America’s Lost Tradition on Non-Intervention

By implicitly criticizing U.S. interventionism, President Trump’s inaugural speech drew denunciations from the Washington establishment as a dangerous deviation, but his message actually fit with U.S. traditions, says Ivan Eland.

By Ivan Eland

Although the media trashed Donald Trump’s inaugural address as radical and scary to the United States and the world, his views on American security policy nevertheless may be closest to that of the nation’s founders than those of any U.S. president since the early 1800s.

An artist’s rendering of the Constitutional Convention in 1787

In his speech, the new president pledged that, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.”

After George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq for no good reason and Barack Obama’s military overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which also resulted in chaos and an increase in terrorism, U.S. re-adoption of its long abandoned foreign policy of being a “shining city on a hill,” if put into practice, would be a refreshing return to the founders’ vision.

Thus, Trump seemed to pledge less U.S. military intervention abroad while still defending the United States. He noted that “we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own.” And he complained that the United States has “spent trillions of dollars overseas,” including on the armies of other countries, “while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

All of this factually true. For example, the United States alone accounts for 75 percent of the defense spending of the 28 mostly well-to-do countries of NATO, making it a very one-way street in terms of alliance costs and benefits.

Yet as the 9/11 attacks were occurring, the U.S. military — which has been geared to be an offensive force to project American power overseas to police the world rather than to be a force to defend the United States — scrambled jets and sent them ineffectually out over the ocean. In contrast, Trump promised to focus on eradicating the genuine threat to the United States of radical Islamic terrorism.

Founders’ Vision

Because the founders wanted to avoid the militarism of Europe’s monarchs, who continuously waged war with the costs in blood and treasure falling on their people, the U.S. Constitution authorizes the government only to “provide for the common defence.”

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

The founders correctly believed that unneeded overseas martial adventures undermined the republic at home, something our post-World War II interventionist foreign policy establishment has forgotten.

So maybe Trump’s inaugural address failed to unify the Western alliance and even scared the United States’ wealthy free-loading allies. So be it; the platitude of invoking the need to “unify” is often a way to beat back uncomfortable but necessary threats to reform the status quo.

Trump was correct when he earlier labeled NATO “obsolete,” because it wasn’t a very effective vehicle for addressing terrorism, and when he accused allied nations of not paying their fair share for Western security.

And nations around the world may be alarmed that the United States will no longer spend truckloads of money attempting to solve their problems — but usually abysmally failing — by using counterproductive military intervention or feckless foreign aid.

Trump’s inaugural address demonstrated that shaking things up was not just campaign rhetoric. Doing so in America’s failed security policy is long overdue.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. [This article first appeared as a blog post at Huffington Post.]

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33 comments for “America’s Lost Tradition on Non-Intervention

  1. February 7, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Good Article:
    Unfortunately: The Hypocrisy of Warmongering Politicians, the Corporate Media, and Protestors All Screaming “Islamophobia” are in control of the “news” the “airwaves” and the cries of the mobs fill the air.
    Read more at link below:
    http://graysinfo.blogspot.ca/2017/02/the-hypocrisy-of-warmongering.html

  2. Zachary Smith
    February 7, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    After George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq for no good reason and Barack Obama’s military overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which also resulted in chaos and an increase in terrorism, U.S. re-adoption of its long abandoned foreign policy of being a “shining city on a hill,” if put into practice, would be a refreshing return to the founders’ vision.

    Mr. Eland needs to recall that these two nations were ones Israel wanted smashed, and what Holy Israel wants, it gets.

    And nations around the world may be alarmed that the United States will no longer spend truckloads of money attempting to solve their problems — but usually abysmally failing — by using counterproductive military intervention or feckless foreign aid.

    In this case, it’s Big “Defense” Corporations who want to get their mitts on those “boatloads of money”. How on earth can they continue to make piles of money while delivering overpriced and often worthless weapons to our fine Military Institutions unless the billions and trillions are shoved their way?

    • Bill Bodden
      February 7, 2017 at 3:57 pm

      … it’s Big “Defense” Corporations…

      As your quotes suggest, war-waging corporations would be more accurate, and our so-called defense department should go back to its old name of war department.

