The Tea Party has had an extraordinary effect on American domestic policy. It has raised interest in policy debates, rallied public opinion, and given conservatives a voice on various spending and constitutional issues.
On foreign policy, though, the Tea Party has been largely silent. But with the United States currently involved in three wars on foreign soil, the Tea Party needs to think about foreign policy.
Silence on foreign policy issues has allowed isolationist voices to claim to speak on the Tea Party’s behalf. That’s unfortunate, because those voices discredit the movement’s relevance to American diplomacy.
Ron Paul, for instance, advocates a strict non-interventionism. (Non-interventionism means that America would not be politically or militarily involved with other countries’ affairs.) He claims that to be the Founders’ foreign policy. It isn’t.
Not only is non-interventionism potentially detrimental to America’s security, it is at odds with the principles of America’s founding. While a policy of non-intervention is sometimes appropriate, the doctrine of non-interventionism severely limits the foreign policy options available to America, weakening its ability to defend freedom. It is a limitation the Founders did not adopt, and neither should today’s lawmakers. The Tea Party has the opportunity to reject isolationist policies and to reinforce America’s indispensable role in the world.
America stands for the principles of liberty, independence, and self-government. Those principles define and shape our national interests. The Founders did not believe that America had a duty to spread the ideas of liberty by waging wars that might be detrimental to America’s interests and security. They did, however, welcome opportunities to prudently support the principles and practice of liberty around the world, even at times through military force. George Washington recommended choosing “peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
The Tea Party should look to the Founders on foreign policy as it has done on domestic policy. In doing so, it should resist the temptation to oversimplify America’s early foreign policy.
From the Founders’ perspective, then, a prudent foreign policy means never excluding the possibility of strong military action at a moment’s notice. This, of course, requires maintaining a strong military.
Embracing the Founders’ understanding of statecraft also means promoting America’s political principles whenever possible through the conduct of foreign policy. The ideas of liberty and self-government were not just true for Americans but for all people. America’s early diplomats considered the defense and spread of America’s principles fundamental to their task of representing the people of the United States abroad. At times, the American military was engaged to support those seeking liberty. It rescued refugees and leveraged American support to tip the balance in favor of economic, civil, and religious freedom around the globe.
There are no easy answers to the hard questions of foreign policy. As George Washington recognized, policy based only on material interests would harm America’s ideals, while a policy based only on ideals would ignore the realities of the world. Prudence allowed the Founders to navigate the complex circumstances of international affairs while protecting America’s interests and promoting America’s principles.
This approach, balancing interests and justice, remains essential to securing the blessings of liberty for the American people and enabling America to stand resolutely for the cause of freedom around the world in the 21st century. The non-interventionism doctrine ignores justice and misunderstands America’s interests.
In arguing for individual liberty and constitutional government, the Tea Party has shifted the paradigm of domestic politics. Such a shift is needed in foreign policy, and the Tea Party can and should help reshape America’s role in the world. By correctly understanding the Founders’ foreign policy, the Tea Party can successfully advocate an approach that is compatible with America’s founding principles.
Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.