A War on Religion?

- Tue, 2012-10-23 13:27
In a world where the government believes that the First Amendment’s religious freedoms don’t apply to churches, religious organizations, non-profit and for-profit businesses, health-care providers, and anyone outside the four walls of a church building, we are all at risk.

In today’s increasingly secular society, the threat to religious freedom comes not at the point of a sword, but from imposed values at odds with the truth that there is a Creator who has given us certain inalienable rights that government is supposed to secure, not supplant. People of faith in America may not be seeing squads of soldiers pounding on their doors in the dead of night, demanding that they renounce their faith or be dragged off. But they are being confronted by lawmakers, bureaucrats, regulators, human rights commissions, and even college deans demanding that they submit to so-called “neutral laws of general applicability” that venerate such concepts as toleration, non-discrimination, and “choice.”

“And it’s okay,” say these modern arbiters of twenty-first century enlightenment, “if you don’t want to comply.” But the catch is that you won’t be able to earn a living in your chosen profession, or you may have to pay a fine, or your club or association or church will simply have to meet somewhere else away from the rest of “polite society.”

Yes, today’s barbarians seek not to end the free exercise of religion with a single knock-out blow, but rather to strangle it until it either cries “Uncle” or suffocates.

In this essay I offer a quick overview of how today’s threats to our religious freedom play out in the issues of life, marriage and sexuality, and the freedom of association.


The key targets of the Left with respect to the rights of conscience in the health-care field have been nurses and pharmacists who object to being involved in abortions or providing contraceptives, including possible abortion-causing drugs, because of their deeply held beliefs that pre-born lives are sacred.

In Illinois, just last month, a state court of appeals upheld the right of some pharmacists to refuse to provide the Plan B contraceptive, which is believed to be a possible abortifacient. Although Illinois has a “right of conscience” statute covering pharmacists, you may recall that former Governor Blagojevich issued a mandate ordering pharmacists to provide Plan B, and if they had religious objections to doing so, they should “find another profession.” The Illinois courts disagreed.

In the state of Washington earlier this year, a federal district court found a free exercise violation in that state’s attempt to enact rules that would force pharmacists to likewise provide Plan B and other drugs in violation of their conscience rights. The trial judge noted the close cooperation between the governor’s office, the state pharmacy board, and Planned Parenthood to create a rule whose “predominant purpose” was to “stamp out the right to refuse.”

Nurses with religious objections to participating in abortion procedures at state-owned or state-supported hospitals have also been threatened with loss of their jobs. In one case from Mt. Sinai hospital in Brooklyn in 2009, a nurse was required to assist in an abortion procedure against her conscience, and the federal courts denied her any legal remedy whatsoever. A state lawsuit is pending. In another case arising at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 2011 involving 12 pro-life nurses, it took the quick action of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to stop the strong-arming by hospital administrators.

Most disturbing of all, the federal government has now taken a prominent role in threatening religious conscience rights on a nationwide scale. The Secretary of Health and Human Services has issued what has become known as the “HHS mandate”—a definition of the “preventive services” under the 2010 law known as the Affordable Care Act. The HHS mandate requires most employers to provide employee health plans that include coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives—including Plan B, Ella, and other possible abortion-causing drugs—and even abortion counseling. The mandate includes only a weak “religious” exemption from the mandate’s requirements that appears to cover only churches, leaving most other religious institutions, religious non-profits, and secular for-profit businesses under compulsion to comply. Heavy fines await those employers who refuse to comply.

The mandate’s deadlines for compliance (the first of which passed on August 1, 2012) have forced religious employers of all types to initiate lawsuits seeking protection for their conscience rights. Already over 30 lawsuits have been filed involving over 90 plaintiffs. Rather than recognize the overwhelming tide of objections to the mandate’s impact on conscience rights, the Administration has doubled down, filing motions to dismiss these lawsuits on standing or ripeness grounds.

