The Building Blocks of a Truly Conservative Foreign Policy

The Building Blocks of a Truly Conservative Foreign Policy

From Burke to Reagan, drawing principles from history.

Conservative commitment to human liberty extends to economics. They are philosophical descendants of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman; they believe that the “invisible hand of the market” is a far superior instrument for allocating resources among individuals than governments. This applies to commerce between people across national borders, as well as within them. Ideally, this would involve sovereign governments unilaterally discovering the magic of free markets. Those that do would reap benefits for their peoples; those who do not would suffer the consequences.

Disinclined to believe in utopia, however, conservatives know this will be a rarity. As firm believers in the sovereignty of the nation-state as the fundamental building block of international order, they also know that such decisions, in reality, are mediated by national governments with varieties of national and regime interests.

The most practical way to expand free markets and maximize comparative advantage in the international economy is for the U.S. government to engage other governments in the pursuit of market reform. The nature of economic agreements reached between governments cannot but be imperfect. What distinguishes the conservative approach is its commitment to the freest trade possible. It seeks mutual commitment to freeing markets—including its own—not reciprocal protection of industries, or commerce choking regulation in areas such as labor and environment. Free-trade agreements should not be about governments trying to managing international commerce.

Neither does conservatism treat economics as an instrument of national power. This naturally leads to industrial policy and mercantilism. Government has no responsibility for where, in what sectors and under what terms companies invest, either at home or abroad. American companies are materially responsible only to their owners, shareholders and investors. Free trade is good, not because it creates jobs for exporters, but because it creates the greatest good for the greatest number. Exports are no better than imports; inward investment no better than outward.


Conservatism is a political philosophy with as much application to foreign policy as domestic policy because it derives from the same impulses, belief in the imperfectability of man, in transcendent and temporal order, in liberty, and in tradition. It is as relevant to international relations today as it was when Edmund Burke made his commentaries on the French Revolution and Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations. Statesmen would do well to rediscover its roots and recommit America to conservatively defined global leadership.

Walter Lohman is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Kim R. Holmes, a former Assistant Secretary of State, is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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