By John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on isolationism and foreign policy, on Decoration Day...
When the field is crowded, candidates find a way to differentiate themselves. No surprise there.
One way that some candidates have chosen in recent years is to set themselves apart from the “war hawks” of the other party, or even of their own party, by preaching isolationism, and by declaring that isolationism is the true heritage of our Founding Fathers.
They will quote Presidents Washington and Jefferson, who warned, on occasion, of the need to “avoid entangling alliances” like those of the Old World. And they will imply that isolationism – and avoiding military action at all costs – is and must be what the Founders meant by their warnings.
But did they?
To say that we must limit our military action to American interests – and not meddle when American interests are not threatened – is indeed a wise standard, in most cases. But what exactly are American interests? And are they as easy to determine as some would pretend?
Our First War
The War of Independence was known in the Founding era as The Glorious Cause. Our original colonies were under attack by a King who disregarded the limitations the Magna Carta had placed on his office, and by a puppet majority in Parliament all too willing to go along with his tyranny.
Before we took up arms against him, King George III had taken such measures as shutting down our colonial legislatures, restricting our manufactures, limiting the countries with which we could trade – until eventually he only allowed international trade if it flowed through London – finally closing off our ports, even putting cities under martial law (Boston was under martial law for eight years!).
There’s no question that, under such circumstances, going to war was justified. But did our Founders think those were the only reasons to go to war?
The French Revolution
In the 1790s, the French revolutionary governments sent an ambassador to the United States – Citizen Genet – a diplomat who had been thrown out of his prior posting to Russia because Catherine the Great declared him the most irresponsible diplomat she had ever seen, informing his government that his further presence in Russia would be “not only superfluous but intolerable.”
Once in America, he began to recruit American citizens and encourage shipowners, in an effort to hit the high seas as privateers, to assault the English navy, assisting Revolutionary France in their war against the English… in direct contradiction to the traditional rules limiting an ambassador’s activities, and in violation of President Washington’s neutrality proclamation.
By the Adams administration, the French were capturing American merchant ships at sea or in foreign ports, and impressing Americans into service in their navy. We had to respond with what came to be known as the Quasi-War: outfitting a navy, beginning to rebuild an army… it was only the change of heart of France’s new government that enabled us to peacefully end that conflict.
We hadn’t been physically attacked on our shores, and we were likely not in jeopardy of it happening… but the French were trying to pull us, unwillingly, into another war that didn’t concern us, and for that reason, we had to be willing to go to war with France.
Today’s isolationists would say, “We haven’t been invaded; you warmongers be quiet!” And what if our merchant ships get boarded and repainted with French colors, our cargo stolen, and our sailors impressed into service in that foreign war? It’s just the risk you run in that business; the isolationists might say. To avoid the risk, don’t go to sea. Stay home, safe within the borders of our little country, shutting ourselves off from the world until that foreign war is over.
The Barbary Wars
When we were part of the British Empire, our merchant ships could safely travel to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, because we flew the flag of Great Britain, the nation with the greatest navy on earth… until England started to restrain our trade and we had to rebel against them, anyway. Outside of the traditional risk of the occasional pirate, our merchants could safely travel on the high seas, with England’s protection.
After our War of Independence, as allies with France, which also had a decent navy, we expected to have some protection from their navy, as an ally, but their own revolution put an end to that. Nowhere was this a greater problem than in the Mediterranean, where the muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast viewed the entire Mediterranean as their private lake.
Lacking a respected navy of our own, and lacking helpful sponsorship from an ally, our merchant vessels were under constant threat in the Mediterranean by these North African pirates, who demanded tribute as a toll just to get through the Straits of Gibraltar… although, to tell the truth, they often didn’t even leave you alone, even then.
President Jefferson continued to build on the navy that President Adams had begun, and finally sent them out to deal with the problem. Our first two real wars after independence were therefore these distant naval actions, necessary to protect our merchants from assault by foreign state-sanctioned theft and robbery.
What would today’s isolationists say? The North African pirates never set foot on US soil; just avoid their part of the world. Or you shipowners, arm your own ships so you can defend yourselves. Or you merchants, find other customers to trade with, and stay out of the dangerous Mediterranean.
Just run from the problem with your tail between your legs. If they haven’t attacked our own land, there’s no reason for war… or so we’re told.
