The success of the American experiment in self-government is a result of its founding principles, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and secured by the United States Constitution. The universal and permanent truths of human equality and liberty are preserved in America by the rule of law, and are reflected in its institutions and cherished by its people.
So does that mean we have a special role to play in the world?
From the Founding, US foreign policy has been to defend the American constitutional system and the common interests of the American people by providing for the common defense, protecting freedom of commerce and seeking peaceful relations with other nations while maintaining independence so that American can govern itself according to its principles and pursue our national interests.
The Founders also were keenly aware of the universal significance of American principles and our unique responsibility for upholding and advancing those principles. As Thomas Paine wrote “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty and, therefore, the inherent right of self-government, were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere.
The Declaration of Independence states that all mankind is endowed with the same unalienable rights, and that to secure those rights “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The American Founders spoke of universal truths and created a powerful model of liberty for the whole world. They understood that America’s commitment to its principles—in both domestic and foreign policy—has profound consequences for the cause of liberty everywhere.
The American experiment was important partly because it was an example to oppressed people around the world. After touring the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835 that the “principal instrument” of American foreign policy is “freedom.” He meant that, in the United States, diplomacy is not just something the government does. When American citizens proclaim their faith in their principles and live them at home, they are helping to make their nation’s foreign policy, because their words and actions are a lesson for the world.
Throughout our history, American citizens have been inspired by our political, religious, and economic freedoms to act as ambassadors of liberty. As missionaries, merchants, and medics our citizen-diplomats have established schools, orphanages, and hospitals. They have translated literature, educated children, and inspired political reform in countries around the world that were oppressed and impoverished. The civic engagement of individual American citizens and their commitment to America’s founding principles are a vital part of the United States’ unique role in the world.
Yet as one nation in a world of nations, the United States has also had to practice diplomacy toward other governments. 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. Liberty has always been the defining principle of America—it is not merely a political preference.
America has a unique understanding of statecraft, because the United States’ foreign policy has always been accountable to the American people through their elected representatives. The monarchies and empires of Europe did not recognize the “unalienable rights” of human liberty. Their diplomacy served the interests of their rulers, and did not reflect the consent of the governed.
The Founders believed that America’s role in the world would be limited by constitutional government. It would also be inspired by a sense of justice. That was why George Washington recommended a foreign policy of independence and strength that would allow America to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
America is a defender of liberty at home. Abroad, the young U.S. maintained its independence and prudently pursued its interests, while standing for the idea of political freedom across the globe. The American people are not required to risk their blood and treasure in defense of the liberty of others, but the United States cannot have a foreign policy that fails to reflect the political truths that define it. America stands for the principles of liberty, independence, and self-government, and its interests are defined and shaped by those principles.
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. This means that the true consistency of American foreign policy is to be found not in its policies, which prudently change and adapt, but in its guiding principles, which are unchanging and permanent.
America’s independence and its commitment to civil and religious freedom made the United States a prosperous nation, and prosperity made us strong. And it is at this point that I feel we lost our way and need to reexamine our current path as conservatives and as a nation. While we should never shy away from identifying with liberty around the globe, there have been times when our government has pursued policies that supported despotism and conservatives cheered. We do violence to our founding principles when we imprudently follow lock-step with our government as if imperialism is an American principle.
Take a good hard look at the times the United States has propped up dictators because they were friendly to American interests. When American conservatives failed to point out that these were dictators, we erred. We were right to oppose communism, but we were wrong to prop up dictators instead. Chiang Kai-shek was a despot who tyrannized the Taiwanese. Was that better than communist rule? By supporting the puppet government of South Vietnam were we promoting liberty or simply allowing the Vietnamese to be tyrannized by a government of our choosing rather than of China’s choosing? The Shah of Iran wasn’t any better than Khomeini. Saddam Hussein was a bad man when we supported him and when we didn’t. There really was no good side in Nicaragua, including Violeta Chimorra.
By admitting those errors in judgement, the conservative movement can begin disentangling ourselves from the aggressive expansionist foreign policy of the Republican Party. I’m not suggesting we join the Libertarian Party and disarm our military to the point where Guatemalans in fruit baskets could overwhelm us, but let’s be clear about what liberty means and what supporting liberty looks like and return to doing that and refrain from doing the other. It’s not liberty because the United States government says it’s liberty. It’s liberty because it adheres to the founding principles of the Sons of Liberty.