I have written earlier on this subject here, here, and here. In this post, I’d like to address the remaining two principles that give substance to our national interest: protection of American citizens while they are abroad and assured access to the resources we need for our economy.
One of the purposes of our government, within our social compact, is to see to the safety of our citizens: to protect each of us from the others of us and from those outside our compact. This protection, of course, cannot stop at our national borders; it must be extended to our citizens wherever they might be. All that changes with location is the means by which that safety is effected. It remains as important to protect our citizens while they are in foreign lands as it is while our citizens are home, and this is so for a number of reasons.
The Romans used the citizenship status of Roman citizens as an instrument of power projection. Rome operated under the modus that even if a Roman citizen, within another nation’s borders, violated that nation’s law, punishment of that citizen by the host nation would be taken as an attack on Rome itself, with appropriate Roman response. Further, this attitude that only the nation of citizenship could prosecute a citizen’s violation of host nation law persisted into the 20th century, primarily as a tool of colonialism.
While the United States does not use our people’s citizenship status as a means of power projection, the safety of our citizens abroad is a manifestation of American power. Attacking Americans with impunity demonstrates that the United States is a paper tiger and that we can be manipulated according to the imperatives of our competitors and our enemies.
There is a practical reason for protecting the safety of our citizens, also. Beside tourism, our citizens travel to third world nations on goodwill missions and to provide concrete assistance to their citizens, often in dangerous conditions. That personal foreign aid (the Peace Corps, for instance) not only does concrete good for these nations; by doing so, it helps spread American influence, and the interaction exposes those people to American values, also to our mutual benefit.
Our citizens also travel to other nations—friendly nations, competitor nations, and third world—on business matters. This interaction, too, exposes others to American values, and the mutual benefit from the business and values interaction also contributes to the spread of American influence.
If our citizens are not protected in those environments, the aid cannot be provided efficiently, if at all. The trade exchanges cannot be worked out, and the values learned are those of American timidity.
And there is a moral reason. These are American citizens; they are entitled to the protection of our—their—government wherever they are. This does not mean that, like a Roman citizen, an American can act with impunity and without regard to the host nation’s laws, but it does mean that while Americans are acting lawfully, they must be free from harassment or outright persecution, and our government must be prepared to step in—using all means necessary—to help our citizens leave or to extract them if they are not safe. It does mean that our government must be prepared to ensure our citizens are treated lawfully and humanely—and yes, that means our definition of humane—when our citizens do violate local law, including extracting them by any means necessary here, too. To be sure, it’s a fine line between this stricture and the Roman impunity, but it’s one we must have our government prepared to walk.
That trade, and the spreading influence from both trade and aid, lies at the heart of the third principle, assuring access to resources critical to our economy. There are, in the end, three fundamental mechanisms for assuring access to critical resources that are outside our borders. One is to seize the resources through force of arms, and another is to seize the people and, by making them a colony, bringing the resources within our borders.
Both of those mechanisms were extant well into the 20th century. Quite aside from their moral deficiencies, these two mechanisms are economically suboptimal. The moral deficiencies are illustrated by the principles of our Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal. Flowing from this is the principle that all men have an ownership in their property, their labor, and the outcomes of their labor. Taking resources, then, either by force of arms or by force of colonialism, violates our own moral tenets.
The third fundamental mechanism for assuring access to those critical resources is free trade. Agreements freely entered into by both parties to the trade agreement are sound and durable for a number of reasons. The first is fairness: the parties to the trade agreement are, by definition, getting goods satisfactory to one at prices satisfactory to the other. From such an arrangement, both parties are better off than they were before the agreement: both parties have gained something which they wanted and did not have before the trading.
Another, closely related reason, is the wealth creation that such free trade generates. As just noted, both parties have gained something of value to them that they did not have before: one has gained a good that it wanted, the other has gained wealth from the sale of that good, whether money, another good that it wanted and didn’t have, future considerations, and so on.
A third reason that free trade is mutually beneficial is the positive feedback loop that is generated, and this is one aspect of what makes free trade the optimal means of access. We’ve seen that free trade increases wealth creation. That increasing wealth facilitates further trade: more goods can be produced, development of new goods can be afforded, infrastructure for that development, and for the transportation, of tradable goods can be built. All of this then leads to lower costs, yet more revenue, for the citizens of the nations involved. With more readily available goods, more varied goods, more easily transported goods, and so on, prices to the buyer must inevitably come down, while that increasing volume and new good development maintain and increase total revenues to the seller. In the end, nations don’t buy things from nations. People buy things from people; businesses and nations simply act as intermediaries for these transactions.
And finally, the national good will between the nations engaged in free trade is greatly facilitated, and this is another aspect of what makes free trade the optimal means of access. Free trade did not create the strong relationships the US has with Canada, Great Britain, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and so on, but it has helped maintain and strengthen those ties. Free trade between the US and third world nations—as opposed to colonialism or naked resource seizure—has helped us to gain influence in those areas. The US is a very powerful nation, militarily, but it was not only that strength that led Somalia to ask for US soldiers earlier this month, and it was not only that strength that led the Libyan rebels last spring to call out, “Bring Bush!” The values for which we stand contributes to such requests, and those values are made apparent from the interactions inherent in the trade which we conduct that third world nations experience directly or that they see by observing their neighbors interact with us.