Angelo Codevilla surveys American foreign policy’s disarray, tracing it back to the Progressive revolution. In both domestic and foreign policy, he argues, the Progressives rejected the purpose of government as understood by the American founders—namely, to secure citizens’ natural rights with a strong but limited government. By replacing rights inherent in human nature and endowed by God with ever-evolving rights determined by historical progress, the Progressives turned government into an instrument of that progress, staffing government offices with an unelected professional class of bureaucrats charged with guiding the people while not incidentally serving their own interests. This changed the character of the regime, making it less republican, more oligarchic, all the while preaching egalitarianism. Similarly, in foreign policy Progressives ushered Americans into an array of international organizations, also staffed with “experts,” with the same task of bringing not only Americans but all of humanity onto ever-higher plateaus of peace and justice.
Codevilla doubts that unhinging moral and political principles from such perennial truths as the Laws of Nature and of the Nature’s God, leaving policy in the hands of a ruling class with no responsibility to the people whom their policies are supposed to improve, has a promising future. He would return to the foreign policy of the American founders as elaborated by John Quincy Adams and adapted to modern conditions by Theodore Roosevelt. The cornerstone of that policy was the defense of American self-government in a world of imperialist rivals. Adams followed Washington’s Farewell Address: since the purpose of the American government is to defend the natural rights of Americans, the United States should enter no longstanding military alliances with foreign powers while remaining open to carefully regulated trade with any and all of them.
In Adams’s capable hands, there was much more to it than that. In his comprehensive strategy, our first order of business with foreigners was to rank our own priorities, giving first importance to our borders and offshore islands, secondary importance to the oceans (“the great highway of nations,” as Jefferson had called them), and only tertiary importance to the rest of the world. Respecting foreign powers, we should follow the Westphalian principle of non-interference in their internal affairs while encouraging them to leave the Western Hemisphere altogether. To this end, as Secretary of State, he authored the Monroe Doctrine. In his diplomacy, he worked for good relations with all countries, regardless of their regime. All these policies fell within the bounds of the moral law animating the law of nations, especially as it articulated in the writings of the eminent Swiss jurist, Emer de Vattel, a firm defender of the right of national self-determination.
Such a policy was possible because Adams lived in a world largely unencumbered by modern ideologies—the French revolutionaries having been discredited while he was a boy. For most of his political career, the nascent socialist movements were nowhere near controlling the foreign policy of anyone. This relatively happy circumstance made non-republican regimes easier to deal with than they would be in the next century. Codevilla never quite registers this point. Nor does Codevilla admit that America’s movement from sea to shining sea throughout the nineteenth century was as imperialistic as the European empires. What Thomas Jefferson had called an “empire of liberty” was, after all, an empire that had, as far back as the Washington Administration, pushed for regime change among the peoples it bought out, conquered, or pushed aside on its way from sea to shining sea.
By 1890 with that task now completed, American strategists considered four options. Former Lincoln ally Carl Schurz defended the original Washington-Adams policy. Indiana Senator Albert J. Beveridge took the opposite side, advocating a vast imperial project in Latin America: the United States was no longer to be an empire of liberty but a colonial empire over supposedly inferior races. Theodore Roosevelt argued, more cogently, that while the underlying principles of the longstanding policy of Washington and Adams were sound, such technological innovations as steam-powered naval ships and instant communication by telegraph had effected a sort of geopolitical shrinkage. Enemy powers could get to the United States more readily and interfere with our maritime commerce more easily. Accordingly, he recommended that the United States expand its naval capacities by building a bigger fleet, enhancing its mobility by creating and controlling the Panama Canal, and maintaining a network of naval bases around the world. (So, for example, as president, he didn’t want to rule Cuba or the Philippines but he did want to retain bases there.) Codevilla identifies this as the sensible policy, under the circumstances.
