Constitutional Foreign Policy

Much of the world’s current instability in relation to the United States can be traced to a lack of a cohesive long term foreign policy and American interventionism. Although, America’s foreign policy changes with every incoming presidential administration in which each President decides, based on political expediency, in what countries he will interfere and what polices he will pursue, one thing remains constant from administration to administration, interventionism.

As a result of interventionism, neither America’s allies nor its enemies know what to expect out of America from one four year period to the next, except that America will interfere or not interfere with their sovereignty if it fits the political agenda of the elected President. Recent examples of this include involvement in the Contra War in the 1980s, the Kosovo War in the 1990s, and the Iraq War in the 2000s.

In addition to active involvement in the internal affairs of other governments, America’s foreign military bases, financial support for foreign governments, and membership in collective security agreements such as NATO, SEATO and the UN are symptomatic of our interventionist foreign policy.

America’s capricious foreign policy is a modern manifestation caused by the nation forgetting the Law of Nations upon which America was founded. The Law of Nations was used to justify America’s independence and was America’s foreign policy standard until 1861.

The Declaration of Independence, a document of interposition, was based on the Law of Nations, and every US President, including the Presidents of the Continental Congress, all the way up to James Buchanan (1856-1860), upheld the Law of Nations in their foreign policy decisions, to one degree or another.

According to James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the US Constitution and one of America’s distinguished legal scholars, the Law of Nations is the law of states and sovereigns that is obligatory, universal, indispensable, and unchangeable upon all nations like the Law of Nature is upon all men.[1] The Law of Nations is an application of the Ten Commandments applied to nations, which is best summed up by these two tenants: honor God in all that a nation does, and treat other nations as one would want other nations to treat our nation.

“The Law of Nations…was so much a part of our founding culture that the framers of the Constitution only referenced it once in the Constitution, in which it states: “To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas and offences against the Law of Nations.”[2]

Although, only referenced once in the Constitution, it was referenced thirteen times, according to Madison’s notes, by Constitutional Convention delegates during the Constitutional Convention. Additionally, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, in his Commentaries on the Constitution, referenced it numerous times when expounding on Constitutional clauses dealing with foreign policy.

One can also see evidence of the Law of Nations articulated in George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine, and in every President’s Congressional request for a declaration of war until the Civil War.”[3]

We see one of the main tenants of the Law of Nations eloquently articulated by George Washington in his Farewell Address where he states, “Observe good faith & justice towds all Nations. Cultivate peace & harmony with all–”[4]  Washington goes on to explain the reason behind this “plan”.

“In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent inveterate antipathies against particular Nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded; and that in place of them just & amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. …The peace often, sometimes perhaps the Liberty, of Nations has been the victim.”[5]

In this, Washington is saying we should not harbor hatred or over exuberant affection for any particular nation, because it makes our nation a slave to animosity or affection, which clouds our judgment in upholding our virtuous duty and principled national interests. These extreme emotions towards other countries frequently lead to open conflict or curtailment of liberty.

Washington further conveys, instead of extreme emotions towards any particular nation, the United States should cultivate “just and amicable feelings towards all” other nations, which is to say we should demonstrate an equality of affection towards every other nation.

In the Monroe doctrine, we see another aspect of the Law of Nations advanced as part of America’s foreign policy, “no nation ever has the right to interfere in the affairs of another nation”.[6] Unlike America’s current interventionist foreign policy, Monroe laid out a foreign policy of independence, in which independence is neither isolationist from nor inter-dependent on other nations.

“With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition,…”[7]

In this quote, Monroe conveys the foreign policy principle that the United States has not and shall not interfere with other countries and that the United States will remain neutral when other countries are fighting for their independence. Monroe also makes it clear; the United States will not sit idly by if other nations interfere with countries whose independence the United States has recognized after great consideration based on just principles.

Monroe’s foreign policy principle includes non-interference in a nation’s civil disputes, but by the same standard, the United States will not allow other nations to interfere or intervene in the affairs of countries it has recognized as independent. Some may mistake this to mean that the United States must protect the independence of every nation, but this is not the case. America’s support for the independence of nations is conditional to the other nation’s values and principles in that they align with America’s values and principles.

It is also important to note, Monroe makes it clear the United States will only guard a nation’s independence as far as stopping other nations from interfering with them. By this, he is not advocating the United States do what it intends to prevent other countries from doing; i.e., interfering in those nations.

Monroe sums this foreign policy principle up by stating, “not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.”

Here again Monroe lists tenants from the Law of Nations: not interfering in the concerns of other powers, respecting the authority of legitimate governments, cultivating friendly relations with other nations, and dealing justly with other nations, but not submitting to injustices by them.

A corollary to the Law of Nations is the Just War Doctrine[8], which was first developed by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) but was modified to more accurately conform to biblical standards by many Christian law minded individuals starting around the Protestant Reformation.

