The headlines are full of horrific images of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
No doubt, the country will become less Western and more theocratic under Taliban rule. However, less discussed is whether we should have been in the war at all, or how we can build a foreign policy where we can avoid a similar fate in other countries. When Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) call for making cuts in the Pentagon budget so we don’t have future unnecessary wars, they are called “extreme” by some. When Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks of “breaking the colonial model of the world” and “prioritizing human rights,” he is called too idealistic.
When politicians speak of such ideals, they are merely trying to reconnect with a tradition in American foreign policy, as stated by John Nichols in his story “The True American Patriots are the Anti-Imperialists.” Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1821, the nation’s eighth secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, later elected president, spoke to the U.S. House of Representatives on the role the United States should play in the world: “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers, shall be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
One of the fears of our forefathers was that our republic would devolve into an empire. They patterned our democratic republic after earlier democratic republics in ancient Greece and Rome, as both Greece and Rome started out as collections of city-states where a form of democracy was practiced and then became empires — Alexander the Great (Greece) and the mighty Roman Empire with their all-powerful emperors. Although I don’t feel our country has become anything resembling those empires, we’ve added significantly to our security costs by trying to dominate the four corners of the globe with a network of military bases built in the Cold War.
Adams was the most well-travelled of the forefathers, and he thought Americans had the responsibility to speak up for the virtues of the democratic form. While he was no isolationist, the former president and secretary of state warned us of the dangers to liberty that entangling alliances presented — that they would destroy our republic.
Mr. Adams is someone forgotten from American history. The worldview of Adams inspired the current Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the views of Khanna, as he said: “The United States foreign policy should be about exporting science, technology, and innovation — not endless, unconstitutional wars and weapons to regimes that don’t respect human rights. We need to return to the ideals of John Quincy Adams: Restraint in foreign policy.”
Although he’s usually remembered as a one-term president, Adams returned to the Congress just after his presidential term and served until his death in 1848, where he fought to repeal the rule that prevented debate about slavery on the House floor; and eventually appeared before the Supreme Court to plead the case for freeing kidnapped Africans in the Amistad trial. In a speech as Monroe’s secretary of state, he said: “(America’s) glory is not dominion, but liberty,” he announced. “Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
After the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001, some recommended we conduct a counterterrorism mission to capture Bin Laden but not occupy Afghanistan and turn the mission into a war. We failed to follow their advice. The problem magnified when we invaded Iraq, a country with no connection to the terrorist attacks. In the future, let’s try not to look for monsters to destroy but export quality diplomacy, science, technology, and innovation.
executive director of the Peace Economy Project