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Leadership for America

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Foreign Policy

Because of its dedication to the universal truths of equality and liberty, America has a special role to play in the world: this country has a responsibility to uphold the cause of freedom abroad. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on foreign policy. When you're ready for more, explore foreign policy in greater depth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most important goal of American foreign policy?

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. The U.S. is therefore committed to providing for its common defense, protecting the freedom of its commerce, and seeking peaceful relations with other nations.

At the same time, American foreign policy has a set of long-term goals, or a grand strategy, that have traditionally guided its foreign policy thinking. This grand strategy is shaped by the universal significance of America's founding principles, and the country's unique responsibility to uphold and advance these principles. The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty, and, therefore, the inherent right of self-government, were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere. For over 200 years, through regular diplomacy in times of peace and firm resolve in times of war, the United States has steadily, though at times imperfectly, enhanced the respect for the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice around the world.

For more on the principles of American foreign policy, see Matthew Spalding's First Principles essay " America's Founders and the Principles of Foreign Policy: Sovereign Independence, National Interest, and the Cause of Liberty in the World."

What is America's role in the world? Does America have a duty to spread democracy around the world?

America has a special role in the world—one that is grounded in the universal nature of its founding principles. Because America is dedicated to the proposition that all men—not just all Americans—are created equal, it must adopt a foreign policy that reflects the political truths that define it. America's role in the world is therefore to stand for the principles of liberty, independence, and self-government, and its interests are defined and shaped by those principles.

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. Foreign policy is always a question of prudence.

For more on the subject, see Marion Smith's Understanding America booklet "What Is America's Role in the World?"

Is the United States military responsible to intervene in conflicts where innocent civilians are being killed?

America does not have a formal duty to protect the rights of all mankind since no citizen is required to risk his life for the security or well-being of people in a faraway land. America, like all other countries, has a duty not to infringe upon the rights of others. But the government's duty to secure rights only extends to its citizens—not the whole world.

Given the universal significance of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, America must, however, stand up for those whose natural rights are violated around the world and assist them when possible. This is principled American diplomacy.

For more on the subject, see Marion Smith's Understanding America booklet "What Is America's Role in the World?"

Who makes foreign policy?

The Constitution vests the power to make foreign policy in the federal government, specifically in the President and the Senate. The President takes the lead in crafting American foreign policy as the nation's chief diplomat with the constitutional power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors. This authority, however, is checked by the Senate's power of "Advice and Consent": Not only does the Senate need to approve any presidential appointments or treaty agreements, but it can also amend those treaties. While the House of Representatives is given no official role in directing foreign policy beyond declaring war, it can through the power of the purse express public sentiments about the actions of the President and Senate. With this division of power the Founding Fathers found a way to permit the effective and energetic conduct of foreign relations while imposing a system of accountability.

For more on the subject, see Baker Spring's Understanding America booklet "Who Makes American Foreign Policy?"

What is sovereignty and why is it important?

Sovereignty is a simple idea: The United States is an independent nation and it should therefore control its own affairs. Sovereignty is of fundamental importance in America because its laws derive their legitimacy from the American people, not from any foreign power or international organization.

The Founding Fathers understood that if America did not have sovereignty, it could not be independent. If a foreign power can tell America "what we shall do, and what we shall not do," George Washington once wrote to Alexander Hamilton, "we have Independence yet to seek, and have contended hitherto for very little."

Today, sovereignty faces new threats under the guise of global governance. International organizations and courts seek undermine national sovereignty and expect nations to be governed by a global consensus. The United States cannot participate in this new world order and still remain governed by the Constitution. The U.S. must cooperate internationally, but it must be vigilant in the protection of America's sovereign independence.

For more on sovereignty, see Steven Groves's Understanding America booklet "Why Does Sovereignty Matter to America?"

Does the President have the power to wage war without a formal declaration of war from Congress?

Yes. From the retaliatory raids on the Barbary pirates at the turn of the 19th century to the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya, American Presidents have deployed military force several hundred times in the nation's history. Yet Congress has declared war on only five occasions—and only once to initiate hostilities (the War of 1812 against Britain). There is no inconsistency in this. The Framers of the Constitution carefully distinguished a declaration of war—which alters the legal relationships between subjects of warring nations—from the act of waging war. Given the exigencies of warfare, the Framers roundly rejected the idea of placing the power to wage war in the legislative branch and vested it instead in the executive. Congress cannot tell the President how to deploy the military forces it raises and funds. Ultimately of course, Congress's control of the purse strings constitutes a powerful check on the President.

For more on the subject, see the Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay by John Yoo and James C. Ho, "The Sword and the Purse (Part 2): The President as Commander in Chief."

What can Congress do if it disagrees with the President's decision to use military force?

Under the Constitution, the President has ultimate discretion over the deployment of soldiers and nearly all aspects of the conduct of war—including the initiation of hostilities. Ever mindful of the dangers of unfettered powers, however, the Framers were careful to empower Congress to check the President by controlling the funding of the military. Congress has the power to deny or cut funding for any federal activity, including military operations. The President may be Commander in Chief, but he has nothing to command except what Congress may provide. As a result of Congress's authority over the purse, the President is unable as a practical matter to engage in hostilities for very long without the support of Congress. This is why it is usually prudent for Presidents to have the support of the Congress and the American people before engaging in hostilities abroad.

For more on the subject, see the Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay by John Yoo and James C. Ho, "The Sword and the Purse (Part 1): The Role of Congress in War."

Were the Founders isolationists? Are America's foreign policy principles isolationist?

