Where in the World Is America Going?

COMMENTARY Political Process

Where in the World Is America Going?

Apr 2nd, 2006 14 min read
Lee Edwards

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.

Remarks at

"Where in the World Is America Going?"

Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought
The Heritage Foundation

For the 42nd annual meeting of
The Philadelphia Society
April 2, 2006
Philadelphia, PA

Since the essence of conservatism is to apply the wisdom, experience and revealed truths of the past to the problems of today, I thought it would be helpful for our discussion to consider the wisdom and experience of four prominent conservatives in the field of U.S. foreign policy. The members of the illustrious quartet are Walter Judd, Robert A. Taft, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan.

Dr. Judd was one of the most influential members of the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years, particularly in the conduct of our foreign policy. It was said that as many as 100 Congressmen would follow his lead on a particular vote or resolution dealing with the nation's security. At the beginning of the Cold War, Dr. Judd took the House floor to argue that America had four choices in global affairs as she considered the next half-century.

First, he said, "we can try to go back to so-called isolationism." He conceded that it once was possible to ignore other nations, but "that day has gone" because of America's own inventions like the steamboat and the airplane and the "refusal of other nations to ignore us."

Second, we could develop "an American imperialism (although of course call it by a milder name)." This course would require gaining control of key islands, critical air bases, main routes of trade, and then building "such a giant air force and navy and army that it will be certain no nation can ever attack us." But, Dr. Judd said, "not even America has the necessary resources to go it alone, and if we tried to "police the world single-handed" the rest of the world would "gang up against us." "Imperialism," he said, "was always immoral. For America to try it now would be suicidal."

Third, we could adopt a philosophy of "world WPAism" where America would try to "buy the world's good-will." But giving people things instead of helping them get on their feet "so they can develop their own freedom from want" is always self-defeating in the long run. Such an approach, the former medical missionary said, "destroys independence and will and initiative and self-reliance."

Fourth, America could participate in a genuinely cooperative effort with our allies to achieve "an organized security." Referring to World War II, he said that "the world could not stand these periodic returns to the jungle." Surely, he said, if we could work with our allies to win the war, we are sufficiently intelligent and wise to work out with our allies ways by which "we can jointly win the peace."


Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, invariably described as Mr. Republican, was a legislative giant of the Republican Party from the late 1930s until 1953 when he died, at too early an age, of cancer. Best known for his principled approach to taxes, budgets, and other domestic issues, Taft was drawn into foreign policy, our old friend Russell Kirk pointed out, because of the Cold War and his 1952 pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.

Taft is often lauded by the Old Right as one of their own. But he was not an isolationist--he called himself a non-interventionist. He opposed America's entry into World War II because he perceived war as the enemy of limited government. He insisted that every avenue must be explored before resorting to military action. But he favored alliances, supporting the League of Nations and the UN Charter. Because of communism's clear and present threat, he voted for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. He opposed NATO because it committed the U.S. to a military alliance when we were not formally at war. But he later was willing to arm the governments of western Europe if they should desire armaments, and he argued that the U.S. should pay more attention to the mounting strategic challenges in Asia.

The object of American foreign policy, Taft argued, is to protect and advance American national interests. Neutrality or intervention, alliances and restrictions upon armaments, international commercial agreements and assistance to other governments, peace or war, all must be determined by their impact upon the security and welfare of America. Without this principle, he said, any government will be at sea in the conduct of its foreign relations.

"My view," he said in 1951, "is that American foreign policy should be directed primarily to the protection of the liberty of the people of the United States, and that war should only be undertaken when necessary to protect that liberty." Because of the power of Soviet Russia and the Communist philosophy, he went on, "we must today do everything possible to prevent the extension of that power as a threat to our security." He added a note of caution: "there is one policy and only one policy which can destroy this nation--the commitment to projects beyond our capacity to fulfill."

However, he declared, mere containment of communism would not suffice: there must be an "affirmative power" of liberty. In his only book, A Foreign Policy for Americans, Taft outlined a basic strategy for victory including:

  • The creation of powerful American armed forces.
  • Economic aid to countries where such aid will enable anti-Communist countries to resist the growth of Communism from within.
  • The sending of American troops to a European country threatened by attack from Russia or its satellites or where the attack has already occurred, as in Korea.
  • An ideological war against Communism in the minds of men.
  • An underground war of infiltration in Iron Curtain countries.

A ll this is a far remove from the isolationism with which Taft has been associated by both the Left and the Right. Taft's primary foreign policy goals were the principle of national interest, the prudent endeavor to maintain peace, and the shunning of imperial grandeur.


The delicate balance that ideally exists between freedom and order, Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative published in 1960 at the height of the Cold War, has long since tipped against freedom "practically everywhere on earth." For the American conservative, therefore, there is no difficulty in "identifying the day's overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom" not only in America but around the world.

Senator Goldwater devoted one-third of his best-selling political manifesto to the Soviet "menace" which he said had to be confronted. We have sought settlements, he said, while the communists have sought victories. Our objective must be "not to wage a struggle against communism, but to win it."

