The Declaration of Independence was America’s first foreign policy document. It proclaimed to the world in 1776 our intention to become and remain a separate nation, while also expressing America’s political philosophy and the basic aims of government.
Building upon a rich Anglo-Western tradition that fostered virtues of self-government, the Declaration recognizes the popular sovereignty of the American people — comprised of individuals possessing rights that no government can take away. That is the idea of liberty, and the Declaration says it exists and has existed for all time in all places for all people, in principle. Over time, with great sacrifice and determination, the U.S. constitutional order has been remarkably successful at delivering on the promises of the Declaration for the American people.
The Founders meant to ensure the continuation of self-government at home where self-reliant individuals, effective local governments, and a limited Federal government with enumerated powers guaranteed the people’s exercise of liberty. Abroad the United States was to remain independent, not coerced by foreign powers, and safe from attack. The common defense of the American people and their system of government required a capable military, but the character of America’s role in the world was much more than “boots on the ground”.
After touring the United States in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the “principal instrument” of American foreign policy is “freedom.” He meant that, in the United States, diplomacy is not just something the government does. When American citizens proclaim their faith in their principles and practice it at home they are helping to make their nation’s foreign policy, because their words and actions are a lesson for the world. Just recently, the Chinese dissident and political activist Chen Guangcheng began his time in America with a careful study of the Declaration. Among the countries of the earth, he wanted to escape China in order to come to America.
This July 4th America still stands for freedom, but precariously so. Welfare and entitlement programs strain the federal budget, while sapping the spirit of self-government and the virtues that enable it.
On the international front, expanding international organizations and global governance institutions often try to restrict America’s freedom of action and, at times, are fundamentally hostile to America’s system of government.
These entities, as American legal scholar John Fonte has argued, follow the logic of Progressivism on a transnational scale and are therefore unaccountable to the U.S. Constitution and the sovereignty of the American people. Through a growing matrix of international legal institutions, foreign governments and IGO’s wage “law-fare” against the U.S. seeking to undermine the legitimacy and attractiveness of the American constitutional order in the arena of world politics. This is a dire, albeit not-widely-understood threat to American independence. The most recent example of this trend affects Americans’ second amendment rights: Foreign entities and the U.S. State Department are currently advancing the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty which would affect the use of legally owned firearms within the United States.
The future of our liberties is insecure, as ever. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Ronald Reagan once said. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” Americans have enjoyed a tradition and culture of self-government with its attendant opportunities and risks, but this too is fading away. And yet the stakes are exceedingly high. As George Washington noted, “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
There are now many decisions to make. The United States Senate is debating ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, or LOST) in which the meaning and practice of U.S. sovereignty is at stake. The House of Representatives is also currently weighing the budget priorities of welfare spending and national defense. And yet U.S. independence abroad will mean very little if Americans at home continue their slide into dependency on government.
America has become and remains an inspiring, albeit imperfect, model of liberty, attracting millions of immigrants eager for the opportunity to pursue happiness. This is a fulfillment of the Declaration and the proper meaning of America’s role in the world— a shining city upon a hill. This Fourth of July Americans should remember that the struggle of 1776 continues today, both for freedom from government dependency at home and independence from foreign coercion abroad.