In the case of one secular company, however, the administration’s hardball litigation tactics have proven ineffective. Hercules Industries is a Denver heating and air conditioning company owned by a Catholic family and run according to the owners’ faith principles. The owners object to the mandate’s sterilization and contraceptive requirements, which violate Catholic doctrine. The company was able with ADF’s help to obtain an injunction this past July against the mandate’s enforcement, at least on a temporary basis as the company’s lawsuit proceeds. The government argued that a secular company, such as Hercules, by definition “cannot engage in religion,” even though the owners’ faith principles are evident throughout the company’s corporate documents and policies. Federal district court judge John Kane called the question of a corporation’s religious rights an “issue of first impression,” but if it is resolved in Hercules’s favor, the judge held that the mandate would likely violate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 1993, RFRA prohibits the federal government from imposing a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling interest, and the burden is imposed using the least restrictive means available.

As more employers face compliance deadlines or monetary penalties, and the administration refuses to budge on the mandate, look for even more legal challenges to be filed.

Marriage and Sexuality

In the area of marriage and family, there is no doubt but that the increasing proliferation of so-called non-discrimination laws, civil unions, and same-sex marriage has resulted in the denial of religious liberty. Just ask Catholic Charities, which, since 2006, has chosen to get out of the adoption business in Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Illinois rather than be forced to place children with same-sex parents as required by the laws of those jurisdictions.

In New Mexico, a husband and wife photography business was fined over $6,600 for refusing, on religious grounds, to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony. Although New Mexico has neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions, the state’s Human Rights Commission held that the couple violated the state’s non-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation, and refused even to consider the couple’s religious liberty claims. That case is currently at the New Mexico Supreme Court after losing in two lower courts, and I’m hopeful that ADF is going to pull out a victory there.

In New Jersey, a United Methodist facility known as Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association was similarly charged with violating the state’s non-discrimination laws for refusing to host a civil union ceremony in its beachfront pavilion in 2007. That case is still ongoing, but part of a state tax exemption was also revoked from the facility for its action. Take note of the tax exemption issue. If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land by edict of the Supreme Court next year, watch to see what happens down the road to the 501(c)(3) exemptions of those organizations whose beliefs and practices contradict the new reality.

In Vermont, Illinois, Hawaii and elsewhere, bed and breakfast inns run by people of faith have been targeted for discrimination complaints and lawsuits because the owners have refused to rent rooms or facilities for civil union or same-sex marriage events.

Freedom of Association

The federal courts’ recent treatments of associational freedoms focus on religious groups on college campuses as well as the rights of churches to meet in public buildings and hire their ministers without government interference.

Public colleges and universities have for a long time been a hotbed of political correctness. Whether it’s out and out hostility to religion by professors, or speech codes, or disputes over campus club membership restrictions, there is no end to the possibilities for attacks on religious freedom on campus.

In 2010, the Supreme Court got involved in a case over the associational rights of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the UC Hastings College of Law involving the club’s requirements concerning biblical belief and sexual behavior outside of the biblical definition of marriage. An LGBT group on campus complained, and the university then denied CLS official recognition. Although the facts and legal arguments are too detailed to present here, the bottom line is that the Court upheld what is called an “all comers policy” that the University had imposed on its campus clubs: all comers, regardless of whether they agree with a club’s foundational principles or not, must be allowed to join and even run for leadership positions. Since CLS could go off campus and enjoy all the associational freedom it desired, Justice Ginsburg held, its First Amendment rights were not violated. Being “banished” from campus life now seems to be the price for exercising your freedom of religion.

The Bronx Household of Faith has been in a long-running battle with the New York City Board of Education over the rental of public school facilities on weekends for church services. New York receives about 10,000 requests from community groups each year to rent out school facilities for evening and weekend events. Since the early 1990s, the City has been doing its best to deny churches the right to meet in its schools, alleging supposed “separation of church and state” problems. For about 17 years and counting, ADF has been defending this poor little neighborhood church against the ever-changing policies and arguments of the Big Apple. The church has lost in court on its viewpoint discrimination claim, but policy changes over the years now mean that though the City could still win under the free speech clause, it could lose under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, according to a federal district court judge’s recent ruling. Stay tuned.

Finally, last January, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the federal government’s incredibly wrong-headed argument that the First Amendment religion clauses do not protect a church’s ministerial hiring decisions. Chief Justice Roberts charitably referred to the government’s argument as “untenable” and “remarkable.”


