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Foreign Policy and Foreign Wars

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When the Founding Fathers wrote and then defended the case for passage of the Constitution in 1787-1788, they did so with a strong belief in the natural rights of man, rights that Thomas Jefferson had so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But their idealism was tempered with stark realism, based on historical knowledge and personal experience, about both human nature and the nature of governments.

The separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers was considered essential if the human inclination toward political abuse of power was to be prevented. “No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty,” stated James Madison in The Federalist Papers, “than that … [t]he accumulation of all power, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Division of power and responsibilities, therefore, was seen as an essential — though neither a perfect nor guaranteed — tool to assure that the freedom and property of individuals would not become political plunder to be devoured by either majorities or minorities.

Issues concerning war and peace and individual liberty were of deep concern to the Founding Fathers for the same reason. When the matter came up at the convention as to which branch of government would have the authority to “make war,” disagreement arose. Pierce Butler of South Carolina wanted that power to reside in the President who, he said, “will have all the requisite qualities.” James Madison and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts were for “leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks” but proposed changing the wording to “declare” rather than “make war,” and then only with the approval of both Houses of Congress. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut agreed, saying that “It should be more easy to get out of war than into it.” And George Mason of Virginia also was “against giving the power of war to the Executive, because [he was] not safely to be trusted with it.” Mason “was for clogging rather than facilitating war.”

Thus, in the final, ratified Constitution, the Congress, in Article 1, Section 8, was given the sole authority, “To Declare War,” while the President, in Article 11, Section 2, was made “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States.” Civilian authority over the military was established, with Constitutionally divided power over its application in war: Congress declared war, and the President oversaw its execution.

The Founding Fathers possessed no misconceptions about the potentially aggressive nature of governments toward their neighbors. John Jay, in The Federalist Papers, insightfully enumerated the various motives, rationales and passions that had led nations down the road to war through the ages.

But neither did they have any illusions that Americans could be any less susceptible to similar motives and passions. The Constitution, through a division of powers, was meant to put procedural hurdles and delays in the way before the passions of the moment could result in declarations of war and the initiation of hostilities against other nations.

Yet, in spite of these Constitutional restraints, the United States has participated in four foreign wars in the 20th century — two World Wars, the Korean “police action” and the Vietnam conflict — and in three of these, the United States was neither directly attacked nor threatened by a foreign enemy. Why, then, did we intervene?

The answer lies in the ideology of the welfare state. First in the years preceding World War 1, and then again in the 1930s, American intellectuals and politicians undertook grand experiments in social engineering. The Progressive Era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the New Deal days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, were the crucial decades for the implementation of the politics of government intervention and economic regulation. It was the duty and responsibility of the state to manage, oversee and control the social and economic affairs of the citizenry.

The social engineers believed that people left alone to manage their own affairs invariably went astray, with the result being poverty, economic exploitation and social decay. Enlightened leadership, under wise government, would provide the population with the economic prosperity and social harmony that the governmental policy-makers knew, in their hearts, that they had the knowledge and expertise to provide. The good wanted state power so they could benefit their fellow men.

And what was good for Americans at home, surely would be no less beneficial for the masses of people across the oceans. Was not Europe a caldron of political intrigue and corruption? Were not the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America suffering in squalor and ignorance, the victims of tribal despots and imperialist exploiters — easy prey to that even greater threat of communist propaganda and revolution?

America’s first crusade was in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson, insisting that the United States had the moral duty to take the lead and “make the world safe for democracy,” asked for, and got, a declaration of war from Congress. Americans, however, were repulsed in the years following World War 1, when instead of democracy, they saw that all that came out of our participation in that noble crusade was communism in Russia, fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany and imperialist spoils for the victorious European allies.

But World War II seemed to offer the opportunity for a second chance. ‘the American “arsenal of democracy” would free the world of Hitler and Imperial Japan and then pursue an international course of permanent foreign intervention to create “a better world.” What the world got was the Cold War, with the Soviet Union gaining an Eastern European empire, and with China being lost behind what became known as the communist “Bamboo Curtain.”

America’s rewards were global commitments that required hundreds of thousands of American soldiers permanently stationed in Europe; two bloody wars in Asia that cost the lives of over a hundred thousand Americans; a huge defense budget that siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars from the private sector for four decades; and even more tens of billions of dollars in military and foreign aid to any government, in any part of the world, no matter how corrupt, just as long as it declared itself “anti-communist.” And as one of the founders of Human Events,Felix Morley, pointed out in his book, Freedom and Federalism, in the heyday of Keynesian economics in the 1950s and 1960s, defense spending became a tool for “priming the pump” and guaranteeing “full employment’ through government expenditures.

But communism is now dying under the weight of its own political corruption and economic failures. And the European and Asian countries that benefited from decades of being on the American defense and foreign aid dole have decided they want to grow up and manage their own affairs.

But rather than be delighted that the Cold War Welfare State can finally be ended, American political and foreign policy makers are petrified. The global social engineers in Washington are suddenly faced with a world that doesn’t want to be under the tutelage of American paternalism and dominance. They are busy scrambling for some way to “keep America in Europe,” maintain Washington’s political control and influence over international affairs and guarantee that America will remain “in harm’s way,” potentially drawn into numerous controversies and conflicts around the world.

If it is undesirable for the United States government to intervene in the economic and social affairs of its citizenry — as the advocate of individual freedom steadfastly believes — then it is equally undesirable for the United States government to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, or the conflicts that sometimes arise among nations.

The first duty of the American government is to protect the life, liberty and property of the citizens of the United States from foreign aggressors. Once a government sets itself the task of trying to rectify the errors and choices of its own citizens, it soon begins sliding down a slippery slope in which the end result is state supervision and regulation of all of its citizens’ activities, and all in the name of a higher “social good.”

Just as our neighbors often do things of which we do not approve, or which we do not consider good or wise, so do other nations. But to follow the path of attempting to set the world straight can lead to nothing but perpetual intervention and war in the name of world peace and global welfare. And these have been precisely the results of America’s global crusade to save the world since 1945.

The end of communism, and the economic growth of Europe and Asia, give us a new opportunity to foreswear the Global Welfare State, free ourselves from foreign political and military entanglements, and follow George Washington’s wise advice of free commercial relationships with all, but foreign alliances and intrigues with none.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).