The Just War Doctrine has six criteria that must all be met in order for a nation to justly use force against another. The six criteria are: have a just cause to go to war, have clear goals and aims in conducting a war, declare war only as a last resort, have a right intention for going to war, declare war under the proper predetermined authority, and have a reasonable chance of success in war.[9]

In Madison’s War Message to Congress on June 1, 1812, one can witness five of the six criteria explained like a checklist out of the Just War Doctrine.

First, Madison explains in detail three injustices done by Great Britain against the United States:

  1. “British cruisers have been in the continued practice of violating the American flag on the great highway of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it, not in the exercise of a belligerent right founded on the law of nations against an enemy, but of a municipal prerogative over British subjects.”
  2. “British cruisers have been in the practice also of violating the rights and the peace of our coasts. They hover over and harass our entering and departing commerce.”
  3. “In reviewing the conduct of Great Britain toward the United States our attention is necessarily drawn to the warfare just renewed by the savages on one of our extensive frontiers — a warfare which is known to spare neither age nor sex and to be distinguished by features peculiarly shocking to humanity.”

Second, within each explanation, he describes clear goals and aims desired by the United States, mainly for England to stop the practices and indemnify the victims for past losses.

Third, also within each explanation he describes how the United States has exhausted attempts to resolve the issues through peaceful means.

Fourth, he appeals to God’s standard for justification of the cause, “Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events,…”

Fifth, he defers to Congress, the predetermined authority in declaring war, to declare war. “…avoiding all connections which might entangle it in the contest or views of other powers, and preserving a constant readiness to concur in an honorable re-establishment of peace and friendship, is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government.”

In a similar manner, President James K. Polk appealed to Congress on May 11, 1846, for a declaration of war against Mexico explaining within it the just cause for war, clear goals and aims for going to war, and the actions taken by the US government over the previous twenty years to avoid war.

Although, some have challenged the legitimacy of Polk’s claims, it is abundantly clear from his May 1846 address he followed the Just War Doctrine in his pursuit for a declaration of war against Mexico.

When comparing these examples of early American foreign policy with the actions of the United States government in the 20th and 21st centuries one can see a disparity in foreign policy that is nearly the exact opposite of the other.

Instead of treating other nations as we would want to be treated, we treat others like lesser nations that must bend to our demands to suit our modern materialistic national interests.

We frequently pick sides in internal disputes within other countries instead of allowing other countries to resolve their issues on their own. We justify our capricious behavior as upholding America’s materialistic national interest or defending human rights, which may or may not be the actual reason for our intervention. Yet, we inconsistently apply the latter reason to the point that it bewilders observers why the United States would defend human rights in one country, while standing idly by and watching worse atrocities committed in others like in Kosovo and Libya compared to Rwanda, Darfur (Sudan), and Syria.

We no longer carefully scrutinize, based on sound principles and values, which nations we will recognize for protective purposes, but instead absurdly defend the governments of some nations while undermining others. Sometimes even doing both to the government of the same country like Manuel Noriega in Panama, Saddam Husain in Iraq or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The United States no longer upholds any criteria of the Just War Doctrine. Currently, Presidents completely bypass Congress in conducting belligerent actions against other nations like Korea, Viet Nam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, and Libya. Or, they obtain concurrence from Congress using United Nations resolutions as justification for war instead of making a case for the restoration of justice for specific actions directed against the United States, of which the first and second Gulf Wars are prime examples.

The United States does not have finite clear goals and aims in going to war, which is evident by the virtual perpetual nature of modern wars. If clear goals and aims were universally understood, the wars would be successfully or unsuccessfully concluded.

The United States also does not have right intentions, based on God’s Law, for going to war; instead among other unbiblical objectives, it uses force to reconstruct other countries in its own image like in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States should completely stay out of the internal affairs of other nations and before resorting to armed intervention or conflict the United States should ask, “Has a nation committed an injustice or injustices towards the United States?” “Has the United States exhausted every possible method to peacefully resolve the issue?” “Would resorting to armed conflict restore justice and the just rule of law?” “Is the United States intention in going to war to restore justice and the just rule of law?” “Has the President made a valid case, based on the Just War Doctrine, for the use of force?” and “Has Congress approved the use of force in the situation?” Only when each one of these questions can be answered positively should Americans countenance the use of force against another nation.

Each one of the examples of armed conflict mentioned above is the result of an interventionist foreign policy divorced from the Law of Nations. If America would once again uphold an independent, non-isolationist foreign policy based on the Law of Nations the United States would have much better relations with all other countries and none of its men or women would be sacrificed in unjust wars and belligerences provoked, in part, by our current foreign policy.


[1] American Founding Principles, Law of Nations, September 18, 2012.

[2] United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 10

[3] American Founding Principles, Law of Nations, September 18, 2012.

[4] Washington’s Farewell Address, p 22.

[5] Washington’s Farewell Address, p 23.

[6] American Founding Principles, Law of Nations, September 18, 2012.

[7] Monroe Doctrine

[8] American Founding Principles, Law of Nations, September 18, 2012.

[9] American Founding Principles, Law of Nations, September 18, 2012.

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