Debating America’s Role in the World

Marion Smith /

Tonight, the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination gather in Washington, D.C., at the CNN/Heritage/AEI debate on U.S. foreign policy. It’s about time!

Currently, there is little logic to America’s international priorities and actions abroad. U.S. troops are leaving Iraq, entering Uganda, and toppling foreign leaders while “leading from behind.” Looming budget cuts risk current operations and preclude much-needed military modernization. Fundamentally, there is no consensus about America’s proper role in the world. What America needs—especially from its presidential candidates—is a prudent approach to foreign policy that applies America’s founding principles to today’s international relations.

Despite bitter disagreements over particular foreign policies, the Founders agreed on the broad guiding principles of American grand strategy: maintaining independence abroad so that America could not be coerced by other powers, securing national interests such as commercial navigation and advantageous treaties, and promoting the cause of liberty, which informed America’s understanding of justice abroad. A better understanding of these principles would enable America to meet the challenges of today.

1. Maintaining Independence

The Founders understood that safeguarding American independence required military preparedness. As Alexander Hamilton noted, “A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.” Thanks to George Washington’s leadership, the U.S. has had a standing Army and a Navy since his Administration.

In times of peace and prosperity alike, America needed a military strong enough to inspire respect abroad. Despite intense congressional debates, severe miscalculations about foreign risks, and a few explicitly anti-war and isolationist Congressmen, military spending for the common defense was the clear priority at the federal level. From 1792 to 1860, defense spending averaged 48.1 percent of the federal budget and never fell below 23 percent—even in the most peaceful times.

Today, maintaining U.S. independence requires a strong national defense and vigilance against hostile regimes, such as an increasingly belligerent Iran. We must also not subject our foreign policy decisions to unworkable and counterproductive international institutions, such as the UN’s Human Rights Council or the International Criminal Court. Finally, fiscal responsibility at home prevents the limitless welfare state from subverting the government’s ability to provide for the common defense.

2. Securing National Interests:

America’s national interests have been primarily commercial. The United States government should use diplomacy to promote commerce and military force to protect the Americans engaged in commerce abroad. Such enterprising activities relied on the freedom of the seas (the right for neutral ships to engage in maritime commerce and navigation unmolested by warring parties). When American merchants or traders were attacked, the young United States defended its principles and people—against France (1798), Tripoli (1801), England (1812), and Algiers (1815).

Today, America’s interests still rely on free trade and freedom of the seas. Therefore, we should be wary of commitments, such as the Law of the Sea Treaty, that interfere with the operations of the U.S. Navy on the high seas and harm our economic interest.

3. Promoting the Cause of Liberty

America’s ingenuity for commerce not only made the nation prosperous but also expanded the reach of American ideas and interests to the far corners of the world. When other nations began adopting the American form of government to secure their own peoples’ liberty, as the Founders had hoped, the United States supported them: America was the first nation to recognize the new Latin American republics in the early 1800s, U.S. diplomats worked with U.S. citizens to support the Greeks revolting against the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and the U.S. Navy rescued refugees of Hungary’s failed 1848 revolution against the Austrian Empire.

Today, America’s national interest, properly understood, still involves the fate of freedom everywhere. The Founders’ principled, prudent support for liberty abroad offers a useful model for thinking about how America should support liberty today. For instance, “standing for liberty” means clarifying that those countries that embrace the same political principles, such as Taiwan and Israel, are friends of America.

Instead of pursuing reactionary policies devoid of strategic thinking, the United States should better prioritize the use of American blood and treasure. The American President should reassert a truer constitutional understanding of our national security and see the big-picture view of America’s role in the world. In tonight’s debate, then, we’ll be watching for candidates who not only understand the specific challenges of today but can also articulate a grand strategy grounded in America’s enduring principles. Won’t you join us?