A central question raised by the Bush Doctrine is the extent to which it comports with the historic understanding of the American purpose. Normally, an active role in the propagation of free institutions is attributed to Woodrow Wilson, and it has become customary to identify America’s recent presidents–especially Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush–as “neo-Wilsonians.” But Bush goes further, insisting that the policy proclaimed in his second Inaugural Address is a logical outgrowth of America’s historic commitment to free institutions: “From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value. . . . Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government. . . . Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation.”
The determination of the “intentions” or “original understanding” of the Founding Fathers has often excited attention and speculation, but as often as not their intentions have seemed shrouded in ambiguity. The “silences of the Constitution” have often been as important–and mystifying–as its plain avowals. But the questions raised by the Bush Doctrine–whether it is rightful to propagate changes in another nation’s form of government and what role the United States should play in the protection and expansion of free institutions–often commanded serious attention, and the answers given by the Founders and their epigones lend no support to the Bush Doctrine.
The question of whether force might be used to revolutionize foreign governments arose quickly after the making of the Constitution, in the wars provoked by the French Revolution. The British government, James Madison would later recall, “thought a war of more than 20 years called for against France by an edict, afterwards disavowed, which assumed the policy of propagating changes of Government in other Countries.” The offensive edict to which Madison refers is the declaration of the French Convention on November 19, 1792, that “it will accord fraternity and assistance to all peoples who shall wish to recover their liberty”–a declaration that bears an uncanny resemblance to the policy Bush announced in his second Inaugural Address. Alexander Hamilton also took umbrage at the doctrine and argued that the French decree was “little short of a declaration of War against all nations, having princes and privileged classes”, equally repugnant “to the general rights of Nations [and] to the true principles of liberty.” Thomas Jefferson, who unlike Hamilton strongly sympathized with the French Revolution, nevertheless acknowledged that “the French have been guilty of great errors in their conduct toward other nations, not only in insulting uselessly all crowned heads, but endeavoring to force liberty on their neighbors in their own form.” Much as Hamilton and Jefferson differed in their assignment of guilt to the warring parties, both of them made their normative assessments of the European war in terms that emphasized the illegitimacy of war for the purpose of propagating changes of government in other countries.
The self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence did not justify the proposition that foreign states had any right to revolutionize another political order, even a tyrannical one. Jefferson also regarded it as a self-evident truth that all nations had the right to determine for themselves the form of government they would adopt. The United States, he wrote, “surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own government is founded–that every one may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases, and change these forms at its own will; and that it may transact its business with foreign nations through whatever organ it thinks proper.” Such was the settled doctrine of 19th-century America. “Among the acknowledged rights of nations”, as Daniel Webster noted, is that of “establishing that form of government which it may deem most conducive to the happiness and prosperity of its own citizens, of changing that form as circumstances may require, and of managing its internal affairs according to its own will. The people of the United States claim this right for themselves, and they readily concede it to others.” Americans, Webster noted, may “sympathize with the unfortunate or the oppressed everywhere in their struggles for freedom”, but their imperative duty was to neither revolutionize nor “interfere in the government or internal policy of other nations.”
The idea that the principles underlying the American regime might have universal applicability is as old as the Founding, yet this belief existed happily alongside the idea that the United States had neither a right nor a duty to bring others to an appreciation of these truths through force. Rather than being contradictory, these ideas originated in the same school of thought. Like religious intolerance, the denial of legitimacy to other forms of government was seen to cause perpetual war, making for an international environment hostile to the spread of free institutions. Underlying this outlook was a profound conviction that force had a logic ultimately inimical to liberty. Early Americans saw a historical dynamic at work by which force begot the expansion of executive power, inevitably hostile to liberty. It had been the ruin of free states, producing Caesars, Cromwells and Bonapartes. It was, as Madison held, “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” Madison’s conviction that no nation could preserve its liberty in the midst of continual warfare lay behind his view that a central purpose of America was to seek “by appeals to reason and by its liberal examples to infuse into the law which governs the civilized world a spirit which may diminish the frequency or circumscribe the calamities of war, and meliorate the social and beneficent relations of peace.”
