce armed forces into hostilities abroad “pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Considering President Trump’s recent actions in Syria and the threat of impending conflict with North Korea, conservatives must revisit the arguments made by our founding fathers and intellectual forbearers like Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and Richard Weaver. While far from being isolationists, these men recognized the need for prudence and restraint in American foreign policy and understood the limits of America’s actions throughout the world.

David French rejoices in the fact that Trump has backed off on his campaign promises and is “exerting more American power abroad, not less,” but this move should actually be of great concern to conservatives. Richard Weaver lamented that America had finally reached a point where “we make ‘perpetual war’ in order to have a distant ‘perpetual peace.’” There is nothing conservative and nothing peaceful about David French’s vision of America using military power to uphold the international order. Even Thomas Jefferson knew that “we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble, but I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.” When America places her faith in military might and leads by force instead of example, it’s the duty of conservatives, in the words of William F. Buckley Jr., to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.”

John A. Burtka IV is Director of Development for The American Conservative. His writings have appeared in First Things, Touchstone, the Intercollegiate Review, and American Theological Inquiry.