Despite the myths, the United States has never “isolated” itself. Washington and the Founding Fathers indeed wished to avoid “entanglement” – meaning the morass of alliances on the European continent that seemed to always give way to war – but this never meant avoiding foreign affairs. A Navy was commissioned, treaties of amity and commerce were signed, and a “Quasi-War” with France took place before the Federalists were out of office in 1801.
What the American Founding Fathers truly believed, apropos foreign affairs, was that a balance must be struck between executive prerogative on one hand and democracy on the other. The President must, indeed, be able to act with his own judgment in order to navigate geopolitics with any sort of efficacy. Yet a democratic nation’s foreign policy should be at least partially circumscribed by democratic principles; the voice of the people should act as a check. The derogation of American tradition exists not, as is so commonly asserted, in America’s postwar emergence as the prepotent nation on earth. Rather, the derogation is that the democratic voice has been entirely eschewed from foreign affairs. The American executive has arrogated itself as the vox dei; it has, with remarkably little protest from the public, crushed the vox populi underfoot.
When the United States first groped at empire in 1898 with the seizure of the Philippines, it was not acting far outside of tradition. “Manifest Destiny” had been lodged somewhere at the fundament of the American imagination ever since the first settlements flourished in New England and Virginia under the auspices of English colonialism. This “destiny” had led a generation of 19th century Americans to the West, and by the end of the 1850s, they had filled the continent. In the 1890s, however, it was clear that this view of “destiny” was not to stop at Oregon. The Anglo-Saxon world had been just recently infused with a Darwinian sense of racial superiority; Hawaii and the Philippines beckoned as a chance to assert both American hemispheric dominance along with the superiority of Christian civility. This was an extension of the unilateralism preached by Hamilton and the hemispheric assertion preached by John Quincy Adams.
Most importantly – and most in line with the founding intentions of the American Republic – the annexation of the Philippines was the subject of a ferocious public debate. William Jennings Bryan brought crowds to tears with his oratorically brilliant damnation of American imperialism; he invoked the intense pacifism of the Christian tradition and the caution of the great statesmen in America’s past. In opposition, Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt threw down the gauntlet: they posited to the American public that this was the chance to seize greatness – and if they failed, the Kaiser and his armies would be on our doorstep. As the Constitution demands, it was Congress – the elected representative of the people – that made the final decision.
The Philippine decision was, at its time, the most momentous choice in the history of America’s foreign policy. Yet America in 1898 was a second-rate power. America’s encounter with the world would undergo a sea change beginning in 1917, when it declared itself to be an Ally in the Great War, and 1945, when it took up Britain’s mantle as predominant world power, guarantor of balance and open trade, and ultimate shaper of global affairs. The decisions that allowed this shift to happen – the entrance into World War I, the American abstention from the League of Nations, and the declaration of war against the Axis Powers in 1941 – were made by Congress after serious and public debate.
The United States has fought several wars since the end of World War II. Congress has not declared war in a single one of them, despite the clear demand for such a declaration in the Constitution. Korea was a “police action”; Vietnam began only as a mission on the part of U.S. advisors to help the French recolonize Indochina; in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq after gaining authorization from Congress to act freely. Much of America’s postwar excursions are entirely unknown to the public. Few know about the U.S. sponsorship of the 1953 Iranian coup, the 1953 regime change that John Foster Dulles fomented in Guatemala because of the taxation of a U.S. fruit company, Reagan’s funding for both sides of the Iran-Iraq war, or Carter’s arming of the Taliban and Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, and countless other such semi-secret proxy wars and involvements.
In postwar America, decision-making takes place in a National Security apparatus that has been constructed entirely apart from democracy. FDR’s “brain trust” gave way to the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, who answer neither to the people nor to the elected, constitutionally delineated institutions responsible for foreign affairs. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger made decisions in a completely clandestine manner; only a small handful in the executive branch knew that he and Nixon were planning to completely overturn the United States’ policy towards China. Ronald Reagan, when permitting the sale of arms to Iran, concealed the relevant documents from Congress and from four of the eight members of the National Security Council. Indeed, the unelected Oliver North was running foreign affairs more than Reagan. In the Executive Office Building, North and the National Security Council effectively constructed a parallel undemocratic government with its own appropriations, Lieutenant Colonel, and intelligence capacities. That the Obama administration, according to leaked intelligence, has supported the ouster of legitimate democratic regimes in both Paraguay and Honduras remains entirely out of the national conversation.
Some centralization is inevitable in a nation of growing population and power. A healthy level of executive entitlement is a must for a country that wishes to have a cogent operation in the international sphere. But the democratic voice was always assumed to have a place; indeed, the Enlightenment vision of a Republic was centered upon a virtuous and self-determining people. Those providential ideals with which the United States was crafted have suffered an apostasy under the national security state. They are now little more than talking points with which Presidential candidates and press secretaries woo the public. The values that we pretend to have can only return with the reintroduction of transparency and responsibility.