The Prime Directive

I was not always in favor of a non-interventionist foreign policy. At one point, I strongly supported the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, and I believed that it was the moral imperative of the United States government to destroy the tyrannical regime that he led. And of course he had WMDs… he was a tyrant, after all. And even if he didn’t, he surely had and used them in the past (which he did), and that was sufficient enough reason to support any military action against him.

I believe this no longer. No, I have not been indoctrinated by the “liberal” media (at least, I don’t think so). Rather, I have come to this position kicking and screaming, not by any modern politicians or media reports, but by a careful perusal of the foreign policy of our Founding Fathers. The men who formed our nation have a remarkably persuasive power for me; someone can win me in almost any debate by showing that Jefferson or Washington was on their side. I suppose that is a weakness of mine, but no matter… I believe these men deserve our respect.

What was the foreign policy of our Founding Fathers? It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately pigeonhole the political views of this wide variety of intelligent men. However, I believe we can certainly sees trends of agreement. Let me address two central points: (1) military intervention, and (2) entangling alliances.

Military Intervention

First, what was the general opinion of the Founding Fathers on foreign military intervention? Forgive me for sharing some extensive quotes here, but I believe we should take note of their words (Also, studies show that the majority of readers skip block-quotes. Don’t conform! Read them! You know you want to!). John Quincy Adams described Americas position among the “assembly of nations,” and then gives us a dire warning:

America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless, and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights; she has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own; she has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the 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 change insensibly from liberty to force. … she might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.1

In other words, America is to welcome and encourage freedom worldwide, but is to enforce and protect the freedom of only her own people. If America were to pursue and destroy the nations with which it disagreed, or whose system of government seemed awry, she would open herself to the consequences of war, which inevitably serve the wishes of the author of war, the destroyer of peace and liberty. Let me share two other quotes, both by James Madison; read these words and consider their prophetic implications in our present day. James Madison said,

The management of foreign relations appears to be the most susceptible of abuse, of all the trusts committed to a Government, because they can be concealed or disclosed, or disclosed in such parts & at such times as will best suit particular views; and because the body of the people are less capable of judging & are more under the influence of prejudices, on that branch of their affairs, than of any other. Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.2

He also said,

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.2

Anyone who cannot see the prophetic nature of these quotes is not informed of our domestic loss of freedom and the expansion of powers of the executive branch of the United States government in recent years.

A majority of Latter-day Saints (at least in Utah) are conservative in their political views. Most are supporters of small government. I believe this is great! I am a fan of small government and traditional conservative politics. However, it seems that many Latter-day Saints have aligned themselves with the foreign policy of the Republican party, and do not realize that the Republican party, by and large, no longer supports traditional conservative politics. The foreign policy of the Republican party is not a conservative point of view. Despite this obvious fact, however, I have seen the war in Iraq defended voraciously, even with scripture.

I would like to say that it is okay for a Latter-day Saint to oppose the Iraq war and any foreign military intervention. How do I know this? Because one of my favorite members of the church, the honorable Secretary of Agriculture of the United States, Ezra Taft Benson, opposed what I believe represents our present foreign policy. Sure, his point of view on this issue shouldn’t be given the weight of prophetic authority. However, it certainly discredits any claim that a good Latter-day Saint has to support the invasion of Iraq and our present foreign entanglements in the middle east. He said:

There is one and only one legitimate goal of United States foreign policy. It is a narrow goal, a nationalistic goal: the preservation of our national independence. Nothing in the Constitution grants that the President shall have the privilege of offering himself as a world leader. He’s our executive; he’s on our payroll, in necessary; he’s supposed to put our best interests in front of those of other nations. Nothing in the Constitution nor in logic grants to the President of the United States or to Congress the power to influence the political life of other countries, to “uplift” their cultures, to bolster their economies, to feed their peoples or even to defend them against their enemies. This point was made clear by the wise father of our country, George Washington2:

I have always given it as my decided opinion that no nation has a right to intermeddle in the internal concerns of another; that every one had a right to form and adopt whatever government they liked best to live under them selves; and that if this country could, consistent with its engagements, maintain a strict neutrality and thereby preserve peace, it was bound to do so by motives of policy, interest, and every other consideration. — George Washington (1732-1799) Letter to James Monroe (25 Aug. 1796)

