America’s Common Sense Foreign Policy

When America was the common sense nation, quite naturally, it had a common sense foreign policy. That policy is simple to state: America minded its own business and left other people to mind theirs. That policy was followed with scarcely a misstep by America’s leaders from the time of the founders through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. It succeeded spectacularly. America rose among nations during the era of its common sense foreign policy. 

The election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 brought an end to that policy and to the era of America’s peace among nations. America’s progressive elite swiftly imposed a new foreign policy that rejected the principles that had worked so well—and plunged America into 11 disastrous decades of international quagmires. 

This story is brilliantly told in the late Angelo Codevilla’s splendid new book America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams. Codevilla begins with these words: “This book contrasts the successful foreign relations under presidents from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt with the disarray resulting from Progressive management ever since.” 

Although it was practiced by America’s leaders throughout America’s long era of peace with other nations, America’s original foreign policy was most clearly articulated by John Quincy Adams. Codevilla presents Adams’ view with simple clarity:

[J]ust as others’ business, others’ quarrels, and others’ objectives are rightfully and inescapably their own, America is the sole, sovereign judge of its own business, of what our own safety and welfare require. This, Adams argued, is international law as well as common sense.

Abandoning the principles of conduct among nations that had succeeded so well hurled America into a world of hurt. Codevilla examines those 11 disastrous decades of progressive mismanagement with originality and clarity, unfolding for our understanding the whole tragedy from World War I and World War II through Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Despite Adams’ clear statement of the principles and George Washington’s warnings against entangling alliances, America’s progressive elite has pledged young American soldiers to defend with their lives the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Albania, and other lands of Central and Eastern Europe—to name only one unstable region of the world. This is not what the Founders intended.

The founders had a clear understanding of the purpose of the military. Military strength was intended only to prevent others from meddling in our business. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, stay out of other peoples’ business, talk softly, and carry a big stick. This remains the common sense thinking of most Americans today. 

In contrast, the progressives are playing a dangerous game by talking loudly about regime change in Russia while continuing to block the missile defense system America urgently needs to protect ourselves from nuclear missiles launched by Russians, the Chinese, and even Iranians using ships just offshore. (For more on the Ukraine crisis in the light of common sense, I recommend Brian Kennedy’s thoughtful analysis.)  

Sensible Americans reject the progressive foreign policy that has dragged America into more and more conflicts abroad and dragged Americans into more and more conflicts over foreign policy here at home. They also reject the changes to America the progressives are imposing in their top-down war on the American people.

Even in Woodrow Wilson’s day, Americans rejected his fundamental foreign policy postulate. Codevilla puts it this way:

The American people rejected the self-contradictory notion that Wilson’s League of Nations could at once insure all would go to war for each, and that it would relieve each and all, especially Americans, of the need to go to war at all.

It remains for us to do as they did and put an end to the absurdities of progressive foreign policy before it puts an end to America. Codevilla explains how it can be done. We must put an end to misrule by our progressive elite and return to a government by, for, and of the people. In order to become what America once was, in part still is, and should be, we must turn to the founders and those who, like Codevilla, understand America’s founders to learn how to get back on track.

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