Has the United States sacrificed its founding and traditional values in its conduct of foreign policy?
The Democratic and Republican parties have gotten out of step with the public. Neither of the major parties is serious about solving the nation’s fiscal crisis. Republican candidates won’t reduce military spending. Democratic candidates won’t reduce entitlement spending.
To protect their respective priorities and constituencies, the parties go along with both the welfare state and the warfare state. Hence, Democratic and Republican exceptionalism guarantees fiscal irresponsibility.
Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that America’s number one national security threat is debt. Rasmussen polls show that eight out of ten Americans believe that economic threats are greater than military ones. Two out of three voters want a smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes. Four out of five voters think Americans are overtaxed.
Only a third of Americans share the Republican view of exempting the military from budget reductions. The public only supports a dozen of the United States’ standing commitments to defend 56 nations.
Only 11% of Americans want to be “global policeman,” 75% think no troops should be stationed overseas except for “vital national security interests,” and only 28% want to keep troops in Europe. Most Americans favor “Protect America First” — rather than “Send Americans First.”
The Democratic and Republican parties serve different constituencies and identity groups, yet both are beholden to Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, AIPAC and other major special interests.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protest the corruption of the two-party system. Campaign finance reform isn’t popular with politicians whose job is raising money. The left feels betrayed by the Democratic Party. The right feels betrayed by the Republican Party. And the American people are betrayed by both parties.
Democratic and Republican exceptionalism has failed the country. We are in the midst of the greatest constitutional crisis the nation has faced in 225 years. The imperial Presidency must be ended and the executive brought back into balance with Congress and the courts.
Political competition has become a destructive zero-sum game for the nation. Democrats pay taxes for the welfare state, and are willing to raise taxes to pay for the warfare state. Republicans pay taxes for the warfare state, but refuse to pay more taxes for the welfare state. Trillion dollar annual deficits are covered through unsustainable borrowing. Republicans and Democrats compete to be fiscally irresponsible.
With trillion-dollar annual deficits, the time is approaching fast when credit downgrades will force significant reductions in government expenditures. By not cutting spending, Republican and Democratic inaction sets the country on a path where annual borrowing costs will be the largest individual cost in the federal budget.
In 2011, annual interest payments climbed to $400 billion. When all-time low interest rates (currently about 3%) move up, interest payments on cumulative federal debt will exceed the Pentagon’s budget.
America’s financial crisis will redefine the meaning of “strong defense.” The Founders were very clear on this subject. The Constitution doesn’t require a large military to protect the nation. In fact, the Founders were afraid of the military. They believed that liberty and war were incompatible. They established constitutional government to make the state work for the individual. War, however, makes the individual subservient to the state.
Since the Cold War ended, the United States has been at war two out of every three years. None of these wars were declared by Congress as required by the Constitution. Consequently, few Americans can name every war the President is fighting.
The United States is currently engaged in many clandestine military operations around the globe. There is no end in sight, with war aims not clearly stated or understood. President Obama, as a war president, is no longer under the law, he is the law.
A plague on both political houses! The glory of empire is taking false communal pride in telling other countries what to do. The glory of the Republic is each individual’s opportunity to do what you want to do and become what you want to be.
The price of the Republic is accepting personal risk and failure. The price of empire is the loss of personal freedom and the collective failure of the nation.
The Founders believed that “strong defense” meant defending our borders and active diplomacy. America must not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy and must avoid entangling alliances. Global military dominance destroys constitutional government.
So what can be done? A place to start is heeding the words of John Quincy Adams, in his famous address to Congress on July 4, 1821. Adams explained why the preservation of American individualism — the essence of American exceptionalism — demands a noninterventionist foreign policy:
[America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart… Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit… [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.
How We Lost American Exceptionalism
How did Democrats and Republicans both become the parties of war and the purveyors of an interventionist foreign policy?
The disintegration of American exceptionalism was a long time coming. The idea that government is a devil at home and the country is an angel abroad originates in the American Civil War. The idea that government is an angel at home and abroad originates in the Progressive Era.