    • Bernie
      February 7, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      How do you explain the deal with Iran then? I don’t think US foreign policy is dictated by Israel. Iraq and Libya are major oil producers and threaten to upset the status quo. Keep that in mind. If Israel was really the driving force then we would see pressure being put on all the states that fund Palestinian terror attacks, especially Iran. But the fact is that the US is also the biggest contributor to Palestinians: ” In 2013 UNRWA received $294m from the US, $216.4 million from the EU, $151.6 million from Saudi Arabia, $93.7 million from Sweden, $54.4 million from Germany, $53 million from Norway, $34.6 million from Japan, $28.8 million from Switzerland, $23.3 million from Australia, $22.4 million from the Netherlands, $20 million from Denmark, $18.6 million from Kuwait, $17 million from France, $12.3 million from Italy, $10.7 million from Belgium as well as $10.3 million from all other countries, totaling just over $1 billion in 2013.”

      • Bill Bodden
        February 7, 2017 at 11:29 pm

        How do you explain the deal with Iran then? I don’t think US foreign policy is dictated by Israel.

        This was one of few rare instances when Obama resisted pressure from Israel.

      • John
        February 9, 2017 at 12:11 pm

        What “Palestinian Terror Attacks”?
        An occupied people has the right to resist its occupation, including through the use of violence, under international law. I the last few decades, Palestinians have almost exclusively targetted IDF soldiers, and an attack on an occupying military force is not terrorism. Terrorism is when civilians are targetted.

        Even the rockets (which are little more than fireworks) aimed at Tel Aviv are not terrorism, as they are aimed at the IDF headquarters, which are in central Tel Aviv. It is not the Palestinians fault that the cowardly IDF uses the population of Tel Aviv as human shields.

        Please stop it with the Hasbara.

  3. February 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    “And nations around the world may be alarmed that the United States will no longer spend truckloads of money attempting to solve their problems” –
    I would be pleasantly “alarmed” – to see American politics take such turn. The “truckloads of money” have mostly not been spent to “solve our problems (I’m German) – but to back up Americas geostrategic interests, – or at least, what the politicians believe as such. Mostly even at our expense as well.
    Look at Jugoslavia, Irak, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, – even Afghanistan.

  4. February 7, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    And Ivan Eland put his finger in the wound by mentioning 9/11.
    Apart from the fact, that the official story on 9/11 is very problematic and hard to believe, – imagine a surprise nuclear attack on the USA, when their defence works anything near as bad, as it did (allegedly) at 9/11.
    A scary thought, – especially if was an American.

    • D5-5
      February 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

      For some reason the utter absurdity of what Eland spoke of in mentioning that our defenses just happened to be away in the skies somewhere else at the time of 9/11 struck me forcefully. I say “utter absurdity” given the usual rhetoric about America’s incredible military strength. I won’t go on because I know this site does not welcome the topic, except to say it seems to me at this time that most Americans do not believe the official story here, any more than they believe the JFK official story. I have no evidence to support this feeling.

  5. David
    February 7, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    “… U.S. re-adoption of its long abandoned foreign policy of being a “shining city on a hill,” if put into practice, would be a refreshing return to the founders’ vision.”

    Give me a break! The history of our country has us fighting with someone about 93% of the time!

    NEVER have we been a non-interventionist country. What a load of tripe!

    Next time I see Ivan name on an article, I will pass.

    • Bill Bodden
      February 7, 2017 at 4:03 pm

      David: It looks like you missed this part of Mr. Eland’s essay:

      … his (Trump’s) views on American security policy nevertheless may be closest to that of the nation’s founders than those of any U.S. president since the early 1800s.

      Unfortunately, Trump’s views should be regarded with a healthy degree of skepticism similar to what Obama’s called for..

      • D5-5
        February 7, 2017 at 6:33 pm

        I’m with the skepticism. US tanks are arriving to bolster NATO, Trump just bombed Yemen, Ukraine continues to attempt to unsettle any suggestion of US-Russia cooperation, an Iranian missile exercise ratcheted up Trump’s belligerence in that area a couple of days ago, China is on edge with whatever Trump’s views are on that. Are these pretty words in the inauguration still to be taken seriously, or are there reasons to be cautious with Mr. Eland’s optimism?

    • Bill Bodden
      February 7, 2017 at 6:53 pm

      Next time I see Ivan name on an article, I will pass

      David: If you are looking for perfection you won’t find it here all the time. Robert Perry and I are the only two who never make missteaks.

      • David
        February 8, 2017 at 3:41 pm

        Good one! I wasnt looking for perfection, I am not naive.

        The title of the article says “The Lost Tradition”, implying that this was actual policy at some point. That is not the case.

        I am aware of the “entangling alliances” idea of the founding fathers, but that is all it is and was, an idea.

        I wonder if the ink was even dry on that before we started getting “entangled”.