In a world where the government believes that the First Amendment’s religious freedoms don’t apply to churches, religious organizations, non-profit and for-profit businesses, health-care providers, and anyone outside the four walls of a church building, we are all at risk. In a world where such people and organizations are relegated to second-class status off campus, or told to find a different line of work, or find a sign on public facilities that says “religion not welcome here,” we have entered an era not of tolerance, but intolerance.

On a hopeful note, we should thank legal organizations like ADF for defending us against the rising tide of laws, regulations, and policies that have the effect of infringing our religious freedoms. But we can’t leave it all up to them. We need to link arms and do the necessary grassroots-level work necessary to shore up our religious freedom at national, state, and local levels.

Bruce Hausknecht is the judicial analyst for CitizenLink, the policy arm of Focus on the Family.

Receive Public Discourse by email, become a fan of Public Discourse on Facebook, follow Public Discourse on Twitter, and sign up for the Public Discourse RSS feed.

Support the work of Public Discourse by making a secure donation to The Witherspoon Institute.

Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.

George Washington’s Legacy as a Foreign Policy Guide

- Mon, 2012-10-22 13:07
Washington’s life suggests that prudence, flexibility, and moderation both in personal and national pursuits of power should guide our leaders in their foreign policy strategies.

In Friday’s essay I introduced five principles for foreign policy established by our first president’s example. Today I explore these principles in greater depth and suggest applications for our twenty-first-century context.

1) Natural Rights and Providence: Pillars of Defense Policy

The Declaration of Independence carefully justifies a war to protect basic natural rights and constitutional government, as a last resort; it also specifies unacceptable forms of warfare concerning civilians, property, and prisoners. This spirit of constitutional republicanism informed Washington’s General Orders of July 9, 1776, which mandated that the Declaration be read to the troops so that they might under­stand “the grounds & reasons” of the war. Washington also made appeals to divine Providence part of his public statements on war. The same General Orders, for example, provided for chaplains and religious services, and called upon the “blessing and protection of Heaven.” And after the war, Washington’s writings always cited the guidance of transcendent ideals, albeit in careful, non-sectarian language. His words suggested that a republic should neither ignore the dynamic between governmental and private morality nor adopt religious zealotry in its policies, at home or abroad.

2) Civil-Military Relations: Basic Tenet of a Stable, Strong Republic

Throughout his decades in public life, from colonial Virginia to establishing a sound national constitution by the 1790s, Washington noted the dangers of both militarism and weakness. He established the republican principle of civil-military relations, which many nations of the world still do not enjoy: a professional military is necessary to protect liberty, but its power can be checked by subordination to laws and civil authority.

Washington himself repeatedly resisted temptations to greater power both during and after the war. In quelling an incipient officer coup against civilian authority that arose at headquarters in Newburgh, New York, in 1783, Washington argued for subordination to the government and then sealed it with a dramatic remark while reading a letter from Congress: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.” The once-rebellious officers, some in tears, unanimously reaffirmed allegiance to civil authority. The main doctrinal manual of the U.S. Army today opens with a reminder of this episode. We still need armed forces with this professional ethos, and leaders—both civilian and military—who will use our power to serve higher principles even at personal or political risk.

3) Moderation: Primary Virtue in Foreign and Defense Policy

Washington is no longer given much credit for being the single most important leader of the constitutional reform movement that, from 1783 to 1789, produced a balanced government capable of handling a nation’s affairs, including war and peace. The great themes of Washington’s presidency under the new Constitution he had sought were that executive power was safe for republicanism, and that constitutional government, not populism or parties, should guide the way through domestic and foreign trials. His general principle guiding foreign and defense policy is moderation, understood as the sober balance among ideas or actions advocated by Montesquieu—the modern philosopher most keen to instruct statesmen in practical judgment.

This moderation is familiar to us today in the more obvious elements of Montesquieuan political science, such as the complexity of viewpoints and balancing of interests inherent in separation of powers and federalism. But there must be the right spirit in the statesmen who will effectively lead such a complex order. Washington had the intellectual confidence to consult a wide range of intelligent advisers, and then to rely upon one over another as he saw fit. He insisted that fashioning sound foreign and defense policies requires proper deliberation and judgment, within and across constitutional branches, about particular situations—a complex, messy process in a constitutional republic, but a path of political moderation and sobriety that avoids extremes of doctrine or momentary passion.

