Next Tuesday, the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination will square off in another debate, this time focused on foreign policy. If the last few months are any guide, at least one of those debaters will argue that if America just withdrew its military and stopped taunting other countries, then peace would be more likely. Take Iran, for example (as one candidate has), which recently attempted to carry out a targeted bombing in Washington, D.C.: What about just “offering friendship to them” instead of trying to keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons through coercive measures?
Happily, the misguided assumption at the core of this question has been answered before: “Let us recollect,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “that peace or war will not always be left to our options; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation or hope to extinguish the ambition of others.”
What, then, should the United States do in an uncertain and dangerous international environment? According to James Madison, “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”
These sentiments are not just the anachronistic or overly cynical views of our Founding Fathers. In conducting American foreign policy 200 years ago, they dealt with the same irrational and dangerous sentiments that plague our foreign policy thinking today.
There have always been isolationists, anti-war activists, and utopian idealist voices in American history. At the time of the American founding, they included some eloquent and respectable voices such as Patrick Henry (revolutionary firebrand and governor of Virginia), who thought that America was safe because of its distance from Europe and, therefore, did not need an army and navy. Civic groups formed throughout the American states based on these utopian ideas.
In December of 1815, the Reverend Noah Worcester founded the Massachusetts Peace Society, which counted among its members the Massachusetts governor and lieutenant governor, two judges, and Harvard’s president and faculty members. Worcester supported international arbitration of conflict and a “confederacy of nations” to prevent wars from occurring—ideas that would soon present challenges to American sovereignty in different ways.
In contrast to these utopian notions, that same year, responding to Barbary attacks on American commercial ships a world away, then-President Madison proclaimed: “The United States while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none, it being a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, so war is better than tribute.” Madison backed up this statement with a brief war against Algiers in 1815.
At the successful conclusion of that war, Madison directed that, because of continued Barbary intransigence, the U.S. Navy would maintain a permanent presence off the North African coast. Madison’s “settled policy” and permanent overseas military force followed George Washington’s timeless counsel to prudently preserve America’s independence and military strength so that we can always “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
The Founders approached foreign policy with a realistic assessment of human nature and the nature of international relations. To imprudently assume that, for example, 21st century Iran will give up its nuclear weapons program or ambitions for regional hegemony in the absence of U.S. efforts is to most definitely calculate on the “weaker springs of human character.” It is also to neglect the most important task of the federal government—“security against foreign danger.”
In these primary debates, let us hope to have serious discussions about prudently protecting our interests and principles abroad. Let us reject those who would attempt to reverse the philosophical foundations of American statecraft, so well laid by our Founding Fathers.