        Appreciate the reply.

        Peace.

        • pete
          February 13, 2017 at 9:50 am

          @dave….you’re correct about the titles misleading implication. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) and the later applied concept of Manifest Destiny (1845) certainly didn’t reflect notions of non-interference by the US government.

  6. James lake
    February 7, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    The speech was obviously written by some one else as we now have the biligerence towards Iran and China; and he thinks that Russia will join the US with such policies?
    The USA always has an aggressive interventionist foreign policy and despite the words nothing has changed

    • Bill Bodden
      February 7, 2017 at 6:55 pm

      The speech was obviously written by some one else …

      I understand Stephen Miller, a sidekick of Steve Bannon’s, was the (main?) speechwriter which says a lot.

  7. Ol' Hippy
    February 7, 2017 at 4:54 pm

    Trump’s and Bannon’s speech really needs to be scrutinized to pull the tripe out of the meat, so to speak. If memory serves me correctly, 2009 saw a hopey changy Obama make some wild statements that actually earned him a Nobel peace prize. LOL! So I too will sit back and see how far he gets with the ‘new’ program. I’m guessing not very far. What we do get is a new form of neoliberalism with a big dose of steroids by having Goldman-Sacks running the economy and, I’m sure, the military machine will have their hands out too for the non-existant funds that Congress pulls out of their hats for any excuse to fight a never ending war somewhere, and it really doesn’t matter where, just as long as there’s a war. So average working Americans will struggle even more to support their families until a new wave of realists see the light and fight the elite establishment.

  8. Brad Owen
    February 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    I think the founders had, more likely, adopted a tactic of expedience, as they were very small and weak at the time. I’m pretty sure the Puritan/RoundHead/Parliamentarians of the North (not so much the the sons of Cavalier/Loyalists of the South), were interested in a long-term strategy of “Crown Collecting” to hang as trophies on their belts, and free Europe of Royal Tyrants, so republicanism and Parliaments for the Commoners could prevail…mission accomplished, even though the existing Crowns, and their Royal Courts of Managerial Elites, still push back.

    • Brad Owen
      February 8, 2017 at 6:08 am

      For the most recent news on the “push-back”, go to Executive Intelligence Review (EIR), and go to the left side of the site and locate “LaRouchePAC” . Click on it. Read the article; ” British (meaning The City, on behalf of the Crown) pull out all the stops to destroy Trump…while a SOBER World PROMOTES US-Russia-China cooperation for a new Paradigm”. If we succeed in this cooperation, it will be the end for Imperialism and Geopolitics…a new Era never seen before, in the World. It WILL be the of History, as a never-ending story of war and conflict and misery. A new Narrative begins.

    • Sam F
      February 8, 2017 at 7:54 am

      The founders saw no gain in war far away, and saw the wealth of nations wasted in aristocratic power-grabs. As a result they gave the federal government no power to wage war., only to “repel invasions and suppress insurrections.”

      That bears repeating: the federal government has no power to wage foreign war.

      It is only the treaty that can bring authority to wage war apart from invasion. The first treaty to do that, creating NATO, was immediately abused to cause aggressive foreign wars, and has never been used for anything else. NATO must be abolished.

      The problem, as the founders knew well by the warnings of Aristotle, is that demagogues become tyrants over democracy by creating foreign enemies to demand domestic power and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty.

      They can do this now because economic concentrations control mass media and elections. The founders provided no protection of US government from economic power because it was not concentrated then. The emerging middle class failed to add these protections as economic powers grew. A new War of Independence, from economic aristocracy is needed to restore democracy and eliminate foreign wars of aggression.

      • Brad Owen
        February 8, 2017 at 8:09 am

        Agreed. Eternal vigilance is not an empty phrase.

        • Brad Owen
          February 8, 2017 at 8:14 am

          P.S. and it’s only a Republic if we the people can keep it. Time for a Citizens’ Political Union, we already bear the arms.

  9. Bill Bodden
    February 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    [H]is (Trump’s) views on American security policy nevertheless may be closest to that of the nation’s founders than those of any U.S. president since the early 1800s.

    Come to think of it, the nation’s founders got off to a quick start intervening in the affairs of the Native American nations. Before that the slave owners among the founders were allied with slave traders intervening on their behalf in African nations.