4) Prudence and Flexibility in Executive Power

Washington’s complex approach to formulating foreign and defense policy featured a chief executive who balanced consultation, prudential judgment, secrecy, speed, and flexibility in both grand strategy and tactics. His advocacy of practical judgment over doctrines or “isms” would be merely Machiavellian if the aims guiding that judgment were immoral or amoral, or if the ends were thought to justify any means. The pattern throughout his career, however, was to avoid either an amoral expediency or an impractical moralism.

Washington, like Lincoln and Churchill after him, was guided not by abstract moral principles alone but by prudence that connects larger moral ends with particular actions and policies. As general and president he oversaw secret intelligence missions and other covert operations while stopping short of ruthlessness. In 1835 Tocqueville praised his ability to discern a sound policy in the 1790s when the French Revolution and Europe’s great power contest unleashed a storm of ideas and passions upon the American body politic. A statesman’s hand at the helm was needed, and Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America that “nothing less than the inflexible character of Washington” could check popular opinion “to prevent war from being declared on England.” Tocqueville noted: “The majority pronounced against his policy; now the entire people approves it. If the Constitution and public favor had not given the direction of the external affairs of the state to Washington, it is certain that the nation would have done then precisely what it condemns today.”

Washington’s statesmanship is a high bar to meet, but citizens, pundits, and scholars should judge particular leaders and policies against this broad standard.

5) Theories of Just War and Natural Law: Guiding Sources for Grand Strategy

As president, Washington’s main policies sought an adequate federal army and navy; peace with Indian nations and defense of existing American settlements by force if necessary, but not expansion; and protection of the republic not only from European great powers but also from two rival doctrines about relations with them. In pursuit of these aims, he adopted neither the realism of Hamilton nor the liberal internationalism or idealism advocated by Madison and Jefferson in germ, later by Woodrow Wilson more fully.

Instead, Washington blended principles from the just war tradition developed by classical philosophy and Christianity with the modern natural law and international law theory developed by Grotius, Pufendorf, and Montesquieu. These minds led Washington to apply moderation by balancing the growth of military power with limits to war grounded by natural rights and basic international rights.

The great test of Washington’s principle of moderation stemmed from the upheaval of the French Revolution and the radical democratic theory France sought to impress upon the world. His 1793 Neutrality Proclamation and 1795 treaty with Britain (the Jay Treaty) were to him the best options—or least-worst options—for securing both justice and national interest. Throughout partisan turmoil he defended the Constitution’s principle that foreign policy should bow neither to popular passions nor abstract creeds but should be debated by the branches somewhat insulated from popular opinion, the Senate and president. In an address to Congress he defended the “prudence and moderation” that had obtained and ratified the Treaty, and sought an honorable peace as the basis for America’s future prosperity and strength.

Washington’s maxim “to steer clear of permanent Alliances” is among the best-known ideas of the Farewell Address. Many accounts of his foreign policy confuse it with Jefferson’s later maxim about “entangling alliances,” which fosters the erroneous view that the Address launches a doctrine of isolationism. Instead, his main principle was that a secure, independent nation should surrender to neither interest nor abstract justice, neither passions nor fixed doctrines, but must balance and find moderation among these human propensities. In this prudential spirit, he rises above current disputes to state a general principle of a grand strategy: “a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption, to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, command of its own fortunes.”

His main concern was that a nation be independent enough to act wisely and justly; the fundamental principle was to be able to “choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.” He long had advocated provision for “the national security”; Theodore Roosevelt praised the maxim from Washington’s First Annual Message that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” He thus calls America to “observe good faith and justice towards all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?” He endorses the utilitarian maxim that “honesty is always the best policy,” but also urges America to “give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”

Republican Prudence for Our Globalized World

In the hope that these principles drawn from Washington’s legacy might spur greater engagement with our founding principles today, I conclude by floating a few suggestions about their relevance for our twenty-first-century dilemmas. Such counsels of republican prudence may seem platitudes—they don’t immediately provide policy advice on Iran, or cyber security, or defense spending—but in their way they are deeply relevant for sorting through policy options and debates.

