by John F. Di Leo
On September 3, 1783, a group of tired diplomats got together at the Hotel d’York, and signed the Treaty of Paris. It was a long time coming.
Rumblings of dissatisfaction began to be noticeable during the French and Indian War, growing to a fever pitch in the Stamp Act Congress, then a few years of calm, and then Revolution. From shots fired at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 through the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, the fighting had lasted – in one of those interesting coincidences of history – exactly six and a half years, but it still wasn’t really over… not until one army’s surrender translated into an empire’s capitulation in a hotel in Paris.
John Adams, Ben Franklin, and John Jay signed the document, after having been among America’s leading patriots for decades. They had long been looking forward to this day. David Hartley, a member of Parliament signing on behalf of the United Kingdom, was nowhere near as thrilled, as his signature arguably began the two-century-long process of carving up the magnificent and powerful British Empire.
All these years later, we can still learn so much from the founding era, and from the generation-long struggle for independence that they used to call The Glorious Cause.
Wars rarely end neatly.
Have you noticed that the modern American Left likes to whine that the government is mismanaging every war until it’s over, and then of mismanaging the peace from then on?
Attacked by Afghan-backed terrorists, the United States overthrew the evil Taliban-run government and has spent nearly a decade trying to help stabilize the Taliban’s replacement in the Afghan capitol. After a costly and seemingly endless decade-long no-fly zone and truce in Iraq, the United States finally finished the job and overthrew Saddam Hussein, and has now spent some eight years trying to help stabilize Iraq.
The American Left would have us believe that such a seemingly endless aftermath is unprecedented and unexpected, and therefore unforgivable.
But we stayed in Germany and Japan for over forty years after the end of World War II, because stabilization of their governments and our new role as bulwark against Soviet and Chinese Communism required it. Sixty years after the Korean War, our troops remain on their still deadly border, helping our friend South Korea retain its peaceful status despite having the hostile and militant North Korea so close at hand.
And it all began with our first war as a nation. It took us six and a half years of fighting to get the enemy army’s surrender, and another two years after that to sign a peace treaty. Even after the Treaty of Paris was signed, it was more than six more months before all the participating governments ratified it, and it took Jay’s Treaty a decade later – and perhaps another war too, depending on how you view the War of 1812 – to fully resolve all the issues of our independence from the British Crown.
Wars are rarely easy; the speedy in-and-out exercises such as our Reagan-era invasion of Grenada are by far the exception rather than the rule. Victory takes time, and sometimes, the real work is only just beginning when the treaty is signed…as our founders understood in the desperate 1780s, and as the USA is even now preparing to learn as we wind down the effort in Libya. We may well have deposed Libya’s tinpot dictator in a matter of months, but the cleanup there could easily take years or decades too.
As our security detail in Libya lasts and lasts, will the American Left hold President Obama to the same standard to which they held Republican Presidents? This one is a Democratic war; will the anti-war crowd be true to their alleged principles this time, or will they yet again employ the standard liberal approach of giving their own side of the aisle a pass on this and every other perceived “transgression,” as usual?
Wars cost money.
The American Left is always discovering things that everyone else already knew. Wars cost money. Lots of money. Unbelievable amounts of money. And they usually can’t understand why.
It’s a lot of things, really… The cost of war includes salaries for our troops, and for the logistical support back at home, and at supply points all along the way. The cost of war includes those supplies, all sorts of things from uniforms to bandages to food rations, and all the transport planes and jeeps and ships that carry troops from place to place.
But most of all, nowadays at least, the most amazing cost of war is our military equipment, from common bullets and grenades to torpedoes and missiles.
Modern armaments are wonderful – a single well-designed, optimally-loaded, and perfectly-aimed missile can do the work of hundreds or even thousands of soldiers. This can protect the lives of our servicemen, making the most of our technology in a manner that could shorten the war and make it less destructive to our economy as well.
But if we are too free and easy with the firing of those rockets – if we shoot a million-dollar rocket at a $100 tent, ten times a day, because our leaders have lost any semblance of fiscal judgment – then these weapons are no advantage, but a disadvantage, because our enemies can merely wait until we can no longer afford to restock.
When you fire a gun, the gun stays in your hand, and only the relatively inexpensive bullet is used up. When you shoot an arrow, the bow remains in your possession; only the arrow is lost. Not so with modern weapons. When every round costs millions, you can’t afford to waste a single one, and yet we do. The Libyan effort has seen millions and millions of dollars quite literally dissolved into thin air on a daily basis as we have fired these million dollar rockets at worthless shacks.
