Foreign Policy Lessons from the Nation's Founders

The nation's founders had ideas about foreign policy that we should be listening to today.

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July Fourth offers us the chance for reflection on both our founding and our future. "We are at War." These four words hung in the air after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 started the American Revolution. Similar words hang in the air in 2013 at the dawn of an American crossroads.

This crossroads is bookended by the "shot heard round the world" on Lexington Green and "a second plane hit the second tower" in 2001. America was forged in a crucible of fire and that same genesis fire burns again. Of all the articles, books and speeches concerning 9/11, one missing theme has been and is the most vital – natural law. In the numerous observances of Independence Day, this most fundamental keystone will likely be missed, but our revolutionary past provides the lodestar for our future.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The entire legitimacy of the American Revolution rested on natural law; the entire legitimacy of contemporary American foreign policy is the same. Without the American founders' conception of natural law, our revolution would be nothing more than part of a laundry list of petty rebellions and insurgencies that changed one government for another. Without the same concept of natural law, our foreign policy would be nothing more than part of the cynical realism that dominates all other great powers.

This is what differentiates Americans, American foreign policy and our reaction to 9/11. This Americanism was at the core of the Bush Doctrine and is the ultimate legacy that will dominate American discussion of foreign policy for this entire century.

It is easy to suggest, and convenient to believe, that President Bush's adherence to natural law principles in foreign policy was merely an expedient fig leaf to pursue cold hard realism and national interests. It is easier to merely caricature them. The overwhelming evidence points to a complete national security strategy that grounded itself in the founding of the republic and used as its touchstone the values of the American Revolution.

The four precepts of the Bush Doctrine – preemption, prevention, primacy and democracy promotion – all rested on the legitimacy of that foundational event. Rooted in beliefs of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, liberation, rollback and anticommunism, the Bush Doctrine anchored all of these concepts in a belief in the absolute values of liberty. Bush posed a clear choice to the world between tyranny and the "nonnegotiable demand of human dignity" for all people, which is the Bush Doctrine's prominent theme.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

It is at this crossroads that America finds itself. The Bush Doctrine created a zero hour in American foreign policy, liberating us from the chains of scornful realism and fantasy liberalism. The ultimate legacy of the Bush administration rested here.

We are now in the second decade of the 21st century. We must move beyond the legacy of the Bush years and the disappointments of the Obama administration. It is at this crucial juncture in American history that liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans can forge common ground. It is the clarion call not to turn back from the strong melding of American values and American foreign policy forged into the sword and shield of universal natural law.

It is the American belief in the inherent dignity of the human spirit, where all humankind is allowed the freedom to practice their God given liberties of life, liberty and estate, free from the fear created by the tyranny of extremist groups like al-Qaida or from rogue regimes like Iran. The rising star of American independence rested on the foundation that liberty under law was the natural extension of the creator's wishes, and that those who oppose liberty oppose the natural order itself. 

This is the view that America represents: a universal nation – the actual manifestation of natural law and natural rights – of freedom under the law. This legacy bequeathed by our  founders, fundamentally resting on the beliefs of the Declaration of Independence, can and should be the basis of American foreign policy in perpetuity.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

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