Leading by Example vs The Sword: The US in the World

By Cruz Marquis

Hundreds of military bases abroad. Thousands of planes. Hundreds of ships of war. Millions of men at arms. The United States commands an empire, the likes of which has never before been imagined, let alone made reality. Having surpassed the institutionalized glory of Rome, though not yet weeping for lack of nations left to conquer, one asks: To what end?

The ends which the United States was forged to secure are clear enough; they are spelled out in all the founding documents. Refer to the Declaration of Independence[1] for the most cogent expression of the ends sought:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” 

Upholding human liberty is the raison d’être of the United States; without this end, there would be no such entity. Americans claimed liberty for themselves in the secession of 1776, but who is entitled to the same liberty, the privileged few who can claim the title American, or all of man? Refer back to the Declaration for the answer. If all men have an equal claim to liberty and the United States is the unique creature forged entirely for securing liberty, how shall she conduct herself with regards to the rest of the world?

This question dogged political theorists from the Founding Fathers until today: Being essentially alone in the world as a representative republic made expressly for the purpose of securing liberty, does she turn inward or outward?

The Founding Fathers grappled with the question and asserted the former. George Washington, in his Farewell Address was concise: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here, let us stop.” John Quincy Adams was even more to the point, speaking in commemoration of Independence Day: “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

This conception of America makes sense and more importantly, is grounded in reality. The Founding Fathers realized that early America was vulnerable to predatory European powers, always looking for ways to outmaneuver each other, but it would not always be so. It is clear from the most rudimentary glimpse of the resources at America’s disposal that it would be harder for her not to become a great nation than to become one. Seeing this, the Founding Fathers laid out guidance applicable equally for a small, but growing nation, and a great and prosperous one.

Even 18th Century warfare was ruinously expensive for states (indeed, French military aid during the Revolution was, in a large part, responsible for the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy). An early America would be incapable of going abroad looking for monsters to destroy, but when it obtained the means to do so, it would still be ruinously expensive. Even though America was the one nation founded explicitly for the preservation of liberty, how could she be expected to take up the mantle of expanding it by the sword, given that doing so is ruinously expensive? Should the people wish to expand liberty this way, it is still unwise policy to do so.  

For the better part of the first hundred years of America’s sovereignty, she largely adhered to the policy outlined by Washington and Quincy Adams, by warring rarely with the great powers of Europe, with the obvious exception of the militarized conquest of the West. In this time, America became a society of unrivaled prosperity, liberty, internal cohesion, and justice, keeping to herself and acting as an example of what the rights of men unbounded can do. Nonintervention worked until 1917.

The Great War was the dividing line in American foreign policy: the prevailing spirit beforehand was nonintervention in the mold of Washington, and afterwards the ascension to great power status and everything it entailed. By joining the elite club of nations which dominate newspaper headlines, the United States had to pay a steep toll.

First, there needed to be a revolution in state finance to ensure it had the ability to transform the economic power of the nation into political power. The income tax (1913) and the creation of the Federal Reserve the same year ensured the state had access to an exponentially larger share of the productive energy of America.

Second, there needed to be a revolution in military affairs to give the US the power to measure up its “bark” with its “bite.” Theodore Roosevelt started this process in earnest with the voyage of his 18 pre-dreadnaught battlewagons, a blunt declaration that the US possessed a blue water navy rivaling any in the world. Woodrow Wilson was to the Army what Theodore Roosevelt was to the Navy, the former passed the Selective Service Act in 1917 and proceeded to build up a ground force perfectly on par with its European counterparts which had been slogging it out in the trenches of France and Russia for years.

Third, the Great War was a consummation, the realization of the military potential consciously accumulated by the state, but it was also a blueprint. Now that the US had intervened decisively in a foreign war for “democracy,” it can do so again. Once the Entente powers saw the United States would intervene, it allowed them to offload some of their responsibilities onto another power, thus pressuring for more intervention. As the Entente gave way to a wider community of democracies and dubious authoritarian allies of various types, more eyes turned to the United States, looking for it to act on their behalf.

Being a great power has its consequences; all of them were foreseen and urged against by the Founding Fathers. Those who profess their love of nation and all it represents must wrestle with the question of “greatness,” just how much is it worth? Is it essential to the modern American identity to be a superpower and sit at the table of nations which quarrel and intrigue among themselves constantly? How much is the United States and her longsuffering people obligated to surrender for the good of others; must we lead by the sword, or may we have the freedom to lead by example?

American wars are premised on a few things, at least in theory: Liberty, representative government, and popular sovereignty. In fighting for these values in the bombed-out cities of Europe, in the deserts of the Middle East, and the plains of East Asia, mainstream Washington has implicitly denied us our own popular sovereignty—The American people are never asked whether the wars are just too much to ask.

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