Was the Iraq war a war of self-defense? Simple question, with a simple answer: no. Iraq did not attack us. Ron Paul says it well:

Americans have the right to defend themselves against attack; that is not at issue. But that is very different from launching a preemptive war against a country that had not attacked us and could not attack us … A policy of overthrowing or destabilizing every regime our government dislikes is not strategy at all, unless our goal is international chaos and domestic impoverishment.1

Entangling Alliances

Second, what was the Founding Fathers position on alliances with foreign nations? George Washington, in his farewell address, said:

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences. …

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. … Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?1

In the same spirit, Thomas Jefferson called in his inaugural address for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entagling alliances with none.”1 Simply put, both Jefferson and Washington were for open friendship and commerce with the nations of the world, but they did not feel any need to insert themselves into alliances with any of them to the exclusion of others. This would also preclude any alliances that subject our national sovereignty under an international authority. Just as Thomas Paine wrote during the American Revolution that it was absurd to suppose that “a continent [be] perpetually governed by an island,” I think it is silly to suppose that men who govern on a global level should have any say in local American politics. We should not obligate ourselves to give them power over our nation through treaty or any other means.

Of course, this point of view is often labeled as “isolationist.” This is a silly claim. It is not isolationist to claim that we ought to respect the national independence of other nations, and at the same time protect our own. Ezra Taft Benson easily responds to this accusation:

Already, I can hear the chorus chanting “Isolationism, isolationism, he’s turning back the clock to isolationism.” How many use that word without having the slightest idea of what it really means! The so-called isolationism of the United States in past decades is a pure myth. What isolationism? Long before the current trend of revoking our Declaration of Independence under the guise of international cooperation, American influence and trade was felt in every region of the globe. Individuals and private groups spread knowledge, business, prosperity, religion, good will and, above all, respect throughout every foreign continent. It was not necessary then for America to give up her independence to have contact and influence with other countries. It is not necessary now. Yet, many Americans have been led to believe that our country is so strong that it can defend, feed and subsidize half the world, while at the same time believing that we are so weak and “inter-dependent” that we cannot survive without pooling our resources and sovereignty with those we subsidize. If wanting no part of this kind of “logic” is isolationism, then it is time we brought it back into vogue.2


in summary, the United States should 1) end its worldwide military presence, including the Iraq occupation, and 2) get out of the United Nations. People may claim, says Ron Paul, that our age is different than the simple world that the Founding Fathers lived in. International threats require us to engage in entangling alliances with other nations and to involve ourselves in foreign affairs “beyond the power of extrication.” Such is simply not the case. “If anything,” Ron Paul explains, “today’s more complex world cries out for the moral clarity of a noninterventionist foreign policy.”1

That is the foreign policy I adhere to. I do not believe it is practical or wise for our nation’s government to intervene in the political affairs of other nations. Clearly, we cannot fix every problem that the world has. In fact, I don’t think it is any government’s job to fix the world’s problems. Neither can we pursue and destroy every despotic government. It simply isn’t the job of the United States government. We pay our legislatures to protect domestic peace and defend against foreign invasion, and precious little more. I do not believe that we should have any alliance with an international authority that obligates us to intervene or interfere with international affairs, or that obligates us to change any of our domestic policies. In other words, no United Nations. Our nation is ours to run, and we don’t need some world leader to tell us how to do it.

1. Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto, (New York: Grand Central).
2. Ezra Taft Benson, “United States Foreign Policy,” Friday, June 21, 1968, Preston Idaho.

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28 Responses

  1. Bonus points to anyone who gets the title reference!

  2. Interesting post. I’ll admit from the title, I was expecting a post about Star Trek.

  3. The relevance of the title is not lost, though, right?

  4. It’s totally relevant. Nice job.

  5. Jeff,

    Was it OK to stop Hitler in WWII?