First, we should observe the great success achieved by placing principle above power, by sticking to moderate policies amid partisan claims, and by carefully matching means to higher ends. The statesman widely held to be the Founding Father, in his own moment of dominance, resisted both the fog of power and the thrill of partisanship by sticking to the virtues and aims that had earned the public trust. Washington’s first principle—adherence to republicanism, natural justice, and transcendent truths about humankind—also makes him confident, in his Farewell Address, that America will be “at no distant period, a great Nation.” Washington’s other principles, and all his policies, rest on this foundation. If such discipline brought about the founding of America, and was at least partially adhered to by his successors as we rose to world power, on what grounds should we ignore it now? Are compromises with this principle—and Washington knew that human affairs always require compromises to some degree—justified by larger support for this principle itself?

Second, his insistence that we avoid both militarism and weakness implicates a range of issues from our defense force structure to public and private diplomacy. Washington’s advice to balance the claims of republican liberty and national defense arises in part from his awareness that the Romans lost their republic to an empire. Patient diplomacy must always be equal to, or supersede, the claims of pride and power in making national policy. This is not to say Washington would place a primary trust in international institutions or law, or in utopias of perpetual or democratic peace, but that we should maintain perspective and balance about our own temptations and motives as well as those of allies and adversaries.

Third, Washington’s specific constitutional ideas also touch policy at home and abroad. We should affirm a complex structure for formulating foreign and security policy as best for balancing liberty and security, and vet policies through both the executive and legislative branches—seeking not the lowest common denominator but the highest possible consensus on means and aims. Washington hoped his moderate principles would “prevent our Nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the Destiny of Nations,” but this presupposed that vigilance about both necessary defenses and the perils of war would animate all elements of the complex political order he founded.

Fourth, Washington’s counsel that executives should employ consultations, prudence, and flexibility in both grand strategy and tactics is difficult to achieve today, since we embrace populism, partisanship, and permanent campaigning more than the founders ever could. One maxim both Thucydides and Washington might offer is to resist the temptation to let current dominance and superior technology narrow our thinking about whether, when, or how to wage war, or about what the consequences or complications might be when a battle or missile strike is long over. Nor, at the other extreme, should we think we can hide behind a wall of technology and security while problems fester and allies falter abroad. We should not confuse Washington’s counsel of independence and moderation for a doctrine of passivity.

Should we generally adopt American internationalism and an assertive presence of both hard and soft power abroad in order to serve our interests and justice, or adopt an emphasis on diplomacy and international law, or a retreat from supposed over-commitments while using hard power only to address glaring, imminent threats? Washington’s counsels do not easily fit this typical menu of discrete, rival doctrines. A Washingtonian view might observe, for example, that a balanced policy of non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and democracy promotion is animated both by interest and benevolent justice—an enlightened self-interest of inextricably blended motives. Such a blend is as characteristic of American self-understanding as Washington hoped it would be.

Our challenges indeed are new in many ways, but the highest consensus of the founders still is the general aim proclaimed by all American presidents and parties—to benefit mankind and ourselves by respecting, as Washington stated, “the obligation[s] which justice and humanity impose on every Nation.” He stated in his Farewell Address that international affairs always requires “temporary alliances” and engagement with foreign nations, while America should try to “cultivate peace and harmony” with all. He might agree that the complexities of our age and our power now compel engagement to a great degree, such as our enduring leadership of the NATO alliance—since America could retain independent judgment for balancing interest and justice while leading (rather than being subordinate in) an alliance. Indeed, his advice on “permanent alliances” concerned doctrinaire thinking as much as alliances, since “permanent, inveterate” antipathies or attachments lay behind such commitments. He instead sought the independence and flexibility necessary to find a sound blend of the possible, the expedient, and the dutiful.

Specific debates on a preemptive strike, or a regime change, or a humanitarian intervention always must be pulled up to that broader calculus, and there is no codebook in the sky that captures just what is right or what will succeed. Washington’s principles thus are difficult and elude snappy slogans, but counsel moderation as we debate contending policy views—calling for both the moral principle to stand up for right and the humility to check one’s own power, to lead alone if necessary but with allies and by persuasion whenever possible. It is precisely the gravity of the threats and opportunities facing America today that justifies recurrence to the thought of such great statesmen as Washington, even if our novel circumstances require new applications of their principles and prudence to our problems.