The Civil War was horrific. New scholarship estimates that 752,000 men died, significantly more than the 618,000 previously thought. One in three Southern men of military age died. The country’s GDP was cut in half. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and increased the power of the federal government and the executive branch. Limited government would never be the same after the Civil War.
While the North prevailed on the battlefield, the country remained bitterly divided. For Southerners, the Civil War was a second war of independence. Southerners developed a split personality about the federal government. At home, they fought it every step of the way. Abroad, they embraced it, becoming the backbone of the American military. Southern exceptionalism embraced limited government at home, but led Big Government abroad.
Southerners saw no inconsistency in their reaction to the Civil War. Northern soldiers were given pensions (government programs) and Squibb drugs (healthcare). Confederate soldiers didn’t enjoy these positive rights. The South would rise again by finding strength in self-reliance (guns and religion). The Southern warrior class vowed never to lose another American war.
Following on the heels of the Mexican-American War — as a war of choice , the first crack in the idea of American exceptionalism — the Civil War fractured American exceptionalism and sowed the seeds for competing exceptionalisms based on political parties. It would take almost a century for the Republican Party to adopt Southern exceptionalism.
After the Civil War, the Republican Party allowed special interests to run the federal government. Crony capitalism was another deadly assault on limited government. The Democratic Party — representing the South — responded with the Progressive Era. Big Government — not the Constitution — would shield the citizen against robber baron excesses.
Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern President after the Civil War, transformed the Democratic Party into the war party. With far-reaching consequences, Wilson took the country to war against Germany. Repackaging Manifest Destiny, Wilson told the American people that it was our duty to save the world for democracy.
War no longer was defending our borders. War was now justified as promoting democracy around the world. America was now a force for good in the world. Big Government abroad paved the way for Big Government at home. From Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party led the country into (and in) World War I and World War II. Republicans called them “Democrat wars” and clung to the Founder’s noninterventionist foreign policy.
Bipartisan embrace of WilsonianismIn 1952, Republicans threw in the towel. When Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, defeated Ohio Senator Robert Taft for the Republican presidential nomination (and later defeated Adlai Stevenson in the general election), Republicans joined Democrats in a bipartisan embrace of Wilsonianism. Never again would Republicans be accused of isolationism.
The government was still a devil at home but now — with Republican patriots leading the charge — America was a force for good in the world. For a half of a century, Republican exceptionalism ran the White House for 36 years — and government spending increased every year.
During the Cold War, American exceptionalism was redefined by Republicans and Democrats into something the Founders would not recognize. America was no longer exceptional because of our unique form of self-government. Limited government no longer existed to protect the sovereignty of the individual. The government now expanded to promote democracy abroad. (Never mind that the American Republic was never a democracy. Never mind that the Founders rejected a strong executive.)
Southern exceptionalism captured the hearts and minds of Republicans. Over the course of a century, the North moved South, the South switched parties, Southerners moved West, and political segregation replaced racial segregation. By embracing Southern militarism, Republicans replaced the Democratic Party as the war party.
Republicans found political advantage in casting national security in terms of love of country. Republicans positioned themselves as the true patriots because they hated communism more than Democrats.
Democrats, they argued, couldn’t be trusted with national security because they hired communists in the executive branch. Democrats were attacked for losing China. Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War out of fear of being accused of losing another country to communism.
The Republican Party remained the war party in the decades after the Cold War. Democrats remain vulnerable to the charge of being weak on national security as long as America is leader of the free world. As the party of the namesake of Wilsonianism, Democrats are hoisted by their own petard.
Since Republicans oppose the welfare state, they can focus their energy exclusively on the warfare state. Democrats care more about the welfare state but, to be politically competitive, they support Republican wars and, not to be outdone, invent their own wars.
After 9/11, Republican neoconservatives upped the ante, falsely claiming that militarism is American exceptionalism. Neither party dares tell the truth: Citizens are taxed to pay for the biggest military in world history — and they are expected in the future to pay public debts that were run up in support of that military.
How are the Democratic and Republican parties both complicit in turning the United States into a warfare/welfare state?
The American experiment has failed. American exceptionalism and the Republic are dead. As in Communist countries before, the Constitution isn’t observed. The warfare state and the welfare state have replaced the citizen state.
