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The Case for an America First Foreign Policy

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(Excerpted from The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars, published by The Future of Freedom Foundation in 1996)

For most of our history, America First was the foreign policy of the United States. The record is laid out by the great historian Charles A. Beard in A Foreign Policy for America, published in 1940. In our dealings overseas, we followed the guidelines laid down by George Washington in his Farewell Address to the American people:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is — in extending our commercial relations — to have with them as little political connection as possible.

Significantly, it is these lines that Richard Cobden — the greatest libertarian theorist of international relations — placed as the motto of his first published work.

George Washington’s outlook thus involved three main principles. First, we would engage in mutually beneficial, peaceful commerce with the rest of the world, but “forcing nothing,” as Washington made a point of adding. Second, while trading with them, we would avoid entanglements in their political affairs and their quarrels with other nations. Finally, we would always remain strong enough to defend ourselves from attack.

That this system was endorsed by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other Founders as well was no accident. America First was the natural counterpart to the form of government — the Republic — which they had instituted. The monarchies of the Old World were massive war machines, exploiting the people to fund their never-ending conflicts and the military and civilian bureaucracies those conflicts necessitated. Those nations were dedicated to pomp and glory and the power of the state. America would be different — Novus Ordo Seclorum, “The New Order of the Ages,” as it still states on the back of dollar bills. Here the rights of the people were to be all-important. Government power was strictly limited and mainly exercise by the localities and the states (hence, the Tenth Amendment). Low taxes and the anticipated liquidation of the public debt would ensure that the citizens would not be systematically plundered, as was the way in Europe.

But, in order to forestall high taxes, debt, and the centralization of power, we had to steer clear of war. That is why the advice of the Founders was: if you want to preserve the system we have established, keep out of wars except when required to defend the United States, and avoid political entanglements overseas, since these are likely to lead us into war.

Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, however, a great transformation took place in the official American attitude towards the rest of the world. The political elite of the country was won over to a policy of “global responsibility” — which meant, more and more, intrusion into other nations’ affairs, backed up by the growing American military strength.

The landmarks along this road are the Spanish-American War and the conquest of the Philippines under William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt’s noisy promotion of the United States as a world power; and — most fateful of all — Woodrow Wilson’s embroiling us in the First World War.

Advocates of globalism prefer to ignore the disastrous outcome of our intervention in the First World War. Instead, the case they constantly hold up to us is World War II and the “lessons” supposedly taught by this “last good war.”

The era of the Second World War has been so mythologized by propagandists that it is easy to lose sight of some fundamental truths. The fact is that, regardless of how evil Hitler and the Japanese leaders were, the people of the United States were manipulated and maneuvered into a war which the great majority of them did not want.

By now the Constitution has become a dead letter on the question of war and peace. What the Founding Fathers feared — that the president would be able, on his own, to ensnare us into war — had become a reality. A particularly saddening aspect of this is the eagerness of so-called conservatives to rush to vindicate the president’s alleged right to start wars. Barry Goldwater spoke up for it at the time of the Vietnam War; Judge Bork has gone on record to the same effect; and recently Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, a Republican “expert” on foreign affairs, has stated that, while he advised against sending troops to Haiti, there was no doubt that the president had the authority to send American forces anywhere in the world — including into battle — at any time he wished.

Conservatives often speak of restoring the Constitution. A test of their honestly will be how hard they fight to restore to Congress the sole authority to engage America in war.

The Cold War created an Imperial Presidency. During those decades, by simple presidential decree, the United States waged full-scale war, lasting for years; overthrew foreign governments; arranged political assassinations; trained and equipped terrorists for action on foreign soil; mined the harbors of countries with which we were at peace; and performed innumerable other acts of war.

A globalist policy leads, as William Graham Sumner warned a century ago, to an abandonment of our traditional republican form of government. It perverts our constitutional system, concentrating power in the presidency, rather than Congress, and in Washington, instead of the states and localities.

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    Ralph Raico is originally from New York City. He received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago. He attended the Ludwig von Mises's Seminar at NYU and translated Mises's Liberalism. He is the Editor of the New Individualist Review and a Senior Editor of Inquiry Magazine. Among Ralph Raico’s recent publications are the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of John T. Flynn’s "The Roosevelt Myth" and the essay on World War I in the second, paperback edition of "The Costs of War", edited by John V. Denson, both available from Laissez Faire Books. He is also a contributor to "The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars", published by The Future of Freedom Foundation. Professor Raico is professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.