Paul Carrese is a professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone, and not of the U.S. Government.

Receive Public Discourse by email, become a fan of Public Discourse on Facebook, follow Public Discourse on Twitter, and sign up for the Public Discourse RSS feed.

Support the work of Public Discourse by making a secure donation to The Witherspoon Institute.

Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.

First Principles for American Foreign and Security Policy: A Presidential Debate Primer

- Fri, 2012-10-19 05:36
As Americans consider foreign policy and national security issues during a presidential campaign, a refresher on our nation’s first principles provides guidance for assessing current problems and contending views. The first of a two-part series.

Our endless presidential campaign has led some citizens to shut their eyes and ears to the cacophony. However, recent events have reminded many people about our serious differences over national policies and priorities. The adage is that presidential elections are decided on peace and prosperity, especially for an incumbent; and while economic issues have dominated recent debate, suddenly there is room to discuss national security and American foreign policy. The recent terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is now a central political issue. Some voices insist this episode poses serious questions about the Obama administration’s foreign and national security policies, while others insist that a fairly minor episode is being sensationalized for partisan reasons.

How will these issues be discussed between President Obama and Governor Romney during Monday’s debate specifically focused on foreign policy? Serious citizens should pay attention.

To help guide the thoughtful citizen, I offer here comments about the current context of this debate, drawing on George Washington and with an eye toward first principles. While Washington often is considered only a figurehead among our founders, he was, in fact, the single most important leader regarding issues of national defense and foreign policy. He deliberately designed his “Farewell Address” (1796) to offer lasting principles for guiding his beloved republic, including advice and principles on how America should navigate the ever-challenging, often-dangerous arena of international affairs.

Current Debates and a Continued Need for First Principles 

Governor Romney recently delivered his first speech in many months exclusively devoted to foreign and national security policies. Even if Americans often like to forget about foreign affairs and national security—all the more so after eleven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with an urge to “come home” and focus on our own troubles—the terrible events in Libya and the attacks on American embassies in other parts of the Islamic world have jolted us back to a sober reality. We are the world’s largest and most influential political, economic, and military power. Our global presence and influence is a consequence of American policies and cultural characteristics that stretch back at least a century, and even earlier.

In other words, we have not left the world alone, and the world is not going to leave us alone. Much of the life that we find familiar and comfortable—of global commerce and relative prosperity at home, relatively cheap energy, the internet and social media, freedom to travel or learn about the globe—these and more are products of American power and influence. Can they be sustained and enjoyed without American international leadership? And, how serious will our citizenry and our leaders be in thinking about our foreign and defense policies to cope with, or shape, this era?

In the past four years both parties have responded to the war-weariness of the electorate. Many Democrats insist that America’s principles require us to respect the views of other states and cultures; we must beware of doing more harm than good by proclaiming ourselves the world’s leader, so we must wind down the current wars and avoid further ones. Many Republicans echo the view that resisted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s assertive American internationalism—often referred to as the Taft wing, occasionally as neo-isolationists—and warn that America should focus on its own defense and interests rather than affairs abroad.

Yet voices still exist within both parties that defend American internationalism and a strong presence in both hard power (military and intelligence capabilities) and soft power (diplomacy, aid, and cultural influence) throughout the world; they particularly urge leadership regarding our important interests and ideals—in the Middle East and East Asia, most controversially.

This range of debate, and these kinds of perplexities, date at least to George Washington’s first term as our first president. Politics usually has not stopped at the water’s edge, either in good times or in crisis. After the Cold War ended two decades ago, America was the superpower with unrivaled military, economic, and cultural might, but we also saw the dawn of a global struggle with terrorism—a global hegemon, yet beset by shadowy threats and unique burdens. Now we face cyber-attacks that could disrupt or seriously damage our communications and power systems. How should we address the persistence of global terrorist networks, and the persistence of powerful authoritarian regimes in Russia and China? How should we win, or responsibly end, the war in Afghanistan? How should we respond to, or shape, events in the ongoing revolution in Arab lands hopefully deemed the Arab Spring? Should we draw a red line to stop a revolutionary Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, and enforce that with military might? Is Europe a capable ally, worthy of our support?