The moral and philosophical character of American culture is depleted. Americans no longer prize or enjoy the same rights under the Constitution as they once did. The Founders mistakenly assumed that future generations would place the same value on limited government as they did.
The warfare state uses the two forms of government the Founders rejected: democracy and a strong executive. Political protection has replaced legal protection. As a result, American citizens no longer govern themselves and currently live in a halfway house between the rule of law and the law of the jungle.
The two-party system rejected the liberty of the Republic in favor of what the Founders called empire. Democrats see government as a force for good in America and the world. Republicans see America as a force for good overseas. “Bad guys” must be stopped from doing terrible things to their people. Supporting “good guys” spreads democracy and makes the world a safer place for Americans. By assuming global dominance, both parties hold America responsible for the fate of the world.
Democrats sell heaven on earth (the government can solve any problem). Republicans sell hell on earth (the world is a dangerous place). The Democratic Party sees government as an angel at home and abroad. The Republican Party sees the government as a devil at home and the country as an angel abroad.
In Republican exceptionalism, America abroad can be either an avenging angel or a beneficent angel. The avenging angel is the preferred mode of behavior, but, in the right circumstances, it is permissible to give hard-earned American tax dollars away to foreigners. The military isn’t seen as being part of Big Government. Republicans are reluctant to see the symbiosis between the warfare state and the welfare state.
In Democratic exceptionalism, government is a benign angel dispensing benefits to citizens and foreigners alike. Social engineering is the preferred mode of behavior. Since more government makes America strong, nation-building is good for foreigners too.
Democrats don’t suffer from a split personality. For them, government is good. Big Government abroad strengthens Big Government at home. If pushed to choose, Democrats care more about domestic programs and, therefore, are more apt to admit mistakes abroad than at home. There is less reluctance to acknowledge the synergy between the welfare state and the warfare state.
Republicans see Big Government in every domestic benefits program. Democrats should apologize for all of their willful interventions and repeated mistakes. Abroad, Republicans see their country (rather than their government) as the actor. This makes apologies intolerable.
In a world of avenging and beneficent angels, there is no place for mistaken interventions. Republican schizophrenia casts government as a devil at home, but America — via the military — as an unquestioned force for good in the world.
Democratic and Republican exceptionalism is antithetical to American exceptionalism. By seeing America as “a force for good in the world,” the two parties have become a force for bad at home, promoting the state at the expense of the individual.
The warfare state and the welfare state have replaced the citizen state of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The citizen no longer controls the government. The government now controls the individual.
The unchecked warfare stateFor half a century, government spending has risen every year, creating a $15 trillion federal debt — larger than our annual GDP. While emphasizing individual opportunity and responsibility at home, Republicans shower the military with taxpayer money.
The federal government spends $1.2 trillion every year on “security,” which includes multiple wars, more than a thousand overseas bases, a military nation-building capability of almost a million troops, 11 aircraft carriers each housing 5,000 personnel, an unaudited Pentagon bureaucracy, 16 intelligence agencies, black budgets for special ops, 5,000 nuclear weapons, open-ended commitments for disabled Veterans, and homeland security.
Since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, neither party has exercised effective civilian control over the military. Five percent of the world’s population spends half of the world’s military budget. Democrats vote for the warfare state to protect the welfare state. Republicans go along with the welfare state to build the warfare state. The two parties are locked into assigned roles, like a bad marriage.
In the process, the American economy has steadily declined as manufacturing moved overseas. Today, 40% of U.S. manufacturing resides in the unproductive federal jobs program Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.
Contrary to what one might expect, Democratic presidents (or would-be presidents) also cannot be trusted to keep us out of war. Al Gore supported the first Bush war against Iraq. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton supported the second Bush war against Iraq.
Barack Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan out of fear of being labeled weak on national security. Not content with that, Obama has become the first “drone war” president — and, like Bill Clinton in Bosnia, attacked Libya without a declaration of war in the name of humanitarianism.
Democratic and Republican administrations have jumped at the chance to interfere in the affairs of other nations. The same question is always asked: What are we going to do about Iraq? What are we going to do about Afghanistan? What are we going to do about….?
Once we put troops on the ground, discussions always begin and end with the statement: “We can’t lose…!”