The cost of war has changed along with the technology, but the fact of wars being expensive is nothing new. The founding fathers spent the war years broke, virtually without a treasury of any kind. Soldiers were promised a salary and pension, but between our empty coffers and the worthlessness of our currency, these promises rang hollow. We won the war, but had no ability to raise money to pay these debts at the end.
The Constitutional Convention in the remarkable summer of 1787 was largely a reaction to this very problem. The patriots who had led the military throughout the war were ashamed by our inability to make good on our promises to the soldiers who won us the war. The Framers were committed to the goal of fixing our economy, so that we could indeed fulfill these obligations before too much more time had passed.
Our new problem today is that in the old days, we ratcheted up government spending in wartime, then had years of relative peace in which to pay down the resultant debt. The welfare state and the rest of the massive growth of the leviathan over the 20th century, however, have kept our debt on the increase, so that we can ill afford costly wars.
This is not to say we must avoid all wars just because we can’t afford them; in many cases, they cannot be avoided. As Machiavelli put it, often “there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to your enemy’s advantage.” So if we acknowledge that many wars are unavoidable, we must find a way to enjoy the economic prosperity that enables us to fund them without bankrupting ourselves. It can be done; it has been done, just not by the economically devastating methods of the modern American left.
Alliances aren’t forever.
For twenty years, observers have been singing the praises of President George H.W. Bush’s diplomatic skills in organizing a massive alliance in the first American war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iraq had invaded its tiny neighbor Kuwait, and, horrified by this violation of longstanding lines drawn by Western politicians forty years prior, President Bush hit the Rolodex and assembled a team.
The upside of that teaming was that such near-unanimity across the world community underscored the rightness of our position. But the downside of that massive alliance was that to keep it, Bush I believed that he must not exceed the jointly-agreed mandate of evicting Iraq from Kuwait. Instead of overthrowing Hussein when we had the chance, this honorable, well-intentioned commitment to our very limited goal forced us to leave Hussein in power, and to maintain a costly truce for a decade instead of finishing the job then. The 2003 war against Hussein was caused by our choices in 1991; had we gone it alone, we would have felt no such chains holding us back from a total and immediate resolution of the issue.
A timely review of the American founding era might have provided ample warning about the dangers of alliances.
We won our Revolution, in part, because it was a world war. This was not merely a rebellion by a territory against its master; we had the support of France for most of it, and some limited assistance from Spain, some Indian tribes, Holland, and others too at various points.
The most valuable alliance was the one with France. Already the sworn enemy of Great Britain for some seven hundred years, the French found nearly any opportunity to harass the British irresistible (and yes, the same goes for the reverse). From the beginning of the rebellion, the Continental Congress recognized that France could be a useful ally, and sent Benjamin Franklin to spend most of the war in France as our manager of that alliance. (We also periodically gave Franklin “help” in the form of other delegates and ambassadors to the Bourbon court, a form of help which was rather less than useful. It’s amazing Franklin didn’t lose his mind.)
In the wake of such terrific support from French volunteers like the Marquis de Lafayette, and the acknowledgement that some of our victories were indeed due to the French contribution (it was Comte de Grasse’s navy that blocked Cornwallis’ exit from Yorktown, forcing the final battle that led to his surrender), many Americans made the mistake of thinking that the French alliance was due to their respect for the Glorious Cause or for our philosophy of liberty and constitutional representative government. Wrong.
With the exception of Lafayette and some other principled volunteers, our Bourbon support was based on the time-worn theory “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Bourbon government’s support was based entirely on their own national interest, not on a permanent love for us. And that’s fine – that’s the way foreign policy works. A nation must act in its own interest, and its allies must keep that in mind, since a nation’s perceived interest may change over time.
The support from France came and went; their navy was at our disposal for a few crucial weeks leading up to the great moment at Yorktown, but both before and after it, de Grasse disregarded Washington’s requests for further support. His monarch had given him other duties: he spent his time in the Caribbean, in efforts to win profitable islands from the British.
As should have been expected, the French turned out to be the senior partner in the alliance; we needed them far more than they needed us. Their goal was to grab islands from England. Our goal was to gain our independence, a very different goal. When our interest differed from theirs, for a week, a month, or a year, they went their own way and dismissed our requests for more dependable longterm aid as unimportant.