He proposed a multi-point program to achieve victory comprising:

  • The maintenance of defense alliances like NATO.
  • The elimination of economic foreign aid.
  • A drastic reduction in U.S. support of the United Nations.
  • Superiority in all weapons, military, political, and economic, necessary to produce victory over communism.

R isks were inevitable in a victory policy, Goldwater conceded, but the future as he saw it would unfold along one of two paths: either the communists would retain the offensive, ultimately forcing us to surrender or to accept war "under the most disadvantageous circumstances." Or Americans would "summon the will and the means for taking the initiative and wage a war of attrition against them," seeking to bring about "the internal disintegration of the communist empire."

The former course ran the risk of war and would lead to probable defeat while the latter ran the risk of war but held forth promise of victory. For Americans who cherish their lives but their freedom more, Goldwater wrote, "the choice cannot be difficult"--we must seize the initiative.


Building on Goldwater's "why not victory?" philosophy, President Ronald Reagan pursued a multi-track national security strategy. He confidently proclaimed in 1982 that the "the march of freedom and democracy ... will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history," and privately instructed his national security team to develop a plan to end the Cold War by winning it.

The result was a series of national security decision directives that shifted the focus of the superpower struggle to the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union itself. NSDD-32, approved in March 1982, declared that the U.S. would seek to "neutralize" Soviet control over Eastern Europe and authorized the use of covert action and other means to support anti-Soviet groups in the region. NSDD-66 stated it would be U.S. policy to disrupt the Soviet economy by attacking a "strategic triad" of critical resources--financial credits, high technology, and natural gas--deemed essential to Soviet economic survival. NDSS-75 called for the U.S. no longer to coexist with the Soviet system but rather to seek to change it fundamentally.

Taking its lead from these directives, the Reagan administration implemented a foreign policy offensive that included such measures as covert support for Solidarity in Poland, an increase in pro-freedom public diplomacy, and a drive to hurt the Soviet economy by driving down the price of oil and limiting natural gas exports to the West.

The administration also helped anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia--the so-called Reagan Doctrine. The doctrine was the most cost-effective of all the Cold War doctrines, costing the U.S. only an estimated half a billion dollars a year and yet forcing the cash-strapped Soviets to spend some $8 billion annually to deflect its impact. It was one of the most politically successful doctrines in Cold War history, resulting, for example, in a Soviet pullout from Afghanistan and the election of a democratic government in Nicaragua by the end of the decade.

The Reagan administration's most important initiative was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which literally stunned Moscow. General Makhmut Gareev, who headed the department of strategic analysis in the Soviet Ministry of Defense, later revealed what he had told the Soviet general staff and the Politboro: "Not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible counter-measures." Reagan's unwavering commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin it could not afford let alone win a continuing arms race.

All the while, Reagan rebuilt America's military arsenal, worked closely with Western allies on consequential security issues like the deployment of Euromissiles, and successfully challenged the Brezhnev Doctrine in Grenada. He even took his freedom offensive into the heart of the disintegrating Soviet empire. Standing before Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, Reagan directly challenged the Soviet leadership: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Two years later the Wall was gone and two years after that the Soviet Union was no more.

Democracy triumphed in the Cold War, Reagan later wrote, because it was a battle of ideas--"between one system that gave preeminence to the state and another that gave preeminence to the individual and freedom." Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish trade union Solidarity and Nobel Prize winner, was more personal in his appraisal: "We in Poland," he said, "owe [President Reagan] our liberty."


So what we can conclude from this brief review of the foreign policy decisions and proposals of four prominent American conservatives?

The national interest is paramount and must be protected. Kim Holmes, The Heritage Foundation's vice president for foreign policy and national security, has written that the U.S. should intervene around the world only when its vital interests are at stake. He defined those interests as protecting American territory, sea lanes, and airspace; preventing a major power from controlling Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf; ensuring U.S. access to world resources; expanding free trade throughout the world; and protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being. Promoting American national interests, Heritage President Ed Feulner has remarked, is not amoral or selfish but "a moral act required by the Constitution."

A conservative foreign policy, Russell Kirk wrote, should be neither interventionist nor isolationist but prudent. Its objective should not be the triumph everywhere of "America's name and manners" but the preservation of "the true national interest and acceptance of the diversity of economic and political institutions throughout the world."

Looking at the past fifty years, we can see that U.S. foreign policy has been most successful--as in the reconstruction of post-war Western Europe and Japan and the Persian Gulf War of 1991--when it walked on the two legs of idealism and pragmatism. The American people respond to the former while the prudent policymaker honors the latter.

When the two are in balance our foreign policy proceeds smoothly and successfully. But if we lean too much in the direction of idealism or pragmatism, our foreign policy begins to tilt, to falter and will, if not corrected, collapse.


President George W. Bush has stated his belief in and commitment to just such a balance. In "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," published in March 2006, President Bush declared that "America is at war" and that the strategy set forth in the 49-page document reflected his administration's "most solemn obligation: to protect the security of the American people."

"The path we have chosen," he said, "is consistent with the great tradition of American foreign policy. Like the policies of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan," he said, "our approach is idealistic about our national goals and realistic about the means to achieve them."