  6. interesting question. It is one that I cannot fully answer. Many scholars believe, however, that Hitler would never have risen to power had the U.S. never intervened in WWI. (This isn’t even a fringe point of view… there a number of scholars who agree, on both sides of the political spectrum)

    In the Star Trek universe, if I remember correctly, the Federation discovered the Klingons when they were a primitive society. They shared with them technology, and, without intending to, created a monster; the Klingons later become a serious threat to the Federation. If someone asked the question, “Should we stop the Klingons and their imperial ambitions?” The answer would probably have been “yes.” However, for future notice, they developed the Prime Directive, which was a strictly non-interference policy. They learned their lesson; they recognized that interference accompanies entirely unpredictable consequences.

    Now, I’m not trying to draw lessons out of a fictional universe. And I do sympathize with those that claim that Hitler was a monster that needed to be stopped. Although, didn’t Germany attack a U.S. ship? It seems that we did not enter the war until we were attacked. I have no problem with wars of self-defense; only wars of aggression and wars of intervention where we were not at threat.

  7. For the most part, I agree with your post (right down to the Star Trek references). The US ought to be much more hesitant to engage in war unless its own borders or peoples are threatened. Even if it’s only happened once, it’s happened too often that the US goes into a country (even just to “spread democracy” to its “lucky” citizens) and only sows more political turmoil or only ends up occupying the region to prevent instability within the region’s infrastructure.

    However, I do not quite agree with two aspects of your post.

    First, you make no allowance for war to prevent genocide. And I’m in favor of putting our nose in another country’s battles to cease genocide _providing_ that _clear_ goals are set before engaging and when those goals are fulfilled the US pulls out.

    Second, the UN isn’t exclusively a war-monger. The UN also has valuable international efforts such as the Declaration of Human Rights, the World Food Program, the Global Fund, and the World Health Organization.

  8. Yeah, Janell. It’s a hard call. I’m a new convert to this philosophy, and genocide certainly seems like a very justifiable reason to intervene. I really don’t know. I would be a LOT more comfortable with it if, as you say, the war is declared by Congress, with clear, predesigned objectives, rather than by presidential fiat. Declarations of war were delegated by the states to the legislative branch of government, not the executive branch. I don’t want to get hung up on the Constitutional question right now, though… I am addressing that in my next post.

    And I’m not opposed to the UN solely because of its military interventions; the issues are related, but certainly different. I just see it as an “entangling alliance” and ask the same question Washington did: “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”

    Although the UN respects the Constitutions of the various nations involved, it does have the potential of jeopardizing our national sovereignty, even if we give up that sovereignty voluntarily. Nowhere does the Constitution delegate to our federal government authority to abdicate our national sovereignty to an international authority. Again, more about the Constitution in my next post. I’d rather have any debate about that there, when I’ve presented more of my rational.

    So, I hope that it’s clear I am talking about different issues, and that military intervention and membership in the UN are related but separate issues.

  9. Dennis and Jeff,

    Germany actually declared war on America first in WWII, there after attacking vulnerable shipping off the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico with their U-boats.

    However, I disagree with Jeff. I beleive my fundamental assumptions concerning the nature of ethics are just very different than Jeff’s. I am content to leave it at that.

  10. I’d be interested, Clayton, to hear what you believe those different assumptions are.

  11. I think completely pulling out of the international scene is a little like trying to reverse the globalization of the economy: impossible and because of that, ultimately impractical. I’m by nature pacifist, so I believe caution should be used when going into war, but pulling out of the UN? I think the US can be un-entangled with more meaning if it is involved in giving calm, rational advice in an international forum. And as far as I know, the UN doesn’t require nations to do anything it doesn’t want to (like go to war).

  12. If we view the UN as an “international discussion group,” I have no problem with participating in that discussion. However, there is pressure to abdicate our national sovereignty to a centralized international authority, and that is what I am opposed to. Also, the U.S. sometimes subsidize UN projects with U.S. tax dollars, and I am also opposed to that.

  13. Jeff and Clayton,

    I got my question about Nazi Germany a little mixed up. Yes, you both are right — the Nazis attacked us first.

    Here’s what I should have asked: Should we have intervened earlier (prior to their attack)? We can take this question even further: Had we known about what was going on in the concentration camps, should we have intervened? I say that the reality is that a major genocide is everyone’s business, and that the U.S. has an ethical obligation to intervene — appropriately — if at all possible.


