The First Principles Take on the Debate

Last night Americans enjoyed a rare opportunity. The presidential campaign actually focused on an area that’s truly the responsibility of thecommander in chief: foreign policy. But as the men who would be president sparred over individual issues ranging from China’s trade policy to the war in Afghanistan, they were missing a larger, more important point.

The true consistency of American foreign policy is found not necessarily in its policies, which prudently adapt to changing circumstances, but inits guiding principles, which are unchanging and permanent.

The country would be better served if the candidates would sign on to certain governing principles, and then rely on these principles to guide their actions. As Professor Charles R. Kesler put it after the second debate, “The questioners kept asking for more details, but don’t they see it’s not the details but the principles of the myriad new laws and programs on offer that they seek? They could never hope to grasp all the details, and shouldn’t want to.”

So what principles guide America’s foreign policy?

America’s Role in the World. 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 does not mean that the United States has a duty to topple all tyrannical regimes and establish republican governments the world over. That said, the United States may determine that in certain cases it is necessary to fight the monsters of despotism in order to protect its interests, defend freedom, and preserve peace.

Liberty is America’s cause. At the heart of America’s exceptionalism is the universal principle that all are free by nature because each person possesses inherent rights. In a world that mostly does not hold these truths, the United States should encourage the recognition of individual rights and the institutions of constitutional government to protect those rights. As George Washington explained in 1789, “It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn.”

National Independence matters. Independence means that it is always in our interest to prevent the United States from becoming subservient to the interests of another nation.  The most important goal of American foreign policy is to defend the independence of the United States, so that America can govern itself according to its principles and pursue its national interests.

Conviction matters. The way to prevail in the ideological challenges against us—from radical Islamic terrorism to resurgent transnationalism and other anti-American forces—is to actively defend and promote America’s principles and the spread of economic and political freedom around the world. Public diplomacy plays an especially important role in this principle.

Advance freedom on all fronts. Especially economic freedom. Free trade policiescreate economic dynamism, which engenders continual innovation and leads to better products, new markets, greater investment–and more jobs. Countries that have the lowest trade barriers also have the strongest economies, the lowest poverty rates, and the highest average levels of per-capita income.

These principles ought to—but haven’t—guided our actions.

In recent years, we’ve been reminded that, without American leadership, the world is a more dangerous place—for Americans and for freedom. Transnational terrorism, rampant anti-Americanism, unaccountable international institutions, nuclear proliferation, and regional conflict all represent threats to our security, our liberties, and our prosperity. The ability of rogue nations and hostile non-state actors to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States creates a new and compelling reason for America to defending itself actively. A weak America, at home or abroad, endangers not only the peaceful and productive future of this country, but also that of its friends and allies.

The lesson of these last four years is that the United States must have the will and the means to stay involved in the world. Not only to protect the nation and its citizens from freedom’s adversaries, but also to defend its principles, policies, and vital interests wherever they may be threatened. By providing for the common defense, protecting the freedom of American commerce, and seeking peaceful relations with other nations,  America can continue its international leadership and advance the ideas of political, economic, and religious freedom.

The friends of freedom everywhere have always looked to America and drawn great inspiration from its ideas, example, and actions. This must remain true in the next administration—and far beyond.



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