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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny

Patrick J. Buchanan

1 2000
Volume 6, Number 1


The Revisionist Provocateur


Spring 2000

A REPUBLIC, NOT AN EMPIRE: RECLAIMING AMERICA'S DESTINY
Patrick J. Buchanan
Regnery, 1999, xiii + 437 pgs.

I opened Mr. Buchanan's book with trepidation. According to press accounts, Pat Buchanan had shed his cloak as a noted conservative commentator to reveal himself as a sympathizer with the Third Reich and its Führer. A recent issue of the Weekly Standard (September 27, 1999), that paragon of objective journalism, demands that the Republican Party repudiate Mr. Buchanan as an extremist with views alien to American principles.

The accusation against our author precisely reverses the facts. Mr. Buchanan takes for his own the foreign policy encapsulated in George Washington's Farewell Address, the key to understanding America's relations with Europe and Asia from 1789 to 1898. (Incidentally, I am glad that our author avoids the common fallacy that the Farewell Address was actually delivered as a speech [p. 63]).

Washington's address rested on a simple principle: America's chief business lay on the American continent. The rivalries and power struggles of Europe do not affect in any fundamental way our national interest; accordingly, America should steer clear of European involvements. "`The great role 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' said Washington, laying down a policy of nonintervention that would guide American presidents for a century" (p. 66).

Such was Washington's advice, but why should we follow it today? Have not conditions changed very much since publication of the Address in 1796? In particular, is not the world a much smaller place than it was two centuries ago? No longer can the United States insulate itself from developments elsewhere in the world.

Mr. Buchanan dissents. Owing to America's immense resources and fortunate geographical position, we need not involve ourselves in European power politics. "No nation has the luxury America does, of time, space, and power, to observe at a distance and assess whether some emergent menace is a true peril-to us.... In the age we have entered, Washington's wisdom is worth revisiting" (p. 365).

A problem at once arises. Mr. Buchanan says that our national interest does not require intervention in European affairs, but what is the "national interest?" If, like Mr. Buchanan's bêtes noires, the neoconservative "hegemonists," one contends that part of our national interest is to promote democracy throughout the world, then pursuit of that interest dictates interventionism.

But of course Mr. Buchanan's "national interest" differs entirely from what the neoconservatives have in mind. For Buchanan, the national interest encompasses only the physical integrity and economic well-being of our nation. Ideological policies, based on a vision of how the world "should" be are at best a distraction, at worst an invitation to disaster.

Given this conception of national interest, why should we adopt it as a maxim that dictates foreign policy? Here we reach bedrock in Mr. Buchanan's system. As he sees matters, we live in a Hobbesian world. Nations are engaged in a constant struggle for power. To ask whether they should be so engaged misses the point: the perpetual battle for power is not alterable. Nations rarely allow goals other than national interest to dominate policy. Even so extreme a measure as genocide rarely by itself suffices to induce foreign intervention. "Generally, then, statesmen do not take their countries to war to stop genocide unless their own kinsmen are the victims" (p. 345). A nation must defend its physical integrity.

Mr. Buchanan must now withstand assault from another flank. Those who wish to subordinate power and national wealth to ideology are cast aside by our author as utopians, who blind themselves to the forces that run the world. But what of those who claim that Mr. Buchanan has unduly constricted the world struggle for power?

Nations, our author says, endeavor to preserve themselves in being, and America must of course follow suit. But why stop at the American continent? Why not, as William Seward and Theodore Roosevelt wished, proceed to establish an American Empire?

Mr. Buchanan's answer differs from that of libertarian advocates of nonintervention such as Murray Rothbard. For Rothbard, the coercive exercise of dominion over others violates morality: for Buchanan, it leads to over-extension, weakness, and downfall. Worldwide commitment exceeds the ability of even so great a power as the United States to maintain: "Our situation is unsustainable. The steady expansion of global commitments, as relative national power declines, is a prescription for endless wars and eventual disaster" (p. 34).

