One common way of thinking about foreign policy is that it exists in its own world, separate from domestic policy or the first principles on which a nation is founded. According to this view , the job of the foreign policy expert is to deal dispassionately with the world as it is, making no distinction between democracies and dictatorships, and shaping policy solely by cold-hearted consideration of the national interest.
The Heritage Foundation has never accepted this way of thinking. It believes that the first principles on which the United States was founded must guide its foreign as well as its domestic policy. Of course, the principles do not dictate precise policies, and they will not manifest themselves in the same way abroad as they do at home. That is because America is a nation of law, which assigns the Federal Government broad but limited powers. The world, by contrast, is governed not by law, but by strength, by treaty, and by custom. And that is one reason we must be guided by our first principles when we go abroad: We must respect the beliefs that made us—especially if we are to stand up for our interests and our values in a world that cannot be relied upon to defend them for us.
The fundamental principle that guides analysts at Heritage when they consider issues in foreign or domestic policy is simple: the United States is founded on the God-given right of self-government, and based on the consent of the governed expressed through elections and, ultimately, the Constitution. Therefore, government does not grant rights: it is created by the people to protect their inalienable rights. Because the U.S. government is based on the consent of the governed, is a nation of laws, and protects fundamental liberties, it is legitimately sovereign.
The concept of sovereignty is older than the United States: it is the foundation of the international state system. But Heritage analysts take sovereignty particularly seriously. In the realm of foreign policy, sovereignty is important for two reasons. First, because it is an expression of our right of self-government, it means that the powers the American people have delegated to the U.S. government can never legitimately be transferred, in whole or in part, to any international or supranational organization.
That does not mean that the U.S. cannot make treaties. On the contrary: properly negotiated and ratified treaties are a fundamental and respectable part of diplomacy, and carrying out diplomacy on behalf of the American people is one of the government’s most important tasks. But it does mean that treaties, because they are a contract that the American people make with other states, must be scrutinized with particular care, to ensure that we are not transferring powers or agreeing to an unverifiable arrangement with states that cannot be trusted to keep their word.
Sovereignty does not matter only for the United States. Because it is an expression of the right of self-government, it—like all fundamental rights—belongs to all men and women. The problem in international relations is that too many states around the world deny these rights and repress their people. Under American principles, these states are not legitimately sovereign, because they are not fulfilling their purpose. Even worse, many of the world’s international institutions have granted membership to these illegitimately sovereign states, and thus rendered themselves suspect and incapable of standing up for fundamental rights.
The U.S. has for over two hundred years led the way— by establishing itself, by defeating Nazism and Communism, and by resisting Islamism—in building an international system that belongs only to the legitimately sovereign states. The U.S. must continue to exercise leadership in this cause, which rests at the heart of American foreign policy. But the U.S. cannot fix the problems of the world in a day, and, regularly, it must still deal with states and international institutions that lack fundamental legitimacy.
With care, this can be done, just as President Reagan negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. But we should never be under any illusions about who we are dealing with, and should never stop reminding ourselves that in dealing with illegitimately sovereign states, we are not making friends or engaging our way to peace: We are simply doing what we believe is necessary in the world as it currently is to protect our values and interests.
Diplomacy is a wholly legitimate function of government. But it is only a tool, a means to an end. It cannot work unless it is backed by power. Diplomacy and strength are not alternatives: they are two sides of the same coin. Thus, Heritage’s analysts are as concerned to ensure that America provides effectively for its common defense, and for the defense of its allies and interests, as they are to protect its sovereignty. Indeed, defense, as the first duty of government, is the ultimate expression of sovereignty.
Providing an effective defense is costly—even if all wise efficiencies are sought—but that cost must not be grudged or shirked, because it is by our defenses that we maintain our sovereignty against external enemies. Heritage analysts are therefore concerned to ensure that our defenses are maintained, and that they are not undermined by unwise policies in the realm of the military, of diplomacy, or of domestic policy, where the unchecked growth of government will damage our economy and reduce our ability to pay for our defenses.
Ultimately, we believe that America’s principle of powerful but limited government that expresses the will of the people is the right one, and that it will prevail unless we ourselves forsake it. That is why we believe that, at home and abroad, we must live up to this principle, and must reject the false belief that American foreign policy can exist in a world of its own, unconnected to our policies at home or the proud yet prudent expression of our values abroad. And that is why, at The Heritage Foundation, in both domestic and foreign policy, first principles matter.