In 2016, the United States has long since settled into its role as the world’s policeman.
This past fall saw President Obama change his story on withdrawal from Afghanistan for the fifth time, deploy American troops back to Iraq nearly a decade after winning the White House on the promise to take them out, provide material and intelligence support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and all but pledge another years-long quagmire in Syria.
Though he has certainly perpetuated it, this mess is not entirely Obama’s fault. Undeclared, ill-advised wars have been a constant for my entire adult life, and it’s only in that context that Obama managed to pass himself off as a “peace candidate” who would make American foreign policy more realistic and responsible.
Neither is Obama the most aggressive officer of the global police department headquartered in Washington, D.C. He has been reluctant to establish a no-fly zone over Syria—despite the rabid urging of hawks like Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham—apparently wary of the real risk such a decision poses in terms of igniting war with Russia.
All of this represents exactly the sort of quagmire our country was, from its very outset, supposed to avoid.
While many of the Founders spoke of the necessity of a restrained and strictly defensive foreign policy, perhaps John Quincy Adams’ foreign policy speech on Independence Day, 1821 is the single best expression of this view.
After reading the full text of the Declaration of Independence, Adams—then serving as secretary of state—posed a question: what has America done for the good of humanity?
Were that question asked today, it’s not hard to imagine how it would be answered: America is a champion of individual rights and an innovative economic powerhouse.
Oh, and also—so the line goes—our active, interventionist military is the unique guarantor of freedom worldwide.
In Wilsonian terms, the good America has done for humanity is “making the world safe for democracy.” Or, to put it another way, the modern answer to Adams’ question is that we’re the world’s policeman.
Thus, for example, Governor Scott Walker said before ending his presidential campaign that it is the United States’ job to “to lead in the world,” which he defined as making sure that anyone who wants freedom gets it. Jeb Bush similar averred that American “leadership in the world…is more necessary than ever,” and that leadership looks a lot like more military intervention in the Middle East.
On the left, Hillary Clinton has argued that America and America alone “can mobilize common action on a global scale” to lead the world’s war on terror. Obama shares her view. In fact, he used his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize to describe our world policeman role in glowing terms: “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”
But Adams’ own answer was very different. “Let our answer be this,” he said, “America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.”
Yet proclaiming and living by those principles does not, he quickly added, mean enforcing them worldwide: America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings” (emphasis added).
And though always the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” Adams continued, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for she “is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
What made the United States special—what the early republic gave to humanity—was a model of what it looks like live free and mind one’s own business. That was what Adams and America’s other Founders believed was remarkable about our country. That’s what was supposed to make us exceptional.
Adams directed the conclusion of his speech at Great Britain, which less than a decade earlier had fought the U.S. in the War of 1812. The glory of America, he said, is “not dominion, but liberty;” not empire, but commerce; not conquest, but peace.
To Britain, he said, “Go thou and do likewise!” Could Adams see America today, he would no doubt say the same.