April 30, 2019 9:43AM

Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy

Americans have debated how to engage with the world since our nation’s founding. These discussions often went well beyond questions of war and peace, and of what was required to keep us safe and prosperous; we have also pondered what we can and should do to advance the cause of liberty globally. 

In recent years, however, more and more Americans have come to doubt our capacity for accomplishing great things, or even the wisdom of trying. The trauma of 9/11, followed by nearly two decades of inconclusive military interventions, casts a cloud over the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. The Cold War once seemed to unite Americans around a single, common purpose; today, foreign policy is subject to the same “blue team vs. red team” dynamics that cripple honest, frank discussions of domestic policy. The status quo prevails, driven mostly by inertia. 

In Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, I try to shake up this tired consensus. I explore U.S. global engagement and reaffirm America’s unique role as an exemplar of human freedom. I hope that the book gets wide exposure. If it doesn’t, it will be entirely my fault. There are already several podcasts (including herehere, and here), to help get the word out, and a few other promotions planned, so now I’m hoping people will read it, like it, and recommend it to friends.

Some of the material may be familiar. There are shades of The Power Problem, published nearly ten years ago, plus some of the ideas explored in the edited volumes that have come out in the interim, including Terrorizing Ourselves, with Benjamin H. Friedman and Jim Harper; and Our Foreign Policy Choices, with Emma Ashford and Travis Evans.

But there is also quite a bit of original content. The book is split in two parts. The first half discusses the history of U.S. foreign policy, with a particular focus on the tension between limited, constitutional government and individual liberty, which flourishes during peacetime, and the growth of government and the erosion of liberty, which occurs mostly when the country is at war. I enjoyed the opportunity to dig more deeply into a few cases, including the debate over continental expansion in the mid‐​19th century, and the anti‐​imperialists’ apparent last gasp in the late‐​19th and early‐​20th. I relied on some favorite go‐​to sources, including Walter McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State, and Richard Immerman’s Empire for Liberty, but am also grateful for David Mayers’s Dissenting Voices in America’s Rise to Power and Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag. I will be pleased if more people become acquainted with some classic speeches, including John Quincy Adams’s address on July 4, 1821William Graham Sumner’s “The Conquest of the United States by Spain”; and Dwight David Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace” – which are now all posted at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. 

The second half of the book focuses on contemporary U.S. foreign policy and the principles that should guide it. The United States is blessed by favorable geography and a vibrant economy. This gives us strategic depth and the luxury of choice. We are safer than we think, but too often fixated on what Ben Friedman calls the “Terrible ‘Ifs’”. Americans should beware of perilous partners and free riders, but remain committed to peaceful engagement with the rest of the world. Preserving our security should go hand‐​in‐​hand with advancing our prosperity and championing human liberty. It isn’t an either‐​or proposition. America once served as a beacon for others, and human freedom flourishes in many places where U.S. soldiers have never set foot. We need to become comfortable again with the many instruments of American power and influence, and retain our healthy skepticism of preventive action, which inevitably leads to unintended consequences. We also need a new appreciation for the importance of trade, which isn’t merely beneficial on economic grounds, but can also serve the cause of peace.

I’d like to thank everyone involved in the project, especially Grant Babcock, Tess Terrible, and the entire Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org team, as well as my colleagues in Cato’s Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Department, including John Glaser and Ted Galen Carpenter, who read early drafts and suggested areas to expand or cut. Eleanor O’Connor kept everything on track. Now that the book is officially out, I welcome feedback from others. It is available at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, plus from all of your favorite booksellers, and in several formats, including paperbackKindle, and audiobook.