Those who advocate strict non-interventionism usually intend it to mean that America should remain militarily uninvolved abroad except when there is a clear and imminent threat to U.S. territory. But this isolationist doctrine of non-interventionism is not in keeping with the founding principles of America’s early foreign policy.
The Founding Fathers, whose foreign policy some non-interventionists claim to champion, were no strangers to difficult foreign policy decisions. When faced with the choice to allow attacks on American ships of commerce by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea or to punish the perpetrators of those attacks, President Thomas Jefferson and his Secretary of State James Madison chose the latter.
In 1801, just thirteen years after the Constitution was ratified, the United States built six frigates and dispatched a naval squadron to seek out and punish the Muslim pirates who had been attacking American merchants and endangering the life and property of American citizens. Soon the U.S. Navy attacked the port of Tripoli (pictured above) and landed Marines on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, who then captured the Ottoman city of Derma. This series of battles inspired a line of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Hymn (“to the shores of Tripoli”).
The Tripolitan War blatantly violated the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, in order to carry out a U.S. foreign policy objective that was in keeping with America’s guiding principles of maintaining independence abroad, ensuring freedom, and preserving peace. It did so without officially declaring war. Interestingly, America’s cause in this conflict was also understood by the Jefferson administration to be punishing the Barbary States’ violations against the Law of Nations.
Strict non-interventionists would apparently object to this historical deployment of the Marines on foreign soil to ensure Americans’ safety in another hemisphere; for the doctrine of non-interventionism is conspicuously dogmatic and inflexible. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the isolationist views of the 1930s and bears little resemblance to the Founders’ foreign policy approach. Even though there was disagreement among the Founders on certain policies, there was an overwhelming agreement that abroad America should vigorously maintains it independence and pursue its interests while standing for the idea of political freedom across the globe.
While a policy of non-intervention is sometimes appropriate, the doctrine of non-interventionism is an isolationist policy which limits the options available to America. It is a limitation that the Founders clearly did not adopt: in the years 1783-1860, the U.S. engaged in military action nearly sixty times at locations around the globe. Like the Tripolitan War, these military actions in the service of America’s interests and principles were both defensive and, at times, interventionist.
The true consistency of American foreign policy is to be found not in its policies, which ought to prudently change and adapt, but in its guiding principles, which should be unchanging and permanent. Those who advocate strict non-interventionism are not representing a traditionally American foreign policy approach; for it excludes the statesmanlike virtue of prudence and ignores many instances in early American history when the U.S. did intervene, even militarily, in order to defend America’s interests and advance its political principles.
—Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation. This post is the second in a series on the Founders’ understanding of military engagement.