Buchanan's criticism of empire and foreign wars thus resembles Mises's assault on economic interventionism. Just as Mises contends that interventionist measures fail, from the viewpoint of their own advocates, to achieve the ends desired, so does Buchanan offer an internal criticism of empire. Nations struggle to attain greater power: but if they do overreach, they will collapse.

Mr. Buchanan applies his Washingtonian precepts to great effect in a brilliant analysis of America's entry into both world wars. The United States, he holds, had no valid reason to intervene in the European conflict that began in 1914. President Wilson himself recognized in 1916 that "[w]ith the objects and causes of Europe's war...we are not concerned. The obscure fountains from which its stupendous flood has burst forth we are not interested to search for or explore" (p. 208, quoting Wilson).

Interventionists might counter that Germany's resort to unrestricted submarine warfare made the United States's declaration of war inevitable. Our author, a practiced hand at debate, is ready with his counter. Though Wilson professed neutrality, he was undone by Anglophilia, a condition made worse by the even more blatant partisanship of his adviser Colonel House and American Ambassador to London Walter Hines Page. Wilson insisted that Germany strictly comply with neutral rights, but he turned a blind eye to the British hunger blockade of Germany. Wilson thus backed Germany into a corner from which she was unable to extricate herself, and war inevitably followed.

Buchanan's complaints against Wilson do not stop with the declaration of war. The president committed what for our author is the supreme sin in foreign policy. "In Wilson's call for war can be found not a trace of national interest" (p. 208).

Our author's analysis strikes me as entirely convincing. But he has, I fear, taken a radical step that has landed him into considerable difficulties. However hard it may be to imagine, he thinks that the lessons learned from Wilson's mistakes can be applied to America's entry into World War II.

Our author strongly indicts Roosevelt's aggressively anti-German policy in the period 1939-1941, for a reason readers should by now readily guess. No compelling national interest mandated America's entry into the war.

By late 1941, Mr. Buchanan holds, it was evident that Hitler's bid to dominate Europe had failed. Germany's air campaign against England had been repulsed; and the German army was tied down in massive war with Russia. Hitler's ambitions were directed toward the East rather than to Western Europe and America: why then was the United States at risk from Hitler in 1941?

Buchanan's question, I should have thought, is entirely reasonable given the nationalist, Washingtonian axiom from which he starts. But he has met with fire and fury from those who have not yet heard that the war ended in 1945. One example of what Buchanan is up against must here suffice. Professor Robert G. Kaufman, writing in the aforementioned anti-Buchanan issue of the Weekly Standard, tells us that "[b]y Buchanan's analysis [a rehash of the historian A.J.P. Taylor's revisionist account that Taylor later had the good sense to disavow], Hitler had not wanted war in the West." Kaufman's claim that Taylor repudiated his interpretation of World War II origins is entirely false. Quite the contrary, the "Second Thoughts" that Taylor added to his Origins of the Second World War strengthens his interpretation.

Buchanan's Washingtonian axiom offers similar counsel to Rothbard's libertarianism for the world wars, but the two approaches do not always coincide in what they prescribe. In contrast with Rothbard, Mr. Buchanan is a strong partisan of Manifest Destiny; and James Polk ranks high in his pantheon of heroes. And disagreement is not confined to the distant past. Buchanan rejects Rothbard's challenge to cold war orthodoxy. As he sees matters, Nato and other anti-Soviet pacts were temporary measures aimed at countering an imminent Soviet threat.

As such, he holds, they did not violate Washington's axiom. One wonders whether our author has here correctly applied the axiom in question. Was not the primary communist threat to the United States one of internal subversion rather than military action? Just as Hitler was in no position to assault the United States in 1941, so were the Soviets powerless to overthrow an American nation with Washingtonian limits to its commitments.

Regardless of these differences of opinion, I admire this book for its courageous, principled, and spirited defense of an America First foreign policy. I note, as usual, in my reviews, a few details to carp about. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was not "torn to pieces" by the Versailles Treaty, which dealt with Germany (p. 31). The League of Nations commissioner in Danzig in 1939 was named Carl J. Burckhardt (p. 264). The British Parliament does not declare war (p. 265).


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