With the nuclear New START Treaty causing waves in Congress, President Obama’s recent overseas trips drawing criticism from both supporters and opponents, and the upcoming NATO heads-of-state summit in Lisbon this month, a fundamental question arises: What is America’s role in the world?

In the newest installment in the Understanding America series, Marion Smith looks to the words and intent of the Founders themselves in order to understand their view of American foreign policy.  Liberty, he argues, is the defining principle of American policy, both domestic and foreign.  As an unalienable right, it must be fostered, advanced, and protected at home and abroad.  After all, the Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men – not just all Americans – are created equal; they therefore are equal in their right to liberty.  This unambiguously illustrates the responsibility of American foreign policy: “The Founders understood that America’s principles must be reflected in its relations with other nations.  For them, diplomacy was not merely a means of negotiating America’s interests.  It was also a tool for advancing liberty.”

America was not intended to be a disinterested island, or a meddling neighbor. Our past foreign policy actions cannot be simplistically termed either “isolationist” or “interventionist”, for the Founders intended each foreign policy decision to be a prudential result of measuring both the situation at hand and the enduring principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  This is a challenging balance to strike, but it must be upheld – as it is the very essence of statecraft.

Indeed, “America does have a special role in the world—one that is morally and philosophically grounded in the principles of human liberty, and in its sense of justice.”  Those in authority must remember this as they represent America – from Washington, D.C. to Lisbon.