Through the ages
And so it has gone through the ages, as our nation has grown, and our influence has spread across the world. We had to go to war with England again in the War of 1812, because the English were now impressing our sailors into service on their ships, as the French had been doing in the 1790s. In the 20th century, we fought war after war against totalitarian communism – never attacked on our own soil between the Pearl Harbor bombings and the World Trade Center attacks, but we fought as a full leader of the alliance in World War II, and we defended South Korea from the communist North, and then South Vietnam from their own communist North. Even little Grenada was saved from communism by our invasion.
South Korea and South Vietnam were not our land… Grenada was close, but still, not our land either. But we had land there, land and businesses and employees of US-owned interests. And those interests need and deserve the protection of the US government too.
As the world has grown smaller, economically – as we have entered into a truly global economy – the old idea of drawing a line on the ground and imagining that your interests end there is, frankly, archaic, to say the least.
Just as Americans owned the ships and cargo traveling through the Caribbean or the Mediterranean in the early 1800s, Americans today own factories, stores and hotels in countries all over the world. The 20th century saw tyrannical governments – Nazi, Fascist, Leninist, Maoist (all the same at heart, just Statists in different colored uniforms) – whose goal was to nationalize and confiscate the businesses and the real estate of foreign and domestic capitalists.
While we might not have had a direct responsibility to their domestic capitalists, we certainly have a direct responsibility to our own people. When our college students were threatened on Grenada, when our missionaries and trade offices were attacked throughout the third world by Maoist and Leninist surrogates from China, Cuba or Russia… when our conglomerates’ factories are nationalized abroad after having been legally established by their host countries’ prior governments… yes, we do have an obligation to step in.
The isolationist complain that we had no interest in Iraq, or Kuwait, or Afghanistan, that our wars in that region have made things worse by meddling without moral right to intervene.
But they are wrong. Whether we fought these wars the right way or not – whether our strategy and tactics turned out to have been the best approach for the circumstances – is another matter, and is certainly worthy of debate and study, to guide future decisions. But the basic question of whether we had a right to intervene is beyond question. Of COURSE we did.
Our nation’s businesses have land in those countries. We own factories there, we have expatriate Americans living there (not as people who’ve abandoned us, but are there on temporary assignment for their employers). Our oil companies own rigs and refineries there. Our construction companies are constantly fulfilling building contracts there. We are everywhere, doing good for the world by our very presence.
International law now encompasses far more interaction between nations than ever before, and violations of the rights of businesses and travelers abroad must be recognized as acts of war, just as much as a physical attack on our own shores would be.
The Modern Economy
American conglomerates own factories in almost every country on earth. Even where we don’t own factories, we own sales offices or we have remote sales reps and buyers there. Our churches operate schools and colleges and orphanages. Our restaurant chains operate distribution centers and stand-alone retail stores all over the world. Their presence brings value to both the local economy of the host country and to their headquarters back home. They deserve the protection of their host government, and when that protection is withheld or insufficient, or when the government falls to terrorists or other revolutionaries who feel no responsibility to honor the prior government’s obligations, that distant situation is indeed a vital national interest of these United States.
Even if you don’t personally work for one of the companies that has these far-flung foreign facilities, even if you have not personally been stationed there, it is almost a certainty that they involve you in some way. As American construction firms like Halliburton and Bechtel build multimillion dollar structures all over the third world, they buy the construction materials, the pumps and pipes and prefab and instrumentation and paint, that you and your family members manufactured here in the USA. You may not think you’re part of the international economy, but you are.
And if you have a pension, or own stocks or bonds through an IRA or 401K or other investment types, what kind of companies do you think your money is bound up in? Your own wealth, and your own ability to retire someday, are dependent on the strength of these multinational corporations and the myriad vendors that support them. Oh yes, American businesses abroad, and our customers and vendors and contractors abroad as well, are all a vital national interest of these United States.
Our nation has embassies, consulates, military bases, and other government offices all over the world. Offices to support and help protect our expats abroad, offices to encourage trade, offices to help legal immigrants navigate the maze of immigration law to squeeze in legally despite the flood of illegals. We have government offices all over the globe, and these offices must all be protected, for if one is attacked without response, then all the others are in jeopardy as well. The greatest danger caused by the Benghazi disaster, in fact, was not the four Americans tragically lost in the attack, but the resultant endangerment of all our other government facilities throughout the world. Villains watch, to see what others have gotten away with. Villains take notes. Villains look for soft targets, and wait for their own chance.