Codevilla aims his own gunsights on the Progressives, the fourth option. Woodrow Wilson reversed Adams’s priorities, ranking the putative interests of humanity over those of the American people. According to Codevilla, “For the Progressives, America belonged to history more than to the American people.” And so we hear from the early enthusiast, then Secretary of War, Elihu Root, that “there is so much good in human nature that men get to like each other through mutual acquaintance.” He must never have talked much with the French about the Germans.
Only spurred on by the calamity of the Great War (the dialectic of history makes every great crisis a great opportunity for progress, you see), Wilson urged entry into the League of Nations. The idea was identical to that of Progressives at home: What had been the cussedness of human nature could be conquered by historical progress led by Progressives happily ensconced in bureaucratic institutions and wielding the instruments of scientific administration to overcome atavistic national passions. Even when the United States Senate, doubting the likelihood of such grand envisioning, rejected the League treaty, Progressives put too much faith in treaties we did enact, particularly the Four-Power Treaty of 1921 and the Six-Power Treaty of 1923, with correspondingly insufficient attention to military preparedness and deterrence. Codevilla speculates that such preparedness might have inhibited Japanese and German imperial ambitions in the 1930s, although there’s room for doubt in that maze of imponderables.
After World War II, Progressives of the soberer sort took the lesson of deterrence but persisted in their internationalism. Codevilla goes so far as to charge that the United States policy of containment of the Soviet Union was really motivated by Progressives’ ruling-class ambition to aggrandize themselves and not so much to oppose the Soviets—a charge reminiscent of the New Left’s claims of half a century back. He more plausibly claims that internationalism has lent itself to American de-industrialization—after all, if we all only just want to be friends with China, then why does it matter where we get our computer chips and rare earth minerals? Internationalism, he continues, has also led to complacent retention of such entities as NATO, which he dismisses as a military empty suit. That, I should think, remains to be seen. As of this writing, NATO training and other assistance have helped to make the Ukrainian military more formidable than Mr. Putin anticipated.
He offers an array of prescriptions aimed at returning American foreign policy to its original stance. Abandon Europe; ally with Russia. Concentrate our intentions on the powerful and hostile Chinese regime. Get troops out of Korea and Japan, countries that can fend for themselves, but establish stronger military relations with Taiwan. Rebuild our manufacturers, as Alexander Hamilton would surely recommend. Secure our southern border from mass migration. Don’t obsess over Muslim terrorism but confine our actions to severe punitive strikes against countries that harbor terrorists. Choose as our main weapon the secondary economic boycott, the practice of refusing to do business with countries that do business with such declared enemies as Iran, Qatar, and North Korea. That can work, and it stops short of military action. Treaties, yes, but only with individual countries and only as needed, and only after careful negotiations aimed at clarifying exactly what we and they really want.
Given America’s own moral confusion today, Codevilla wisely recommends not attempting to appeal directly to the principles of the American founding. Don’t waste time bleating about “human rights” as defined by Progressivism either. He would rather appeal to consequences. If you don’t want to get hosed by foreigners, stop pretending they are your friends. This will force Americans not so much to be “free”—an entirely too Rousseauian notion for this firm anti-ideologue—but to take responsibility for themselves and to begin to govern themselves again. Self-government is what Progressive statists don’t like. Codevilla likes it a lot.
As indicated, Codevilla downplays the differences between the America of Adams’s time and our own, refusing to admit how much more imperialistic Americans were before 1890 than they were afterward. Regime differences matter more in foreign policy than he will concede, and as Chinese and Russian rulers have not hesitated to assert. Accordingly, he’s right about China, wrong about Russia, and probably wrong about Europe.
However, his fundamental point—that Americans should reclaim self-government for themselves, at home and abroad—should resonate with any liberty-loving person, and not only here. Accomplishing such a return will be extremely difficult. Oligarchies, once established, are usually quite good at one thing: defending themselves and their interests. Speaking of lessons from history, the Romans learned that, and their remedy, Caesarism, was no big improvement in the long run. And in our own short run, I see no American Augustus on the horizon.