As a young nation, the American republic tried to remain outside of the turbulent affairs of Europe. Yet this prudential policy should not be mistaken for a principled withdrawal from world affairs. In reality, America's early foreign policy was remarkably engaged. Although it may look unimpressive by today's standards, America's early foreign policy was more supportive of liberty than that of any other country at the time. This was true when the United States was the first established nation to recognize the independence of Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico in 1822, as well as when America diplomatically supported the Greeks and Hungarians in their wars for independence.

This tradition of standing for freedom grows out of America's founding principles, anchored as they are in the universal equality of men. The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty and, therefore, the inherent right to self-government were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere. They were consequently keenly aware of the universal significance of America's principles and of America's unique responsibility for upholding and advancing these principles. This does not imply a duty to spread the ideas of liberty through force, but it does highlight America's unique role in the cause of liberty in the world.

For more on the subject, see Marion Smith's First Principles Essay "The Myth of Isolationism, Part 1: American Leadership and the Cause of Liberty."

Were the Founders suspicious of a standing army and navy?

The Founders were suspicious of standing armies because they knew that, in Europe, they had been used by monarchs to oppress the people. That said, the absence of a military capable of defending the United States threatened the very existence of the nation. The weakness of the thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation convinced the Founders that the nation needed a stronger government, including a stronger military.

In order to provide for the nation's security while avoiding the dangers of a standing military, the Founders made the common defense a shared responsibility of Congress and the President, the elected (and separate) branches of government. This helped ensure that the American military would serve the nation, not subvert the rule of the people.

Thus, Congress declares war and funds the armed forces: the Constitution gives Congress power to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy." The President commands the armed forces and controls their operations: as Commander in Chief, he is obliged to defend and protect the nation. In his role as the country's chief diplomat, he also seeks to keep the peace.

More Resources

Foreign Policy

The Cold War: A New History
John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin Press, 2005)
In The Cold War: A New History, John Lewis Gaddis, the dean of Cold War historians, provides a crisp and comprehensive survey of this epic conflict. Gaddis grapples the beginning and the end of the global war that pitted America and the free world against the Soviet Union and its satellites on every continent, some­times in battle, sometimes in negotiation.

Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick (Simon & Schuster, 1982)
As a respected but relatively unknown professor of government at George­town University and a life-long Democrat, Jeane Kirkpatrick chose the pages of the neoconservative journal Commentary to state bluntly, “The failure of the Carter administration’s foreign policy is now clear to everyone except its architects.” In this article, she discusses the Carter foreign policy and concludes that it “violated the strategic and economic interests of the United States.”

Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World
Margaret Thatcher (HarperCollins, 2002)
Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to serve as Britain’s prime minister, embarked on a political partnership with President Reagan that became the driving force of a conservative revolution that transformed the political landscape of the West. In this work, she reflects on that battle and modern international relations. She concludes that America is the most reliable guardian of freedom in the world.

Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order
Robert Kagan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)
Of Paradise and Power was a national best-seller, widely praised for its impressive command of history. In it, Robert Kagan examines the conflicted U.S.–European relationship. He argues at the end of the Cold War, Europeans concluded that any international conflict could be solved by diplomacy and international law, but still remained dependent upon America’s willingness to use its military might “to deter or defeat those around the world” that still practice power politics.

What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
Bernard Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2002)
For a thousand years, the world of Islam considered itself the leader in human civilization and achievement. In attempting to determine the reasons for Islam’s decline and fall, many in the Middle East have blamed others, the villains ranging from the Mongols to the Turks to the Americans. To the Western observer, Lewis writes, the reason for stagnation is clear: The lack of freedom in politics, economics, and culture.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 1996)
In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington argues that since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the 45-year Cold War, the paradigms of international politics have changed. He asserts that the world is “multi-civilizational”; that the balance of power is shifting from the West to the East. Huntington’s thesis, in light of declining Western power, is that the “survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity.”

Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century
Kim R. Holmes (The Heritage Foundation, 2008)
Kim Holmes, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, offers a thoughtful analysis and blueprint for what America must do to advance freedom, beginning with a policy of victory in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. The world has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War, writes Holmes, but America’s role as the primary defender of liberty has not changed and will not change.

American Foreign Policy and the Blessings of Liberty
Samuel Flagg Bemis (Yale University Press, 1962)
This collection of essays by the eminent historian Samuel Flagg Bemis spans American diplomacy from the Revolution to Woodrow Wilson. His accounts of the perilous and opportune moments in U.S. foreign policy offer valuable insight for those tasked with understanding or making foreign policy today.

God & Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World
Walter Russell Mead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
Historian Walter Russell Mead argues that there is something unique and singularly effective about Anglo-American—but especially the United States’—foreign policy tradition. Of prime importance is the understanding that trade, sea power, and economic prosperity are key elements of a successful foreign policy.

A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington’s Farewell Address and the American Character
Matthew Spalding & Patrick Garrity (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996)
George Washington’s wisdom on matters of war and peace is timeless. Much of his thoughts on American diplomacy are contained in his Farewell Address to the nation that he served with such heroic and selfless devotion. For generations of American statesmen after, Washington’s words and example set the tone and established the goals of American foreign policy.

Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order
Charles Hill (Yale University Press, 2010)
This book challenges those who would be statesmen to broaden their knowledge and the sources of their inspiration. The social sciences, and especially political science, address only a narrow range of problems—leaving the biggest questions beyond its reach. “A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray,” Hill writes. Literature spans the disciplines and addresses the fundamentals of human nature. Without imagination, a grasp of history, and “literary insight,” students of statecraft are left impoverished.

Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy
A starting point for anyone seeking to tackle the classics of strategy, diplomacy, and counterinsurgency, the website features helpful introductions to works by everyone from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz to Samuel Huntington.