And there are tourists. Americans travel all over the world. Unless our state department has issued warnings against a country – which it has for some, and then you do indeed travel at your own risk – Americans abroad expect to be treated with the respect due a citizen of the world’s superpower. From travel offices to international freight and passenger carriers, from port and airport offices to hotels and warehouses, the flow of Americans and American interests between countries is constant and unfathomable in its scope.
And it is reciprocal. Just as we have far-flung facilities all over the world, so do foreign conglomerates have facilities here. We don’t think anything of it anymore, but we travel through our industrial parks in Chicagoland, greater L.A. and greater DFW, and what do we see? Japanese names, Scandinavian names, British and Chinese and Australian names, employing some of their own expats, and employing many more Americans too. Just as we offer them the full protection of U.S. law while they’re here, we expect their countries to offer our people and property abroad the full protection of their respective legal systems, and the protection of their police as well.
The Vital National Interest of the United States
None of this is to say that we should go looking for war, or that we shouldn’t see every single act of violence or disrespect as grounds for an invasion. We are not warmongers; we are a peaceful capitalist nation, seeking to better the world through trade, in adherence to the great economic principle so eloquently stated by our nation’s last decent Democrat president, John F. Kennedy: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
But just as we do not seek out war, we must also not shrink from it. We must portray an image of strength at all times. Sailing the fleet around the world, as in the days of President Theodore Roosevelt, enables us to “walk softly but carry a big stick”… to project power without overusing it. If we only use it once in ten times, that’s enough, if that use is righteous and successful.
The way our world is now constituted, we do have a national interest – to the level of thousands of Americans and billions of dollars of American property – in almost every country on earth.
Maybe we should have thought about that as we allowed it to happen; maybe we should have developed our military in a focus more to protect them than just to fight old-fashioned wars. Maybe we should have restrained the destructive growth of the welfare state over these past fifty years, a welfare state that impoverishes our own citizens while robbing critical resources from our ability to protect our interests abroad. But we didn’t.
Instead, we have allowed our commercial spread worldwide to occur while half of our political class forgot its obligations. That half of our political class has focused more on locking as many people into domestic dependence as possible, in the voting plantations of the inner cities and other welfare ghettos. They’re happy to collect crippling business taxes – a 38% effective income tax rate alone, the highest in the industrialized world – from all these conglomerates, but they’ll never provide the protection that these business need overseas to ensure a safe environment for their plants and their employees.
Wherever an American goes in the world, wherever we ship or store our products, wherever our businesses or churches or nonprofits have a physical location, the United States does indeed have a vital interest. That doesn’t mean that every attack should win a military response… it means that everyone considering an attack should fear a military response. That fear in our enemy’s mind makes all the difference.
Our Founders’ Warning
Now perhaps, having reviewed the issue in context, we will see what our Founding Fathers meant, when they advised us to avoid the entanglements of foreign alliances.
Our Founders were military men, philosophers, lawyers, and merchants. They understood the world, and they did not shrink from what was necessary. They wanted our nation to grow and prosper as part of a world economy, and when our economic interests were threatened, they were quick to go to war if needed. If the only way to protect our merchants, our cargo, our property, and our citizens was to go to war, even if halfway around the world, our Founders were for it. We didn’t even have a real navy, but we built one, to fight the Barbary pirates.
We see now that their warning against foreign entanglements was not a call for isolationism at all. It was a warning against unnecessary wars, against being unwillingly drawn into a war that did NOT serve to protect our own interests.
Our Founders warned against a mutual defense contract with some partner abroad that we didn’t truly need. They warned us against a silly permanent rivalry like the one between Britain and France, one that spurred a fresh war every generation for no good reason, just to refight the Norman Conquest again and again and again, after seven hundred years.
Our Founders wanted us to protect American interests, so that we might someday be both a world power and an economic engine for prosperity. Their goal was to make the United States of America a shining City on a Hill, a format to be copied across the globe, the quintessential role model for every other nation on earth to emulate.
Now, that’s what I call a vital American interest.
Copyright 2015 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. An amateur actor and recovering politician, his columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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