Alongside these self-denying ordinances prescribing a policy of non-intervention and non-entanglement was the belief that the American example would ultimately lead to the progressive expansion of free institutions across the world. Jefferson’s words in the declaration, wrote Abraham Lincoln, “gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.” For Lincoln as for Jefferson, however, it was the American example rather than active intervention that was to be the agent of change. “Our true mission”, as Daniel Webster summarized the classic view, was “not to propagate our opinions or impose upon other countries our form of government by artifice or force, but to teach by example and show by our success, moderation and justice, the blessings of self-government and the advantages of free institutions.”
The idea that Bush embraced in his second Inaugural Address, though given isolated expression in moments of upheaval, was usually voiced as a form of satire, the reductio ad absurdum of an interventionist policy. We had “better proclaim ourselves the knights errant of liberty and organize at once a crusade against all despotic governments”, wrote John Tyler in 1852. “We should announce to all Nations our determination to advance with sword the doctrines of republicanism” and proclaim that “there is but one form of government upon earth which we will tolerate and that is a Republic.”
Woodrow Wilson’s presidency marked a departure from the classic doctrine in certain respects, but it is very doubtful that “Wilson would recognize George W. Bush as his natural successor”, as one historian has recently claimed.1 Though Wilson saw, and saw rightly, that the partnership of democratic nations would henceforth have to be a fundamental desideratum in U.S. foreign policy, his objective was not to overturn the rules traditionally governing the relations of states. The League of Nations he championed was based squarely on the need for the society of nations to devise defenses against aggression, rather than on the need to transcend the society altogether. The league contained no democratic entitlement, and Wilson’s concept of a world made safe for democracy did not mean that the world should be made wholly democratic. For Wilson, the preponderance of power the democratic coalition might achieve was to afford the basis for a progressive disarmament, not eternal U.S. military hegemony. His skepticism regarding military power and his affinity with Jefferson’s pacific system were reflected in his belief that economic sanctions and the power of public opinion would do the heavy lifting in the prevention of aggression–an idea a world apart from Bush’s readiness to make force the first rather than the last resort of American statecraft.
Even Wilson’s interventions in Latin America were far more limited in scope than is often alleged. His intervention against the Huerta government in Mexico was the only one that can plausibly be seen as having the promotion of democracy as its central purpose, and even that was pursued in very tentative fashion. When he sent troops to Vera Cruz in 1914 the announced reason was to avenge an insult to the American flag. Though it also had the purpose of stopping the flow of munitions to the Huerta government, Wilson was very uncomfortable with the position in which it placed him, and he got out as soon as he could. The main result of Wilson’s meddling in Mexico in 1913 and 1914 was not to convince him of the imperative of spreading democracy through force, but rather the reverse. “I hold it as a fundamental principle that every people has a right to determine its own form of government”, he declared in 1915. “If the Mexicans want to raise hell, let them raise hell. We have got nothing to do with it. It is their government, it is their hell.”
If the crusade for democracy embraced by Bush differs materially from that of its supposed avatar and progenitor–creating a gulf between Wilsonianism and neo-Wilsonianism about as gaping as that between conservatism and neoconservatism–it also differs sharply from the policy of containment that guided U.S. policy during most of the Cold War. The Truman Doctrine set forth a policy of containing the Soviet Union and other communist governments, not of overthrowing those governments. It pledged the United States to support free peoples resisting armed minorities or outside pressures, not peoples who had already lost their freedom.
Only with the Reagan Doctrine was the nation’s power openly and directly committed to extending freedom through force. Reagan sought to justify intervention in support of those rebelling against tyrannical–particularly Marxist-Leninist–governments. Based on the assumption that a democratic revolution was sweeping the world, the Reagan Doctrine asserted America’s moral responsibility for aiding popular insurgencies struggling against communist domination. Such support was deemed to express the vital security interests of the United States. Though characterized in the traditional language of self-defense, the doctrine went beyond defense in its claim of a right to overturn that part of the status quo regarded as illegitimate. Even more, it amounted to the assertion that the American government no longer believed in the reality of an international order that transcended the respective interests and moral claims of the two great adversaries in the Cold War.
Even setting aside attempted regime change in the Barbary War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, etc. , to see what nonsense it is to allege that the extension of American-style liberty is a deviation from what our ancestors did all you have to do is consider this obvious fact: there were 13 states at the Founding.