On the Federalist Papers: The peace of a ‘wise and free’ people

This column is part of an ongoing series of essays examining and applying the timeless principles and truths of the Federalist Papers to the political events of our day.

The President advocated a common sense principle at the National Defense University last month that he would do well to heed in his meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping over the next two days: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” Though the context was the “war on terrorism,” the principle is universal. Unfortunately, there is little evidence from the summit’s preliminary meetings that the Obama Administration thinks there is any struggle with China that needs defining.

After meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Fan Changlong, soon-to-be former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon argued, “An essential part of building a new model for relations between great powers is ensuring we have a healthy, stable and reliable military to military relationship.” Just how close American-Chinese military relations should be is unclear, given the news a few days later that Chinese hackers have acquired the designs for dozens of U.S. weapons systems critical to American defense operations in the Pacific–a fact Mr. Donilon certainly knew when he made his statement.

Perhaps even more striking, however, is Mr. Donilon’s claim to be “building a new model for relations between great powers.” Here, he was eagerly seconded by Mr. Fan, who advocated “a new type of major power relations.” Which, do you think, was serious?

Fifteen years ago Congress, by a 409-10 vote, authorized the creation of a select committee to investigate Chinese efforts to steal American nuclear technology and information. After the release of the committee’s unanimously approved final report, Meet the Press’s Tim Russert asked its author, then-Congressman Christopher Cox, whether he considered China an enemy of the United States. Rep. Cox replied whimsically that the findings showed that the Chinese government are certainly not our friends. What followed thereafter was the typical Beltway two-step: an administrative reform that “fixes” the problem coupled with a half-hearted prosecution to clean up the past. Then, back to business as usual, as the recent revelations remind us.

Non-western leaders–the Chinese foremost among them–have long since learned how to play nice in front of Western cameras and politicians, spouting fantastic platitudes that bear no relation to their past actions or future plans. The degree to which American presidents fall for this game is in proportion to their belief in the fantasy, which means President Obama has a pretty fair chance of being duped–which, in turn, means that the Chinese have a pretty fair chance of buying more time to close the gap between themselves and the United States while the details of Donilon’s “new model” are being worked out.

Liberal Internationalists like President Obama have, for a century, sought to establish a new world order based upon mutual cooperation among all nations. First the League of Nations and then the U.N. were designed to establish a “new model for relations between great powers.” In fact, the success of the U.N. Security Council depends upon such a “new model” already being in place. How else can an institution function that gives an unqualified veto power to five permanent members–the five “great powers” among the victorious World War II allies (the United States, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China)? In a world where, in fact, the interests of nations conflict–including American and Chinese–it is no wonder that the Security Council has been serially ineffective, crisis after crisis.

The American public has rather easily intuited this conflict, despite our foreign policy establishment’s confusion. This does not make them inherently hawkish; like their predecessors in the founding generation, they seek safety, not conflict–the first object, according to Federalist 3, of “a wise and free people.” But they do understand that nations can not always choose to be at peace, that they will never attain real peace if they haven’t first defined its nature and scope.

In Federalist 3, John Jay begins a two-essay argument demonstrating the advantages of Union for securing the safety of the American people. Ratification of the Constitution, he reasons, means continuing a Union less likely to provoke or invite war than independent states or multiple confederacies.

The heart of Jay’s case is the claim that national leaders are better situated to take a comprehensive view of America’s interests. Being drawn from a larger pool of candidates, they ought to be more wise than their state-level counterparts, and being less engaged by particular local interests, they ought to be more willing to grant the justice of reasonable foreign complaints.

Of course, this analysis is probabilistic and no guarantee that we will always have wise and humble leaders–all the more so when the more measured view of human nature that informed the American founding has been replaced in part with an hyper-optimistic view promising indefinite human progress. Our current foreign policy establishment, like its predecessors for several generations, considers securing the safety of Americans insufficiently grand and embarrassingly parochial to be its principal object. Unfortunately, in attempting to transcend the Founders’ simple mandate, they have too often rendered our safety less secure.

A sensible approach to US-China relations would begin with four basic premises: that the interests of China and the United States are not the same; that China can be expected to employ any means that will advance its interests; that China will prefer fair means to foul only when the price of the latter is greater than the price of the former; that the United States can only impose a price on Chinese bad behavior if it has both the will and the means. These may be platitudes, but they are grounded in reality, not fantasy.

Such principles were certainly understood by the American founders. The infant United States played a weak hand well during the quarter-century of world war that followed the French Revolution. Alexander Hamilton began by getting America’s economic house in order so that a large national debt and a weak manufacturing base didn’t compromise her political independence. George Washington then announced in his Farewell Address that America would judge foreign regimes by their actions (not, as today, by her ideology), while laboring to build a country whose military means commanded the respect of all.

Having become the world’s leading economic and military power, the United States should have long since attained Washington’s object. And yet North Korea keeps testing missiles and threatening California, Latin American strongmen form anti-America coalitions with impunity, and the Arab “Spring” brings repeated attacks on our embassies and consulates. Forget the great powers: we don’t command the respect of the tinpot dictators. Fantasies die hard, but regimes that hold on to them sometimes don’t even notice while they slowly fade away.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” Because the American foreign policy establishment, like the rest of our ruling class, has a habit of looking down on the American people and their “simplistic” political judgments, it has failed to recognize the guiding constants of international affairs. As long as this remains the case, our national security will grow more precarious.

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