Both parties wrap themselves in the flag and compete for starting new wars and policing the world. In the name of freedom, Democrats and Republicans eagerly search the globe for monsters to destroy. Democrats and Republicans champion liberty abroad, while stealing it from our citizens at home.
The role of citizens and government has been reversed. Citizens no longer control their government, citizens are beholden to their government. The Constitution no longer guides the actions of the United States nor defines the existential purpose of Americans in the world.
The American government runs a global welfare system for military contractors. Democrats and Republicans have committed America to defend 56 countries. Democrats and Republicans are no longer content to lead the world by example. By enlisting under banners other than her own, America is engaged in a permanent war, with no apparent way to stop it.
No longer is America the ruler of her own spirit. The glory of American exceptionalism was liberty. The glory of Democratic and Republican exceptionalism is dominion. Force has replaced liberty.
As a result, American exceptionalism is dead. Republicans and Democrats no longer share the founding view that the government is fallible both at home and abroad.
The Idea of American Exceptionalism
Has the United States lost the set of civic values that made it exceptional among nations?
Today is the 236th anniversary of America's declaration of independence from the British monarchy. Parades, celebrations and fireworks will mark the occasion in cities and towns throughout the United States. The Globalist marks the occasion with a new "Thomas Paine" series on the meaning, evolution and demise of American exceptionalism.
In the beginning, American exceptionalism was a simple idea: Citizens are sovereign. "We the People of the United States" are the most electrifying words of the Constitution.
"We the people" were captains of our fate and masters of our souls. We governed ourselves. We weren't governed by the military, special interests or political parties. We weren't governed by the left or the right. We were governed by the Constitution. The Constitution created a republic to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans held this truth above all to be self-evident.
The federal government had limited power over citizens in the American Republic. The Founders rejected democracy because it didn't go far enough in protecting the individual from the tyranny of the majority. And they rejected a strong executive because it would give one citizen too much power over all other citizens.
American exceptionalism — a government tailored for the rights of the individual — was threatening to governments based on monarchy, ruling classes, tribes and colonial occupations. Europeans regarded America as a dangerous nation.
Oliver Wendell Holmes called self-government the American experiment. The Founders knew the republic was the most vulnerable form of government.
Benjamin Franklin expressed this succinctly when he was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government the Founders had just established. "A republic," Franklin said, "if you can keep it."
The Founders were ambitious and set a high a bar for themselves and subsequent generations. While providing individuals more legal protections than a democracy, a republic demands greater citizen involvement.
As citizens, we have a sacred duty to conserve government by the active — not passive — consent of the governed. A people of sheep will beget a government of wolves.¹ The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is a brave heart.² There's no free lunch in a republic.
Americans aren't exceptional because we were born in or immigrated to America. Americans aren't exceptional as a nation-state. Americans can only be exceptional as individuals. And Americans can only be exceptional if we are well informed and willing to make hard choices and take risks. Apathy, ignorance and risk aversion are the death sentence of the American experiment.
Democracy can exist by electing strong executives and rubber-stamping their decisions. A republic can't. A republic tries the soul of every citizen. A republic can't tolerate summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who shrink from the hard work of self-government.
That is why the idea of American exceptionalism begins and ends with the individual citizen. The price of the Republic is the acceptance of risk and tolerance of failure by citizens.
An antidote to militarism
History taught America's Founders that war is the surest path to a strong executive. That is why the Founders went to great lengths to make it so difficult for the nation to go to war. More than half of the Constitutional Convention was spent debating the proper role of the three branches in war. Because war increases its power, the executive could not be trusted to keep the nation out of war.
The Founders gave Congress the power to declare war, fund war and impeach the president. The Founders gave the judiciary the power to protect individual rights during war and see that the executive lived within the limits of the Constitution.
George Washington warned against "permanent alliances" and "passionate attachments" to foreign countries because they increased the likelihood of war and the size of government. Thomas Paine mused that "taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes."
The Founders didn't create a standing army out of fear it would become a constituency for war. Large banks were also viewed as a special interest that would undermine the republic. But no threat outside the republic would ever rival the existential threat of ignorance and apathy among it citizens.