Foreign relations: the practical case for a conservative view

A friend posted on Facebook a quote from LDS Church leader Ezra Taft Benson that states, in part:

Nothing in the Constitution nor in logic grants to the president of the United States or to Congress the power to influence the political life of other countries, to “uplift” their cultures, to bolster their economies, to feed their people or even defend them against their enemies. – The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson

While it is true that nothing explicit in the U.S. Constitution states such things, I disagree that logic might not grant such authority and can safely argue that some things very implicit in the Constitution might make such things prudent for America to pursue.

Of course, implicit in citing the quote from President Benson is a knee-jerk impulse for some Latter-day Saints to justify a libertarian position on foreign policy. What I’ll explain, as briefly as I can, is a conservative view.

Surprisingly for some, no doubt, I should note that I share these libertarian leanings on matters of foreign policy. I do think America has a special role in world history, even a sacred role, to be cherished and protected and not compromised. I do think our geographic location insulates us from many of the wars and rumors of wars that habitually curse foreign nations (though this explanation alone cannot justify such warlike tendencies as we’ve seen in Europe and the Middle East) and this relative isolation should be used to inform foreign policy decisions. Just as I believe in personal self-reliance, and the virtues of character that result as we struggle personally with life’s challenges, I believe that nations ought to struggle and gain self-reliance without outside interference from do-gooders. I do not believe America should be the world’s policeman. And I do believe in free trade.

But I am a conservative, not a libertarian, and I believe that prudence and principle, combined, lead to the best public policies – in this case, the best way to preserve our freedom.

I’ll leave certain arguments to my libertarian friends. I think this is all I need to say in defense of a conservative view of foreign relations:

The ultimate aim of any public policy should be the freedom it preserves or produces (not individual liberty, but collective freedom) for the American people. Clearly, when our nation is directly attacked by a foreign country our freedom is in jeopardy – which is one important reason why we’re justified in collectively defending ourselves. It’s possible that there are contentions and troubling situations within foreign nations that American relations can mitigate. For instance, one reason we generally support free trade policies is because of its “calming” and integrating effects among trading nations. Such economic partners are less likely to combat one another. Likewise, policies providing humanitarian relief can spread good will that serves to mitigate hatreds, fears and justifications that might lead ill-intended foreign leaders to unjustifiably incite their people to war against us.

Libertarians are infamous for lacking finesse and judgment. To suggest that America may rightly provide foreign aid is, in their narrow minds, tantamount to suggesting that America might as well bankrupt itself in pursuit of foreign aid. In other words, libertarians seem to lack the ability to act prudently; they lack practical reasonableness. It’s as if their cars only have two buttons marked “go fast” and “stop on a dime” instead of an accelerator and a brake that permits every intelligent driver to ease into drive or idle.

Yes, politics lends itself to constant acceleration and little braking when it comes to spending the hard-earned dollars of Americans. I agree completely. But I’m not willing to abandon prudence that permits me to protect freedom. Prudence means I believe in “an ounce of prevention” – but only an ounce.

Ezra Taft Benson is a hero of mine. I actually knew him a bit and was blessed to be able to associate with him in a limited but personal way. I agree with his general sentiments as stated above. But I also knew him well enough to understand that his general sentiments would not preclude a heavy dose of prudence that, in practice at times, might even feel contradictory to his general principles.

If I’m to take President Benson’s quote on its face, I would agree that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t explicitly address the policies he cites. However, I would disagree that logic (if logic includes prudence) doesn’t permit any of those policies he cites.