In 1951, one of America's true conservatives, Senator Robert A. Taft, published a book titled A Foreign Policy for Americans. I think what Senator Taft wrote then applies to our own time as well. In discussing the purposes of American foreign policy, he said:
There are a good many Americans who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world. They rightly point out that the United States is so powerful today that we should assume a moral leadership in the world . . . The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. . . In their hearts they want to force on these foreign peoples through the use of American money and even, perhaps, American arms, the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles and the force of its persuasion. I do not think this moral leadership ideal justifies our engaging in any preventive war . . . I do not believe any policy which has behind it the threat of military force is justified as part of the basic foreign policy of the United States except to defend the liberty of our own people.
Like the Founding Fathers, Senator Taft valued liberty here at home above "superpower" status abroad. The Founding Fathers understood that these two are in tension. To preserve liberty here at home, we need a weak federal government, because a strong federal government is the greatest potential threat to our liberties. The division of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government is intended to make decisions and actions by the federal government difficult. But playing the great power game abroad demands the opposite. It demands a strong federal government that can make decisions, including of peace or war, quickly and easily. To a large degree, that is the kind of federal government we now have.
But should we? In my view, the next conservatism needs to take a hard look at our foreign policy from exactly this perspective. Do we now have a foreign policy that requires a federal government, and particularly an executive branch, so strong that it is a danger to our liberties? If we do, then we have a fundamental contradiction at the heart of our foreign policy. Why? Because the most basic purpose of our foreign policy should be to preserve our liberties.
As Senator Taft understood, this touches on the most sensitive foreign policy question: to what degree should America be active in the world? Since his time, the whole Washington Establishment, the New Class, has come to condemn his position, which I think is the real conservative position, as "isolationism." But the word is a lie. America was never isolated from the rest of the world. Rather, through most of our history, America related to the rest of the world primarily through private means, through trade and by serving as a moral example to the world, the "shining city on a hill." That policy served us well, both in maintaining liberty here at home and in developing our economy. As Senator Taft wrote, "we were respected as the most disinterested and charitable nation in the world."
Then, after World War II, we instead began to play the great power game, which the Founding Fathers had opposed. Because of the threat of Communism, that was necessary for a time. But when Communism fell in the early 1990s, we did not return to our historic policy. Rather, we declared ourselves the dominant power in the world, "the only superpower," the New Rome as some would have it. We set off on the course of American Empire, despite the fact that empire abroad almost certainly means eventual extinction of liberty here at home.
The next conservatism needs a different foreign policy, a foreign policy designed for a republic, not an empire. It needs to recognize that the Establishment wants to play the great power game because it lives richly off that game. But the next conservatism is about throwing the Establishment out, not enriching it further. The next conservatism's foreign policy should proceed from these wise words of Senator Robert A. Taft:
I do not believe it is a selfish goal for us to insist that the overriding purpose of all American foreign policy should be the maintainance of the liberty and peace of our people of the United States, so that they may achieve that intellectual and material improvement which is their genius and in which they can set an example for all peoples. By that example we can do an even greater service to mankind than we can do by billions of material assistance -- and more than we can ever do by war.