Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | October 11, 2012

An American foreign policy requires American liberty

Mitt Romney delivered his long-awaited foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute on Monday, and the response has been underwhelming.  There’s not much vocal criticism, which from a campaign standpoint is probably fine.  But there’s not much interest in the speech either way.  Among my circle of e-quaintance, the most common reactions have been that Romney’s formulations were outdated and Cold War-ish, and that there’s a real question whether the United States, with $16+ trillion in federal debt, can afford to execute his policies.

These are valid criticisms.  I believe, however, that a President Romney will learn quickly in the Oval Office, unlike the ideologue who currently occupies it.  If anything, Obama’s foreign policy formulations are even more outdated.  Romney’s would have had some validity as touchstones through the mid-2000s; Obama’s hard-left, 1960s-radical ideas have been superannuated for decades.  The world has borne but little resemblance to the fantasy-narrative of the anti-colonialist, “multi-kulti” left since at least the 1970s, and none at all since the late 1980s.  Even with a viewpoint that still posits a Pax Americana – a condition now defunct – Romney starts out ahead.

I agree with much of what Romney laid out, in terms of desirable policy.  America does need to rebuild the military; emphasize missile defense; support our allies more usefully and obviously; prevent Iran from getting the bomb; encourage liberalization in the Arab Spring nations; finish the job effectively in Afghanistan, rather than merely scheduling a departure; deal more firmly (if not confrontationally) with Russia and China; defeat radical Islamist terrorism; negotiate freer trade where we can; and lead the world in encouraging liberalization and consensual government (“democracy”) abroad.  These are good focus areas for US foreign policy.

But people aren’t wrong to sense that we aren’t necessarily up to this level of energy – and expenditure – at the moment.  America herself is in crisis.  We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to be: a nation that still believes in liberty, rights before God, personal responsibility, and limited government; or one that commits itself to class-envy policies, overweening government, enforced dependency, and a web of ever-triangulating untruths about the human condition as our “national idea.”

Nearly four years of the latter, in a full-to-overflowing dose, have turned the current American sensibility wary, splintered, and tired.  The people have been digging into our reserves – financial, mental, familial, communal – for half a decade now, and the reserves are dwindling.  Many people are waking up to the fact that the ideological-regulatory-welfare state doesn’t work, but they don’t all understand yet that that’s what they are waking up to.

America has a lot of work to do.  America herself has always been the best advertisement for liberty.  And the reasons America is declining in that regard all map back to the conscious forfeiture of liberty over time (almost all in the last 100 years).  This is the crux of America’s standing before the world: either we are free, prosperous, and enviable – something unique to be emulated – or we are just another nation, preachier and better armed than most.

I found two important things missing from Romney’s foreign policy speech, and one was an affirmation of liberty – qua liberty – as the fundamental American idea.  If we are going to export ideas, we should start with liberty, and all it meant to our Founders about man’s standing before God and the limitations it implies on the state.  “Democracy” is not an American idea, nor was it an American ideal prior to its gradual insertion in school curricula from the early to mid-20th century.  (The Founders despised democracy, associating it with mob rule and state decline.)

As a practical matter in foreign policy, we should, as the opportunity arises, encourage the development of consensual governments where they don’t exist today.  The standard forms for this are adult suffrage and multi-party systems.  But instituting these procedural arrangements is neither a panacea nor the quintessential evidence of American influence on the world.  European colonial powers fostered elections too, as they negotiated their way out of their former colonies, and there was no resulting eruption of liberty and prosperity.  Cold War Communists held plenty of elections.  To get the benefits of liberty, you have to emphasize and embrace liberty.

There is a limit to what we can do abroad in this regard.  We can advocate, but not dictate.  The most powerful thing America does, however, is model the benefits of liberty.  And this is the hinge point of American influence and capability abroad.  To justify the global leadership of a free people, we must practice liberty at home.  To pay for the global leadership of a free people, we must practice liberty at home.

If we want to negotiate sound free trade agreements, for example, our only option is letting Americans prosper.  Otherwise, Americans themselves will only see the downside of free trade.  Prosperity is increased by free trade, but doesn’t start with it; prosperity starts with liberty at home, individual initiative, and reliable conditions in which to exercise it.  Deregulating our economy is the most important thing a US president could possibly do to foster the conditions for free trade.  Even our tax code is not as important as our current regulatory environment, which has become the nation’s number one job-killer because it is aggressively expansive, eccentric, arbitrary, virtually unsupervised by Congress, and personally punitive on the part of government regulators.