    I actual sympathize with a lot of what you are saying, and I think the U.S. — ideally — should be MUCH less interventionist. But why is it appropriate to allow our businesses to be so unregulated in foreign affairs, even at the expense of mass exploitation of foreign labor and resources? If we’re going to be noninterventionist, then I say we need to be noninterventionist all the way and keep our greedy hands out of other countries. Interestingly, however, this is the exact opposite of what people like Ron Paul would advocate for.

    The problem, Jeff, is that the U.S. is not at all contained within its borders anymore. We’ve got a sailor in every port, so to speak. We’ve got our greedy little fingers all over the globe, in the sense that our citizens are involved in international markets. You can say whatever you want about certain interpretations of the Constitution, but to allow an unfettered international market (which I strongly disagree with for ethical reasons — if it were up to me, the U.S. would take a high road with minimum wage and working condition laws for all foreign workers for U.S. businesses and would only trade with countries that did likewise — but I’ll be branded as an out of touch radical, I’m aware) but not allow ourselves to intervene in certain foreign affairs, is like saying to our neighbor that we’re perfectly fine with exploiting them but we won’t come to their rescue if they are having a problem. Because Mom and Dad won’t let us.

  14. Do you think Ron Paul approves of mass exploitation of foreign workers? I don’t think so.

  15. I think, Dennis, we both recognize a problem: greedy businesses currently exploit cheap foreign labor. I think that is wrong as well.

    Where we differ is the proposed solution: you say government intervention and regulation, and I would say individual action and choice. We can collectively and voluntarily boycott businesses that do these things. If we did that, problem solved, and no government intervention needed.

    You may argue that my solution is not “pragmatic.” Well, some would say the same about every moral ideal. Does that mean we should force them?

    Heads up, in case you didn’t know: the government is NOT the right answer to every problem. Government = force, and force is not always the right thing to do when faced with travesty.

    I think that law should not be used as a political tool to achieve certain moral ends, but merely as a means of maintaining personal liberty. When the law becomes an instrument of the state and a tool of whatever party is most popular for implementing their favorite moral and social programs, then we have laid the groundwork for tyranny and have lost liberty and the rule of law.

  16. But I’m glad we agree on the fact that we need to be less involved in international politics and warfare, despite these small disagreements. I hope this doesn’t turn into a heated debate.

  17. Jeff,

    Would you be satisfied with relying on individually-chosen boycott for prostitution, drugs, or pornography? If not, what is the difference between these things and other moral wrongs such as exploitation of foreign workers? Who makes these decisions?

    I certainly agree, Jeff, that the government is not the right answer to every problem. But if the government is solely for the means of prosperity and security of our nation, then I don’t see how a meaningful distinction can be made with all sorts of problems. You can certainly say that individuals can boycott those who would sell drugs, prostitution, abortions, same-sex marriages, etc., but the reality is that there are enough people who would keep these things in business and it would drag down our country in just about every respect. This is why Church leaders strongly counseled its members to vote for continued Prohibition — we can see what the increased acceptability of alcohol has done in our country. Certainly problems would remain in any respect, but they would pale in comparison. (This hardly means that the solution is simply to rule with an iron fist, however, as I have argued against in the case of abortion.)

    For example, from a libertarian viewpoint, what would a non-interventionist. government do if a giant nuclear plant — or whore house — is built right across the street? Nothing. The libertarian will tell me it is my choice to move. So much for freedom of “property.” The reality is that there are things that are simply wrong that a government has every right to curtail and regulate. Foreign exploitation of workers is one of these things. Similar arguments have been made in the past in regards to slavery — regardless of how much it is in our “interest.”

    You, of course, could argue that these things are concerned with things within our own borders and that the government has a right to curtail or regulate them if it is in the interest’s of America’s long-term security and prosperity. But I would argue the exact same thing for the exploitation of foreign workers. In this respect, the within-borders and without-borders distinctions becomes somewhat blurred. We can see this, for example, in regards to the immigration problem. We may find that our exploitation of foreign workers could end being a significant contribution to hurting our country’s prosperity and security.

    At any rate, I disagree that all that a government should be used for is to protect its own interests. Wrong is wrong, regardless of whether it is in our “interest.”