This is not to say that we should not have retained the French alliance – we needed it; we would likely have lost our revolution without it. Just that we must remember always that alliances can be problematic. Alliances are not a permanent good in themselves; they are sometimes a necessity, but when they are not necessary – when we can win without them – we might be better off doing so.
Consider the perfect example: the lesson of Yalta. Our alliance with Communist Russia during WWII led us to abandon eastern Europe to Soviet tyranny for forty years, a tragic fruit borne of seeds sown in the desperate decision to forge an unhappy alliance three years earlier, on January 1, 1942.
When you’re weaker than your opponent, you must seek out strong allies, and pray that their disparate interests don’t overwhelm your own. When you’re strong enough to go it alone, you’re almost always better off doing so.
We have a foreign policy establishment that believes in alliances – that believes that only huge alliances confer a moral imprimatur on an endeavor.
On the contrary, the truth is almost the utter opposite. To engage in an alliance is to run a war by committee – the larger the alliance, the more tenuous a committee.
When you’re as strong as the United States now is, there is rarely any reason to engage in an alliance except with true friends, countries with whom we share our values, such as Canada and Israel. To call an authoritarian kleptocracy like Russia or a bigoted dictatorship like Saudi Arabia “allies” is to degrade the term to the point of uselessness.
If we decide a course of action is right, we should do it, without waiting for the mission and the plan to be diluted by dozens of other participants. And if someone else seeks our support in their worthy efforts, we should recognize our value as the stronger partner, and only join in if it can serve our purposes.
Our government’s obligation in foreign policy is not to support the national interests of one, ten, or a hundred other countries, or of the philosophical pronouncements of our state department employees’ old ivy league professors. Our obligation is to support the national interest of the United States of America.
The lessons of history
This nation was blessed by the confluence of many of the greatest leaders of all time – Washington, Hamilton, Madison, so many others – their rich legacy to us today includes not only the fact of our independence and the geography of our territories, but the lessons of their experiences as well.
Benjamin Franklin served in London and Paris for years, far from his beloved Pennsylvania, in anticipation of negotiating our treaty for independence at last. He and his fellow delegates, future president John Adams and future chief justice John Jay, struggled in the world of diplomacy as our army struggled in the battlefields, traveling from country to country seeking arms, ships, uniforms, and loans, often when the effort seemed impossible.
They knew these alliances were desperately needed to win independence, but they were under no illusion that these other countries, though richer and stronger, were “better” than ours. Our Founders knew what they had – a golden opportunity to distill the best of Western Civilization into a single majestic nation – all they needed was the opportunity to create it through gaining independence.
So they begged and wheedled and fawned for years, gaining loans and supplies and support, until they won us our independence. But they did not make the mistake of thinking that the assistance came with any future obligation. France helped because France wanted to make the UK suffer, not out of any great love for uncouth English-speaking settlers from a distant shore. Once we were all at peace, any obligation was ended. Contrary to General Pershing’s pithy declaration in 1917, we owe nothing to France.
John Adams was almost comical in his recognition of this fact (though it drove Franklin to distraction!), by being utterly incapable of faking that our alliance meant we viewed ourselves as equals and friends. Franklin the diplomat was an actor, able to outwardly appear respectful of the very anti-republican French system; Adams made it abundantly clear that the USA, while financially and militarily inferior (for the moment) was already a City on a Hill, outshining all those rotting old monarchies of Europe in vision, honor, and future potential.
Today and every day, we should continue to celebrate the Treaty of Paris, the successful prosecution of our Revolution, and the Founding Fathers who made it possible.
But on a larger scale, we should also learn the lessons so hard won at our foundation: That entangling alliances are only for necessity, not a good in themselves. That once begun, wars take on a life of their own, and the peace can be as difficult to manage as the war itself. And that our nation, founded to be greatest land of opportunity and liberty in history, provides potential that must be appreciated, nourished, and protected from all those who would undermine it, both our enemies abroad and those here at home, whether their infestation is on our editorial pages, or in union halls, or at college campuses… or even in judicial chambers, capitol buildings, and executive mansions.
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Customs broker and international trade lecturer. Though proud of his Irish, Italian, and German heritage, John is proudest of the ancestors he shares not by blood, but by his U.S. citizenship: the Founding Fathers of this greatest nation on God’s green earth.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the byline and IR URL are included. Follow me on LinkedIn or Facebook!