If we want to encourage liberalization abroad – or if we want to make moral points about repression by the Iranian mullocracy, or what kind of government Afghanistan has, and how Afghans treat their women – we have to not only let Americans be free, but endorse, celebrate, and have a common definition for liberty of conscience and the classical-liberal idea. 

This is where I saw the second thing missing from Romney’s speech.  With the political triumphs of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia (also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – and a leading Sunni philosopher of sharia and the modern state), it’s “on” with state-Islamism in the Sunni Muslim world.  Westerners have been able to frame Shia Iran as an isolated, wildly extreme Islamist regime, and have largely declined to interest themselves in the political Islamization of NATO ally Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  But Egypt and Tunisia are long-time, moderate Arab partners of the United States, and Egypt in particular has the potential to assume a leadership role in the Arab world.  State-Islamism as a nascent political force is no longer isolated or theoretical.  As of 2012, it is real and present.

Meanwhile, Americans are justly concerned about our religious and intellectual liberties, for multiple reasons.  The contraception mandate under ObamaCare has galvanized the voters as few things have in the last 50 years; even many Congressional Democrats have been busy distancing themselves from it in the wake of the 2010 election.  Forcing people to buy a product (insurance coverage, in this case) to which they have religious objections certainly appears to violate the First Amendment principle that Congress will not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Yet the brouhaha over the mandate raises the more fundamental question why anyone, whether armed with religious objections or not, should have to purchase a service he doesn’t want to.  Why shouldn’t companies be able to decline, on whatever principle they choose, to purchase contraception coverage for their employees?  Why shouldn’t individuals be free to decline to buy health insurance at all?

Americans who can’t readily answer those questions are ill-equipped to deal with questions like why President Obama got it 100% wrong on the matter of the Innocence of Muslims video.  There are good reasons why the principle of liberty should override what other people are offended by, but do Americans know anymore what they are?  Are we ready to enforce the principle of liberty – on our own soil, at least – regardless of who takes offense at it?

I trust a President Romney not to abjectly apologize for the Innocence of Muslims video (and certainly trust him not to make up stories about the role of that deeply silly video in attacks on US embassies).  In terms of practical response, he won’t make these mistakes – and that is a big net positive.

But his foreign policy speech elided or glossed over two of the most important features of the current foreign policy environment: the confusion over and decline of American liberty – which makes every aspect of a US foreign policy either possible, or not – and the interlinked issue of state-Islamism, which whether we like it or not is dedicated to building an alternative vision for human life and the future.  State-Islamism clashes directly with the American principle of liberty, and clashes with it where it matters: in the daily lives of the people.  It must not be part of our foreign policy to curtail American liberty as a talisman against offending others – but more than that, it must be a part of our foreign policy to affirm the right to liberty, starting with the citizens of the United States.

I imagine Romney did not want to make his speech overly controversial by introducing a newly framed idea of potential menace from state-Islamism, and for that I don’t necessarily blame him.  The speech seems less in tune with reality because of it, but there’s a case to be made that continuing to frame policy within the old constructs leaves the door open – and properly so – to engagement with the Islamizing nations.  Perhaps there is still room to influence Morsi’s behavior in a positive direction.  If so, Romney shouldn’t burn bridges before January.

But we have reached the point at which he could not give a speech that was realistic and up to date, and still hold open doors that were built to swing on cues from the past. He could do one or the other; not both.

America isn’t in shape to be the jumping-off point for Romney’s foreign policy – at least not for all of it.  We need a reaffirmation of liberty and an opportunity to rebuild.  We aren’t the America Reagan was elected to lead in 1980.

Nor is the world outside that of the Cold War or the post-Cold War Pax Americana.  Too much has changed.  There is a movement abroad that opposes itself to the very essence of what America was meant to be.  It is not a movement of “all Muslims”; all Muslims is a very broad, diverse category, and most Muslims, like most people of any faith or background, are relatively apolitical, and get their political ideas largely from the society around them.  The great majority of American Muslims live in peace and harmony in our liberal society.

It is rather a radical intellectual movement, in some ways similar to international Marxism, and it has the power to polarize and repel populations.  As we speak, it is shifting its strategic focus from terrorism to the control of armed nation-states.  It has already had a run-in with American liberty, courtesy of the foreign policy instincts of President Obama.  It is real, and it’s not going away.  And yet the most effective way to oppose it is to affirm liberty at home, in exactly the circumstances under which Obama has recently apologized for it.

Without American liberty, there is no American foreign policy; there are only the cynical calculations of Anystate.


