In the next few posts on America’s future, I’ll explore what our foreign policy should entail if we’re to have a successful future as a nation. In order to identify that policy, though, it’s necessary to understand our purpose, and what our principles are, in the conduct of our foreign policy. Accordingly, in this post and the next, I’ll talk about our necessary foreign policy principles. In a later post, I’ll discuss what a foreign policy structure might be that would make our efforts more efficient and more effective in satisfying these principles. Note that this will not be a restructuring of our Department of State, but of the principles that State should satisfy.
The purpose of our government is to protect our individual, inalienable rights; the purpose of our foreign policy must be to support that on the global stage. Thus, our primary foreign policy principles must be those things that, if satisfied, serve that purpose and thereby enhance our government’s ability to satisfy its domestic purpose. These foreign policy principles, then, will be those things that address foreign impediments to our government’s purpose while those impediments are small and overseas, and so neutralize them before they become problems for us at home.
What are these principles that are the extra-domestic support of our government’s purpose? The overriding principle must be a focus on doing what is in our own national interest and not simply what will enhance our popularity. (I don’t set aside popularity altogether; that can be narrowly useful in short-term situations, but it can only be useful in this fashion.) Within this there are three principles that give substance to our national interest: protection of American citizens while they are abroad, assured access to the resources we need for our economy, and support for our friends and our allies. (Notice that these also have military implications; I’ll address the military aspects of these goals in a post on our necessary future military policy.)
There are a number of reasons, both practical and moral, why our own national interest must come ahead of all else in our foreign policy. The practical reasons include these. As noted above, the purpose of our government is to protect our inalienable rights—this is why we formed our social compact those 200 and more years ago. Wealthy as we are, we have only finite resources, and we must see first to our own welfare with those resources before we can see to any others’ welfare.
Secondly, we must operate our foreign policy from an “enlightened selfishness” perspective. If we are not as strong as we might be, if our citizens are not as safe as they need to be, if our economy does not have access to the resources we need, then our ability to support our friends and allies, even our ability simply to help other nations, other peoples, will be impaired, perhaps to the point we are unable to provide any support at all. The depth of another nation’s need has no impact on our capacity to help satisfy that need.
Finally, related to this, is the fact that we simply cannot afford to help others if the damage to ourselves from the assistance is greater than the gains from providing that aid. An extreme example of this comes from WWII. Our materiel aid to the Soviet Union and to Great Britain sorely tried our industrial output and our ability to equip our own military forces, both in preparation for the coming fight, and in its prosecution. Yet helping these two, one an ally and one a friend, were critical to the combined effort of destroying NAZI Germany in Europe. On the other hand, providing monetary assistance to a bankrupt nation that shows no capacity for learning the lessons of its bankruptcy, and doing so in a time of our own economic crisis, will harm us far more than it will aid that nation—and so we must not provide that assistance.
There are moral reasons for seeing to our own national interest first. One is that it is our duty, as it is the first duty of all nations, to satisfy our own interests first so as to not become a burden on other nations by shifting the necessity of satisfying our needs onto them.
Secondly, this helps prevent our hand up aid from being transformed into a handout, thereby shifting the receiving nation into dependency on us rather than leaving them responsible and capable in their own right. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted a year ago as the present Greek crisis was becoming fully developed, the other EU member states would not make as much of an effort (in helping Greece or themselves), nor would Greece make as much of an effort on its own behalf, if Germany proved too generous. Making other nations dependent on us does not support their moral health or ours.
The failure from losing this moral aspect is illustrated by these examples. Fifty years of dependence on the American military umbrella left Europe completely unable to deal with the mayhem in the Balkan states that followed President Josip Broz Tito’s death and Yugoslavia’s subsequent dissolution. We had to apply American airpower so that the scant European troops could have the protection they needed in order to impose a semblance of peace on the region. The situation had gotten little better 20 years later in Europe’s attempt to support the rebels in Libya. After less than two months of a low key air “campaign,” the European air forces began dropping American ordnance—they’d run out of their own. And we had to supply almost all of the air surveillance, command and control, and air refueling assets: the Europe nations, still dependent on us, had too little of their own military assets.
In a later post I’ll talk about the foreign policy principle of supporting our friends and allies. This principle not only is important in its own right, it also facilitates the remaining two principles. For that reason, I’ll spend that later post on this principle, and I’ll talk about the remaining two principles after that.