Our debates over the war on terror and other pressing issues have become all the more rancorous in recent decades, given the bad influence of academia and intellectuals who tend to reduce international affairs to doctrines. Realism tells us it’s all about power and interests; liberal-internationalism tells us it’s all about moral principles, international law, and global institutions; the “democratic peace” school urges democracy promotion; neo-isolationists tell us to stop meddling abroad; the list could go on. These doctrines tend to cut us off from the full balance of our first principles, and from a fresh view of new developments. Moreover, they often yield not candid deliberation but contests between armed camps.

A return to first principles may help us to chart policies and strategies more consonant with the better angels of our history and national character, and with our justifiable interests. America was the first polity in history to be deliberately founded on ideas. It would be odd to think that our subsequent rise to global dominance in both hard and soft power somehow justifies amnesia about our original aims.

Washington’s Five Principles for American Foreign and Security Policy

In order to return to first principles, and especially to our founding general and president, we first have to remove a few obstacles. During the Cold War the great scholar Hans Morgenthau urged us to see Washington as a realist, advising consideration only of national power and interests. Washington more typically labors under two graver mis-readings: that his Farewell Address and other writings avow isolationism or passivity, and, that he was just a figurehead. Fortunately, several scholars in recent decades have explained why uncertain times call for revisiting this statesman who was no simple realist or isolationist, who was an intelligent leader both at home and abroad, and who offered sound principles on right, might, and diplomacy that long were cited as the guiding ideals of our republic.

Washington closed his career with a final address to “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens” that he hoped would endure—offering for “solemn contemplation” and “frequent review” principles he thought “all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.” Leading statesmen and thinkers consulted his Farewell Address up through Henry Cabot Lodge during the First World War, and Morgenthau cited it in the Cold War. Washington’s deeds and words are no cookbook of recipes for today, since the main lessons of the address and the career informing it are architectonic, not specific: America must base its security policy on principle and prudence rather than on power or popularity, and its strength must defend a decent republican politics rather than conquest or glory.

The address encapsulates a comprehensive approach to foreign policy, security, and war, derived from Washington’s decades of service devoted to liberty, constitutionalism, and political moderation. One can glean from the Address a set of guidelines—five broad, overlapping principles for strategic thinking:

1. The priority of a decent republic, rooted in natural justice and guided by transcendent truths about humankind—the end or aim of all national policies;

2. The subordination of military to civil authority, and avoidance of either militarism or weakness—what we now might call a principle of peace through strength;

3. Balancing liberty and security through a complex, moderate constitution that divides responsibility for foreign and defense policy—thus striving for a high-minded national consensus on the best means to our ends;

4. The need for statesmanship rather than mere politics within such a complex order, especially in a presidency balancing deliberation, prudence, and flexibility in both grand strategy and tactics;

5. The search for a grand strategy that balances interest, independence, and justice in foreign affairs through prudent recourse to just war principles and the classic right of nations.

Washington was a practical man of policies and action, but he insisted that these be chosen in light of sound principles and informed judgment. Those seeking concrete ideas on pressing issues of the day, especially during an election, may think these principles vague or useless. Washington knew from hard experience, however, that republics typically falter on strategic thinking, instead seizing on short term problems, adopting favored doctrines of the day, or following popular impulses. He doubtless would admit that we face massive and new problems today. He might remind us, however, that for over two decades he defeated a superpower and managed an international coalition, forged trust among members of his own federation, and navigated ruthless great-power politics—and all with vastly fewer resources at his disposal than America can marshal today.

A closer look at these five principles—the aim of Monday’s essay—can help thoughtful citizens sort through contending views of candidates and campaigns to assess what the next president and Congress should do regarding our important national challenges.

Paul Carrese is a professor of political science at Air Force Academy and a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone, and not of the US Government.

Receive Public Discourse by email, become a fan of Public Discourse on Facebook, follow Public Discourse on Twitter, and sign up for the Public Discourse RSS feed.

Support the work of Public Discourse by making a secure donation to The Witherspoon Institute.

Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.


Subscribe to Jurisprudence aggregator