Dr. Ted Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation.
As we approach the opening of a new Congress, every incoming representative should understand, and be able to articulate, our fundamental foreign policy priorities, because it is these priorities that should drive the debate on defense, and much more. For foreign policy is not just about what the U.S. does with foreigners. It shapes our security as individuals, affects our well-being as consumers, and defines our future as self-governing citizens. Americans may not always care about foreign policy, but foreign policy cares about them.
The first duty of American foreign policy is to ensure the United States remains a sovereign and independent nation. Nothing was closer to the hearts of the Founding Fathers, and nothing should matter more to us. Sovereignty is a complicated word for a simple idea: it means that we make our own laws, define our own policies, and shape our own future. It means that here, the people rule. It would be a serious mistake to believe that American sovereignty will endure forever simply because it was established in 1776. America’s sovereignty will last just as long as we care for it, and no longer.
Those values shape the second duty of American foreign policy: to recognize that we are, and do its part to ensure that we remain, an exceptional nation. Indeed, the U.S. is exceptional precisely because of its founding values. American exceptionalism does not, simply, mean that the U.S. is different: no nation is exactly the same as any other. American exceptionalism means that the U.S. is the only nation that was founded on -- the only nation with a government shaped – the universal values of the Declaration of Independence, as protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Founders believed these rights were inherent, and endowed by the Creator, in all humankind.
This is an exceptionalism that should be respected by liberals and conservatives alike, because it is the exceptionalism of liberty. The United States cannot have a foreign policy that fails to reflect these defining truths, for the simple reason that such a policy would not be in accord with the deepest beliefs of the American people. In his Farewell Address, Washington looked forward to the day when the United States could “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Values are not new to American foreign policy. Washington could not envisage a foreign policy without them. Neither should we.
America’s principles are what have made it a superpower. If we did not have a limited government, with God-given and respected rights – including the freedom to own property -- the United States would never have become a prosperous democracy. Our prosperity flows from our liberties, and our prosperity has made us strong. But history tells us – as it did at Pearl Harbor, and on 9/11 – that we cannot remain prosperous and free without using that strength to support friends and allies around the world. Their battle is our battle, and when we forget that, we endanger the security and prosperity of the American people. It is because of our principles, not in spite of them, that we now have interests around the world. The third and last duty of American foreign policy, therefore, is to defend ourselves, our interests and our values, by leading those who wish us well, by opposing those who wish us harm, and by at all times being guided in policy by remembering our unique place as a self-governing nation.
Defense spending comes after all of this. We spend on defense not simply to procure defense. We spend on defense because it is a primary and central duty of the Federal Government to protect our sovereignty, our freedoms, and our interests. Every incoming representative has a serious responsibility to restore fiscal sanity to a broken system. But every incoming representative has an even more serious duty: to fulfill the intention of the Founders that the government -- under the Constitution -- provide the means for the common defense. For the Founders, defense was inseparable from the security of America’s freedoms. So it is today.