J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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  1. We need a reaffirmation of liberty

    Numero uno, how about a description of this liberty thing. And, once that’s done, an explanation of why it needs to be affirmed.

    The word, and concept, for that matter, are amorphous abstractions in which everyone seems to believe but also have different definitions. Can’t have too much of that liberty or well, things would get out of control. We need a Goldilocks that can heat up the liberty porridge so it’s not to cold and not too hot. Liberty that’s just right. So who gets to be Goldilocks?

  2. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the [individual’s] pursuit of Happiness.”

    “Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.” Robert A. Heinlein

    Taking Heinlein’s dictum and applying it to liberty and the individual pursuit of happiness, we should be at liberty to pursue whatever makes us happy that does not hurt others unnecessarily or impinge upon their liberty.

    In other words, my rights stop where yours begin and vice versa.

    • “In other words, my rights stop where yours begin and vice versa.”

      Geoff (I assume that’s you GB), that sounds very libertarian to me. Does that mean you think someone should have the legal right to, for example, do heroin or cocaine? Presumably my smoking marijuana doesn’t hurt you unnecessarily. Or do you believe differently?

      • Yes, it’s me Ritchie just a glitch with wordpress. On certain issues, I am moderately libertarian. I’m perfectly OK with legalizing marijuana. Heroin especially and Cocaine a bit less so are too destructive to society for me to agree to decriminalization.

        My main criticism of libertarians is their tendency to extend a narrow set of principles into the realm of viewing issues through a prism of solely black and white. There are shades of grey, as well as black and white and common sense, pragmatism and idealism must all be considered.

        • GB, I consider myself to have a little more of a libertarian streak than your average conservative, but I’m certainly not in Ron Paul territory. I struggle with the drug issue. From a moral standpoint it seems that the right thing to do is legislate against its usage. From a practical standpoint, legalization seems to make lots of sense. The state would cut prison costs significantly and would probably see a windfall of cash from taxation. Also, despite drug laws making them illegal, people don’t seem to have much trouble getting drugs. I feel as if legalization wouldn’t much change the amount of drug consumption, which begs the question why the laws remain on the books. I have never taken any (illegal) drugs before in my life. If drugs were legalized, I still wouldn’t take any drugs. I have no interest in them. I wonder if people would mostly be the same way or if they would buy drugs now because they were no longer illegal. Anyway, my guess is that we’ll not be finding out any time soon the impact on society of drug legalization.

          • Any thinking person is going to struggle with the drug issue Ritchie. It’s a perfect example of an issue that consists of black, white and shades of gray.

            Really hard core drugs like heroin, pcp, meth, crack cocaine, etc. are clearly dangerous drugs that no society can condone. That said, was the repeal of prohibition mistaken? If not, how to justify the criminalization of marijuana, a drug with far less potential for harm?

            The insight that cuts to the heart of the issue is that relatively harmless drugs used (and here I include alcoholic beverages) moderately by non-addictive personalities (the great majority) are relatively innocuous but that addictive personalities are going to seek out, legally or illegally, their ‘drug of choice’ and abuse it.

            It’s part of the human condition and if someones use of a drug presents no harm to others, of what business is it of society’s?

            In such a case, (moderate use of a mild drug) where no harm is being done to others, by what right would society infringe upon the individuals right to pursue that form of happiness?

  3. Romney is a businessman not a foreign policy wonk. That said, his foreign policy positions are fundamentally correct, if unsophisticated. There’s no doubt in my mind that Romney understands the primacy of liberty, as a social value.

    Until events lead to greater consensus in the foreign policy sphere however, there is only so far that Romney can lead the US. He can however, ensure that we have a strong military, economic policies that make sense and advocate social positions that encourage personal responsibility and accountability. All of which will be of great importance in positioning America to respond successfully when consensus does emerge.

  4. It is now unfortunately way passed the point where the US can mold or influence the world in our favor.

    Rebuilding our influence in the world begins with putting our domestic house in order. First order of business is putting the economy on track, no small task. It will take a decade at least. Since our society will show the same reticence it has shown in several recent conflicts over decisively finishing the job, any further major foreign entanglements or interventions will only be skilfully used by our adversaries to trap us into quagmires and sabotage our attempts at economic reform, .. Time to disengage from the world and let it find its bloody way without us.

    Within a fortnight of announcing our disengagement a plethora of nations freind and foe, will be clamoring for us to reengage.

    Time for Achilles to withdraw from battle.

    • Yes, our first order of business is putting the economy on track, which is no small task. That task begins with the first point of Romney’s 5 point plan; energy independence.

