Perhaps if we offer shelter to the poor and honor the wishes of our founders, we could end our abject imperialism and restore a foreign policy worthy of a republic.
If so, no one person has articulated it well enough to create a consensus among those on the right. Indeed, conservative views range from extreme isolationist to full-out imperialist. And, yes, I very much realize that each of these terms is very difficult to define and is usually thrown around as a criticism rather than as a meaningful leavening agent for real discourse.
So, the question lingers, as much in 2017 as it did in 1946: Is there a conservative foreign policy?
Though it’s not widely remembered, Russell Kirk wrestled with the question repeatedly in the 1950s, especially in his Program for Conservatives (1954) and in his several issues of Modern Age (1957-1959). At one level, Kirk was a realist. He understood, for example, that the United States would not easily undo what it had created and introduced with the atomic bomb. The question for Kirk was not one of realism, but one of restraint. At another level, Kirk was an idealist. He believed entirely in the state of Israel, but he was not an absolute Zionist. At yet another level, Kirk had no problem being hawkish in terms of strongly defending our sovereignty, yet he despised the position that we might use our power to bully the world into adopting republicanism or democracy.
And, even less well known, Kirk had studied the history of military conquests extensively. Though self-taught on this subject, Kirk’s grasp of military matters would astound those who only remember him as a smug academic or an effete fiction writer. Throughout the 1930s, Kirk spent much time reading strategic and tactical decisions on the world scene from a historical lens. When World War II broke out in the fall of 1939, Kirk filled his letters with analyses of movements and consequences. Throughout the war, he tracked most battles and troop movements, analyzing them with precision and relative objectivity. He also had a strong grasp of logistics and materiel. He felt nothing for an army that moved quickly but could not maintain its lines of supply.
I can think of no more overall Kirkian statement in the here and now than that of Winston Elliott: “It’s one thing to bomb our enemy’s home. It’s a very different thing to move into the home and tell the master of the house how to live.”
To be fair, the question was equally important in 1776, 1787, and 1796. Then, however, one would have asked if there was such a thing as a “republican” foreign policy? The two visions—conservative and republican—are certainly related, and the one should inform the other. From Washington’s presidency through James Monroe’s, nothing tore apart the political fabric of the new republic more than what its foreign policy should be. To varying degrees, each president after Washington and prior to James K. Polk adopted some form of avoiding “entangling alliances.” As George Washington had said (and it is well worth quoting at length):
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Washington here is not only wise, but experienced. Though we in the twenty-first century might be tempted to dismiss Washington’s concerns as those of a very particular time—as he dealt with Revolutionary France—I think it more proper to recognize that he offered timeless advice here. Like Burke, he knew that the French Revolution was the beginning of endless ills in the world.
A second temptation on our part would be to state that new technologies have rendered our relative isolation a bygone concern. And, again, I would ask us to temper this. Logistically, it would still be highly unlikely for a foreign power to invade us with land troops. Not impossible, of course, but highly unlikely. Remember how long it took us—the most advanced country in the world with the strongest and largest navy—to transport troops for the massive invasion of Iraq twenty-five years ago? Little has changed to make that easier. The Canadians would never invade, and though the Mexicans could only launch skirmishes, well-armed Texans could defeat them fairly quickly.
It’s worth going back to Washington again on his ideas, as they are principled and not merely military-oriented.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them. Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies. Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.
Let me finish with two thoughts. First, Russell Kirk always noted that while Americans might have a mission in the world, they do not have a destiny. Our mission is to provide an example for the world and a refuge from that world. Indeed, his own little Mecosta served as a model for what America could be—a home for the lost and oppressed of the world. Kirk’s America was charitable, but not intrusive.
Second, we must go back to Reagan’s idea of a Strategic Defense Initiative. Unfortunately, much of the research started during the Reagan administration was stupidly destroyed by the Obama Administration. As the world becomes more nuclear, we continue to lose the advantage afforded to us by the two oceans. An actual shield is not just a viable idea, it is an idea that allows us—at least in part—to live under a Washingtonian foreign policy.
As of 2017, we Americans have experienced twenty-five years of nearly continuous war. We have a world that both envies us and hates us. Perhaps if we offer shelter to the poor and honor the wishes of our founders, we could end our abject imperialism and restore a foreign policy worthy of a republic.
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The featured image is a painting depicting Parson Weems and his famous story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree (1939), by Grant Wood. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.