You will note that he does not refer to Woodrow Wilson although some Bush critics have described his foreign policy as Wilsonian or neo-Wilsonian. In my opinion, this is unfair. Wilson famously said, when he asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917, "the world must be made safe for democracy." Bush's aim is to make the world safe through democracy, a critical distinction. In his National Security Strategy paper, Bush said, "Because free nations tend toward peace, the advance of liberty will make America more secure."

Let us consider then President Bush's most controversial foreign policy action--the war in Iraq--and ask two questions:

  • Is the war in Iraq consistent with the American tradition and the policies of Presidents Truman and Reagan?
  • Is the war in Iraq an example of a foreign policy that is idealistic as to goals and realistic as to means?

T he president has equated the war against terrorism with the Cold War, saying that "the United States is in the early years of a long struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of the Cold War." Freedom triumphed over the twin isms of fascism and communism in the 20th century but only after a struggle that lasted more than four decades and was conducted at many different levels, strategic, economic, military and political.

In his National Strategy document, President Bush said, "a new totalitarian ideology now threatens" us and requires a long-range commitment and strategy similar to those that ended the Cold War.

Just as Presidents Truman and Reagan made freedom the cornerstone of their foreign policy so too has President Bush because "freedom ... reflects our values and advances our interests." To protect the nation and honor our values, he said, the U.S. "seeks to extend freedom across the globe by leading an international effort to end tyranny and to promote effective democracy."

Such an objective is certainly idealistic as to goals but is it realistic as to means? In his strategy document, Bush discussed the needs to use not just military force but the full array of political, economic, diplomatic, and other tools at America's disposal.

What then of the war in Iraq? Well, we certainly defeated Saddam Hussein in short order, but three years later there are still well over 100,000 American servicemen in Iraq. More than 2,300 Americans have died there. The insurgency continues despite or perhaps because of a new constitution and a new government approved by millions of Iraqis in free and open elections. Clearly, the Bush administration badly underestimated the difficulties of building a democracy in post-Saddam Iraq.

Let us now consider our second basic question: What would Truman and Reagan have done if confronted by a stubborn Saddam Hussein and a militant Iraq?

Bush has often said that the attacks on September 11, 2001, underscored the danger of allowing threats to linger unresolved. Saddam Hussein's defiance of sixteen UN Security Council resolutions, his invasion of neighboring countries, his support of terrorists, his terrorizing of his own people, his use of chemical weapons, all presented, the president said in his strategy paper, "a threat we could no longer ignore." He did not include the question of oil although elsewhere in the document Bush said, "Many countries are too dependent upon foreign oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

The above litany shows that the Bush administration's rationale for going to war was based on far more than the single threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Those Bush critics who confidently assert that Saddam was only a danger to the people of Iraq and posed no threat to America should be careful. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Laurie Mylroie analyzed captured Iraqi documents that suggest Saddam played a significant role in international terrorism from the early 1990s and that there was an Iraqi-al Qaeda connection.

Given the evidence available prior to the invasion of Iraq and based upon Truman's preemptive decision in 1945 to use the atomic bomb against Japan to save American lives, it is reasonable to assume that Truman would have acted as Bush did in Iraq.

What President Reagan would have done is more problematic. Reagan's actions in Grenada, Libya, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere show a president careful about his commitment of American force and American forces.

Reagan practiced what I would call prudential internationalism--act multilaterally when possible and unilaterally when necessary. I believe that he would not have allowed Saddam to "go on playing" with the U.S. on the issues of WMD and support of terrorism and would have approved the war in Iraq. However, I believe that he would not have been as optimistic about the aftermath of the war as President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair were, as suggested in minutes of a January 2003 meeting in Washington that have come to light.

I concede that President Bush's actions in Iraq and elsewhere make only limited sense and warrant the sharp criticism that has been expressed by conservatives at this meeting and elsewhere--unless you accept the basic premise set forth in the first words of the president's National Security Strategy--"America is at war."

If you do not agree that America is at war then it is understandable why you would add your voice to the chorus of criticism about Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East. But if you agree that America is at war, indeed that it is engaged in a protracted conflict against an enemy as determined, disciplined and fanatical as the communists were, then I believe you should support in the main President Bush and his strategy of encouraging freedom and democracy throughout the world and especially in Iraq and the Middle East.

I conclude with a few thoughts offered by Thomas Sowell, who says that while we still live in a free society the faith that built that society is fading, replaced by the cult of the individual. But no society, Sowell warns, can survive solely "on the narrow self-interest of each individual." Somebody must sacrifice some of his own interests for the greater good of the society. And in a crisis, "some have to put their lives on the line," as firemen, policemen, and people in the military still do. But to do so you have to believe the society is worth your sacrifice.

In the midst of war today, Sowell writes, we see former presidents and defeated presidential candidates telling the world how wrong we are--sometimes collecting astronomical fees in foreign countries for doing so--and members of Congress playing demagogic party politics with national security.

"We still have the cathedral of freedom," Sowell concludes, "but how long will it last without the faith?"

How long indeed?Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of many books, including the just-published " To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."

Remarks at "Where in the World Is America Going?"