The slogan “War breeds war. Peace breeds prosperity” has become a favorite idea of the anti-war faction on the right. Unlike their anti-war allies on the left, who favor protectionism, those like Congressman Ron Paul (R–TX) are rightly committed to economic freedom. Their mistake lies in thinking that commerce and security are separate issues. Nothing could be more at odds with the experience of American statecraft.
In 1789, the blessings of liberty secured by the Constitution began to manifest themselves (see chart) as imports (light blue) and exports (dark blue) grew by leaps and bounds. But American commerce was vulnerable to attacks by foreign powers. When American merchants or traders were attacked, the young United States defended its dearly held and vitally important principles of economic freedom against France (1798), Tripoli (1801), England (1812), and Algiers (1815). The attacks on American commerce leading up to each war and during the wars themselves had disastrous consequences for American prosperity, as trade plummeted.
At the time of the American founding, imperialism and mercantilism dominated the international economic system. The U.S., by virtue of its principles, rejected this statist European path to national prosperity. Rather than the government propping up business, many of the Founders expected that private enterprise and trade would be the key to America’s national prosperity.
Alexander Hamilton recognized international trade as the natural outlet for the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people:
That unequaled spirit of enterprise, which signalizes the genius of the American merchants and navigators, and which is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth, would be stifled and lost, and poverty and disgrace would overspread a country which, with wisdom, might make herself the admiration and envy of the world.
Indeed, the private economic activity of U.S. citizens quickly expanded the reach of American ideas and interests to the far corners of the world.
American farmers and manufacturers alike depended heavily on international commerce. Such enterprising activities, however, could yield fruit only if American citizens were able to travel and trade safely on the high seas.
Observing how quickly American trade had expanded, Hamilton noted that “the adventurous spirit, which distinguishes the commercial character of America, has already excited uneasy sensations in several of the maritime powers of Europe.” These “uneasy sensations” soon became tangible threats, as the British and French navies began harassing American commerce, along with Barbary corsairs from North Africa.
These actions by foreign powers violated U.S. sovereignty and endangered America’s path to prosperity—peaceful commerce. When the attacks began, John Adams, then a U.S. diplomat, noted frankly that it was “a good occasion to begin a navy.” The U.S. military had an important role to play in protecting the lives and liberties of Americans engaged in foreign trade.
Per President George Washington’s request, Congress funded the first war ships in 1794 to protect American commerce from the corsairs of the Barbary States (present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). The navy steadily grew in strength to further protect American trade.
Protecting trade is an enduring responsibility and a core element of U.S. national security. When foreign powers intimidate U.S. commerce and hold American prosperity for ransom, it is viewed as a fundamental threat. After four wars to protect American trade, James Madison made it quite clear in 1815 how the United States would respond to future coercion: “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.”
Today, economic freedom still depends on the strength of America’s national security institutions. The United States must seriously rethink its commitment to the Law of the Sea Treaty, which undermines American sovereignty by interfering with the operations of the U.S. Navy on the high seas and could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in lost revenue. The ability of the U.S. Navy to protect freedom of the seas today remains vitally important, as tensions in the South China Sea continue to rise.