      Perhaps I misunderstand the degree of disengagement you favor but leaving the world to totalitarian China, Putin’s Russia and the in-all-but name, emerging radical jihadist Caliphate is potentially a prescription for disaster.

      That said, I’m not discounting the value of avoiding quagmires, recognizing our diminished influence and the truth that our “society will show the same reticence it has shown in several recent conflicts over decisively finishing the job”.

      I would suggest that maintaining strong ties with traditional allies, such as India, Japan, S. Korea, Israel, the English commonwealth nations, etc makes sense, in allowing America to reemerge as a dominant global player once our house is in order.

      Our philosophical premise should always be expressing support both verbally and concretely for our principles, which as opticon pointed out, must start with our belief in an individuals unalienable right to liberty.

      Certainly a more sophisticated, subtler approach is called for in dealing with our adversaries. They have no patent upon skillful subterfuge.

      And if, “Within a fortnight of announcing our disengagement a plethora of nations friend and foe, will be clamoring for us to reengage” then we have more influence than with which you give us credit.

      The problem isn’t ‘lack of leverage’, its identifying the ‘fulcrum’ needed to turn the tables on our adversaries.

      I suspect that with the Chinese its in the economic sphere wherein the fulcrum lies. They need us at least as much as we’ve neede them. It’s the trade balance wherein the power differential lies.

      Geographical constraints prevent Russia from expansionist dreams, so the Russian’s only present a threat in their covert war of aggression facilitating Islamic terrorism. And, if jihadist nation states are not permitted to attain nuclear capability and Muslim immigration is curtailed, then all they can really do is pound sand in frustration, while over time, future Middle eastern generations are exposed to the cultural acid of the modern world.

      No quagmire is permanent unless we keep expecting to get different results from the same methodologies.

      • No GB you didn’t misunderstand. I left the degree of disengagement deliberately vague to spur debate.

        But I certainly wouldn’t want Hillary being the one doing the engaging 🙂

  5. Since we are or the subject of foreign policy a month before the elections, it might be useful to download the SECSTATE’s keynote address at

    I think it’s despicable hypocrisy and she’s gonna get a lot of our people killed….unnecessarily.

    Y’all can draw you own conclusions.

    • criminal stupidity…

      • Our misguided SECSTATE evidently wishes to use the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to turn the planet into a vast Bosnia or Kosovo. I particularly enjoyed the “rule of law” part… since the Clintonite intervention in the former Yugoslavia was a flagrant violation of it and set the precedent for any strong state or group of states to impose its/their will on weaker ones….Georgia is one that comes to mind. Now, anywhere there is a disaffected minority… it will be grounds for intervention in that states internal affairs. She purports that it is spreading freedom, it is actually doing what they say the are preventing…spreading extremism.

        I won’t get into the whitewashing of the Ambassador’s murder…

        • A tenet of the pacifistic liberal catechism is that the sole justification for using military power is in humanitarian efforts…

          That tenet is embraced by its advocates as justification for self-worth, any reason and logic that threatens liberals sense of self-esteem will be rejected. And various rationalizations will be used to justify that rejection.

          Liberals suffer from arrested development and thus are ruled by their hearts, they then use their minds to rationalize what makes them feel good about themselves. Psychological insecurity lies at the heart of liberalism.

          Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of this psychological type.

          • Speaking of foreign affairs and Hillary… did you catch this clever and entertaining piece ? No offense implied to our dear hostess of course.


            And Optcon, if you really want a NATO naval base in the Ukraine, before Russia enters the club… don’t be surprised if Russia’s response invokes Clintonian “RTP” in the majority ethnic Russian Crimea. 🙂

            • I can’t quite decide if its satire or simple stupidity…

              • You’re pullin my leg, right GB?

                Unless you are referring to my Crimea comment…:)

                • No, I’m serious. I placed satire first because that’s what I hope it is but I failed, perhaps I overlooked, any definitive part that would confirm it as satire. If they’re serious, then of course its PC stupidity.

                  • I do guarantee you jgets that there are people who will take it completely seriously and fully support the view that women’s unique qualities particularly suit diplomacy and that, as a gender, men can never quite measure up, no matter how great their experience, intelligence, acumen or empathy.

                    There are plenty of rabid feminists, male as well as female, who believe that men are innately inferior to women. Misandry, the hatred of men is alive and well in our time.

  6. This is the best essay on current events that I have read in thirty years. Thank you for posting it.

  7. […] and limited government, including a limited idea of what government’s scope should be, are essential, because government can’t call forth positive motives through organization or force.  It can […]

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