  18. And that topic brings us to the question if it’s the governments job to regulate morality and international equality, which is a can of worms in and of itself.

    So what ought our priorities when funding or engaging in war?

  19. Wait, so we should’ve waited until Iraq developed warp drive before invading them?

  20. Or attacked us.

  21. Good points. I think its interesting that the courts have generally ruled in support of communities setting their own definitions of what is indecent in regards to pornography, postituion, public nudity, swearing, etc. In this sense America has a continued publically defined morality. This public morality is not individually determined but a declaration of the community. Therefore, from a legal and even constituional perspective, I think Dennis stands on stronger ground.

    I am pretty tired of libertarians claiming a constituional basis for all their ideals. From the earliest beginings of this country, no one seemed to have a problem moralizing the community or even other countries through law, but libertarians have a problem with this.

    The most obvious example of this is prostituion. While it has always existed in America it has also always been illegal in most places. The founding fathers didn’t seem to have a problem with laws against prostitution.

  22. Clayton,

    I don’t consider myself a libertarian. Right now, I have no problem with laws against prostitution, as long as those laws are maintained on a state level, because the Federal government has no Constitutional jurisdiction over the issue. However, as I have demonstrated in this post, there is basis to believe that the Founding Fathers would have avoided an aggressive foreign policy, which is what I’ve discussed here.

  23. Jeff,

    Sorry to get off topic. I wrongfully assume anyone talking about Ron Paul is a libertarian.

    I am wondering what one is to make of indian relations during the 18th and 19th century. Do these wars and treaties count as foreign policy? I think one has to consider them at least partially so. The founders generally didn’t mind an aggressive militant stance with these nations.

  24. Maybe their rhetoric was better than their actions? I wish I knew enough about history to give an answer, but alas, I have none.

  25. At the time of the 18th and 19th century Indians considered people let alone recognized as “foreign nations?”

  26. As a sporadic contributor and unfettered capitalist, I would suggest that free trade is the fastest road to a free society. China is a great example right now. That country has a long history of exploiting its population. However, over the last 10+ years the ability of their citizens to travel abroad for education has been remarkable.

    Here in the Texas A&M MBA program, we have dozens of Chinese citizens learning modern business, finance, and management. They were successful in China and came here to develop their talents. Some will remain in the US and others will return to China to become leaders there.

    As the skills of the local labor force increases, they will get higher wages and move up the value chain. Basically, they move from making McDonald’s toys to microchips to computers and finally to designing new computer chips. The progress they have made is remarkable.

    Despite what sounds like a ringing endorsement of China as a whole, they have a long way to go before areas outside the cities are modern and prosperous. They still massively exploit their labor force. Some of the imagery from the recent Olympics had me yelling at the TV. Communism still has an iron grip on political control, but their economy is starting to thrive.

    Free trade is the key. Of course, completely unfettered free trade can be dangerous. It was Cain who learned to turn his brother’s life into property. So along with free trade needs to come transparency. Things like the SEC which have rules for accounting disclosure. (If only those same accounting rules applied to GSEs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack. We may have been spared part of the current financial crisis.)

  27. Tony,

    Thanks for the comment. I think you are right that transparency is key to accountability, and will go a long way to end businesses who exploit.

    I don’t consider myself a capitalist, but I usually side with them in a debate. That is, I don’t believe in an egoistic, instrumental worldview, nor do I believe that profit ought to be our motive. But regardless, I am a fan of small government.

    I’ve heard capitalists argue that exploitation and other ugly monsters are part and parcel of a capitalist society, and thus must be tolerated. I think that is the wrong point of view; these things ought to be done any with, but perhaps a little bit more conscientiously than through government bureaucratic control.

  28. The trick to transparency, however, is how much it may or may not bog down a system with paperwork and prevent nimble decisions and how a citizen is responsible for their own education and ability to understand the transparency and finding the time to read and analyze the materials. By theory, media helps identify points of concern and disseminate information, but it always seems media has its own opinions and its own agenda.

    Further, not all aspects of the government can be transparent. I personally don’t want the latest plans to a nuclear sub posted around for public consumption, and it also wouldn’t be wise to have a list of the men and women trained to build, maintain, and operate such devices floating around cyberspace.

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