“The year 1989 was the American moment,” writes Patrick Buchanan in A Republic, Not An Empire. The United States was supreme around the globe. “But such moments never last,” he continues. Rather than leaving others with no choice but to break U.S. power, Buchanan writes, “It is time to let go of empire.”
A Republic, Not An Empire is a genuinely important book. Although Buchanan has gained greatest attention for his economic nationalism, he is probably America’s most visible proponent of a more noninterventionist foreign policy. In this book, the author presents his vision of a foreign policy fit for a constitutional republic.
It’s a message that deserves wide dissemination because the stakes are high. This century, he notes, has witnessed the collapse of five great Western empires: Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, and Russian. Today “America survives as the sole superpower because it stayed out of the slaughter pens until the other great powers had fought themselves near to death.” That mixture of good fortune and sense is at risk, however. Buchanan warns that “today, America’s leaders are reenacting every folly that brought these great powers to ruin—from arrogance and hubris, to assertions of global hegemony, to imperial overstretch, to trumpeting new ‘crusades,’ to handing out war guarantees to regions and countries where Americans have never fought before.”
The fundamental question of a foreign policy is: for what should young Americans be expected to fight and die? Today’s strategic “balance sheet,” as Buchanan refers to it, should be positive, given America’s status as the world’s sole superpower. However, the debits are shockingly numerous: commitments to central as well as western Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East and Persian Gulf, a variety of Asian states, and Latin America.
Washington is taking on those many risks even though in none of them, observes Buchanan, “would any vital U.S. interest be at stake to justify sending a large American army to fight or to risk nuclear war.” Washington should, he contends, conduct “a ‘bottom-up’ review of all of its commitments.”
Generally, Buchanan’s arguments are highly persuasive. Intervention not only tends to be costly in the short term, but also is usually disastrous in the long term. There was, he notes, “not a trace of national interest” involved in World War I. Either a German victory or a compromise peace, the most likely occurrence in the absence of America’s entry, would not have endangered the United States. However, Washington’s involvement allowed the allies to impose a one-sided peace, without which there would have been no Hitler. And, writes Buchanan, “There might have been no Holocaust, no quarter-century reign of Stalin, no Cold War.”
Alas, an economic nationalist to the end, Buchanan would discard free trade along with corporate welfare (Export-Import Bank), subsidies for collectivist autocracies (International Monetary Fund), and world government (“war crimes” tribunals). Unfortunately, he confuses voluntary individual action and coercive state action. It is protectionism, not free trade, that relies on the latter, and thus fits most comfortably with other globalist institutions.
Buchanan’s proposed foreign policy, one relying on a militarily strong America prepared to defend its sovereignty and vital interests, but unwilling to engage in fruitless and costly international crusades, is the only appropriate policy for a republic. Nevertheless, crafting a more restrained foreign policy, he concludes, would leave America “serene and secure,” and perhaps cause men looking back a century hence to conclude “that, yes, the twenty-first century, too, was an American Century.”
Doug Bandow is a monthly columnist for Ideas on Liberty.