The Building Blocks of a Truly Conservative Foreign Policy

A sailor mans the rails of the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason as the ship departs Naval Station Norfolk. Flickr/U.S. Navy

From Burke to Reagan, drawing principles from history.

If there is a distinct American conservative political tradition, which there certainly is, there is also modern foreign policy tradition that grows from it. Far from anything resembling the policies of American-first Republicans of the 1930s—and since then allied to the Republican party only though circumstance of history—it is characterized by commitment to peace through strength, the primacy of national sovereignty and support for liberty under law.

Peace through Strength

This age-old adage was used to best effect by President Ronald Reagan to give context to America’s military modernization in the 1980s. In today’s world, armed force remains the final arbiter of American interests. For this reason, it provides indispensable context for American diplomacy. When security issues are discussed in Asia, or Europe, or the Middle East, the United States has a seat at the table, because as a last resort, it has the capability to impose our will, and failing that, impose costs on our enemies.

This is not as Hobbesian as it sounds—for two reasons.

One, the use of American military power is mitigated by the U.S. Constitution. The president’s powers as commander-in-chief are not the sole factor in determining the use of that power. Congress funds the military. It has oversight, legislative power over the military bureaucracy and confirmation powers. It ratifies security treaties. And it has the power to declare war.

How Congress exercises its powers in relationship to the president ebbs and flows over time. Generally, during times of grave, imminent threat, Congress errs on the side of deference; in more peaceful times, it asserts itself. The relationship also varies according to the confidence Congress has in the president’s leadership.

This is sometimes overlaid with partisanship—as was the case in the debates over the Vietnam War—but not always. It was a Democratic Congress that rallied opposition to President Carter’s attempt to pull American ground forces out of Korea. And in 1993, a Democratic Congress was instrumental in pressuring President Clinton to withdraw from Somalia.

Congress rarely formally declares war. And there are debates over what sort of authorization a president requires from Congress to wage war, and when. But Congress is always a factor in a president’s decision. Through Congress’s involvement in his decision, the values of the American people come to bear. Their values—and the values of the servicemen from whose ranks they are drawn—dictate an unwritten, imperfect sort of “just war.” A war that violates the values of the American people will ultimately lose support of the people’s representatives in Congress, and Congress will, in turn, impose this perspective on the president.

The second mitigating force on the American use of force is interaction with allies, themselves mostly democratic republics. The global presence that the United States requires to tend to its interests requires allies. And the most effective use of force requires their acquiescence, if not support.

Opposition to a war in the Western Pacific from Japan, host of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, would be a potentially debilitating obstacle. A major use of force in the Middle East would require the use of American bases in Europe. And of course, a war in Europe itself would call for consultations with our NATO allies. The more encompassing the war effort, the greater the need for allied support, but even the case for a very limited war is strengthened by the expressed support of our allies.

The most distinguishing feature of conservative thinking on the use of force may be its trust in the American institutions of government to deploy it properly and prudently. Trust of American power is derived from faith in constitutional government. That trust, and not the approval of international bodies such as the United Nations, is the ultimate determinate of whether the use of American power is legitimate or not. A UN resolution may be useful, and support of allies practically necessary, but for American conservatives, the support of the American people is sufficient to justify its use of force.

America has demonstrated repeatedly, especially over the course of two world wars and their aftermath, that it can be trusted with singular power as a global leader. Allies and friends seek the protection of American power. They don’t fear it. The only ones who fear it are illiberal regimes that that threaten their neighbors and the global order of peace and security.

The Primacy of National Sovereignty

Conservatives put a premium on state sovereignty in the international system. This, in turn, makes an American statesman’s first order of business protecting and promoting the national interest. Such a system also has the best prospect for allowing all states to do so peacefully. Global institutions such as the United Nations tend not only to advance domestic policies that often are odds with democratic self-governance and the rule of law. They also often one-sidedly use their influence to undermine the singular and exceptional role America has to play in the world as a leader.