    • hyperbola
      February 8, 2017 at 11:54 am

      Birth of the First Black Republic: 1791-1804
      Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution
      http://www.internationalist.org/toussaintlouverturehaitianrevolution1.html

      … The Haitian Revolution was a beacon in the fight against slavery and for national independence throughout the 19th century. But by abolishing slavery through a social revolution surging up from the very bottom of society, it struck fear into the slavemasters and men of property. When the slaves rose up in Saint-Domingue, the French part of the island of Hispaniola [Quisqueya/Kiskeya], in August 1791, the United States hastened to send arms to put down the uprising. George Washington wrote, “How regrettable to see such a spirit of revolt among the Negroes.” …

  10. rosemerry
    February 7, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    “Trump was correct when he earlier labeled NATO “obsolete,” because it wasn’t a very effective vehicle for addressing terrorism, and when he accused allied nations of not paying their fair share for Western security.” NO!!
    1. NATO is not needed because the “international communist conspiracy to take us over no longer exists, if it ever did.
    2. Terrorism cannot be beaten by tanks, troops, drones etc. Teh causes need to be found and addressed.
    3. “Western security” lol against Russia, which need no longer to be considered a threat, doe not need to be led by the USA, the greatest threat to peace, and the only reason the USA now pays so much is it wants to be in charge. if Europe could be allowed to decide who was its enemies (most do not think Russia, except whining Poland, perhaps) then it would deal with them. NO US intervention, save money and try peace.

    • Sam F
      February 8, 2017 at 10:46 am

      Good points.

  11. Bill Bodden
    February 7, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Terrorism cannot be beaten by tanks, troops, drones etc. Teh causes need to be found and addressed.

    Imperialism and global corporate greed look like two prime culprits.

  12. Drew Hunkins
    February 7, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    The old Gore Vidal “isolationists” (by no means a pejorative term in my book) are long gone and it’s simply tragic. I knew there was a reason Vidal’s been an idol of mine since I started reading him in the early 1990s. Our body politic sorely misses his wisdom and erudition.

    By the way, I happen to have a swell idea for a real keen travel ban of sorts, oh boy! How ’bout we ostracize and banish the likes of Eliot Abrams, Douglas Feith, Wolfowitz, Perle, Kagens-Nulands, Krauthamer and Kristol, they’re basically already dual citizens who have been flirting with violating the espionage act for decades. Let’s send them off to Mark Rich and Pollard land.

    Genuine hardworking Americans can no longer afford the wars they champion and incessantly propagandize for, and struggling American citizens can certainly no longer bear to witness their struggling working class American children arriving home in body bags or mutilated beyond all recognition for these traitors’ wars against Arab or Muslim innocents halfway round the globe.

    • Bill Bodden
      February 7, 2017 at 11:32 pm

      I’ll second that travel ban.

      • Drew Hunkins
        February 8, 2017 at 3:45 pm

        Thanks Mr. Bodden.

        We get to keep Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Gilad Atzmon (we get to attain him) and millions of others committed to anti-war views and activism.

    • Abe
      February 9, 2017 at 3:33 am

      “Elliott Abrams describes himself as a “neocon” in his last book, Tested by Zion.

      “‘I was. . . a strong proponent of the closest possible relations between the United States and Israel. . . I had strong personal ties with most of the major American Jewish organizations.’

      “Those close ties are Abrams’s political bona fides. He is an ardent Jewish nationalist, just as Bannon is an American nationalist. Abrams has said that all Jews must ‘stand apart’ from the country that they live in except Israel:

      “‘Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart – except in Israel – from the rest of the population’

      “As a White House official under George W. Bush, he repeatedly undercut any American pressure on Israel re settlements as too much for Israeli leadership to bear; he cited the Holocaust as justification for Israel’s punitive actions (Jews are ‘a people who had learned from history what happens to Jews without security’) […]

      “rightwing American nationalism and Jewish nationalism are completely copacetic under Trump. Trump’s top strategist, rightwing nationalist Steve Bannon, long ago made peace with Zionism. The website Breitbart that he led had its roots in pro-Israel advocacy and Islamophobia.

      “That alliance is a reflection of the power of the Israel lobby in our political culture. It’s little wonder that of all the revolutionary policies Trump has affirmed, the only one he’s abandoned is his vow of neutrality re Israel Palestine.

      “No; pro Israel neoconservatism is not dead by any means.”

      Why Trump is even thinking about naming pro-Israel apparatchik who opposed him to high position
      By James North and Philip Weiss
      http://mondoweiss.net/2017/02/appointing-apparatchik-position/

  13. Cal
    February 8, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

    Geo Wasington Farewell Speech 1779

    Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?
    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 and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a 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. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
    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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
    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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
    Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
    Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? 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?
    It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

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