America’s superior power is not a moral entitlement.
Citizen Statesmen: Cotton on Foreign Policy
Can America recover a nationalist vision of world leadership?
This Spring, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton delivered the keynote address at the Claremont Institute’s annual Churchill Dinner. With worldwide nationalist movements on the rise and the future of globalization increasingly in doubt, Sen. Cotton called Americans to consider anew how to carry on the legacy of liberty and leadership Winston Churchill traced through history to America’s founding generation. The American Mind presents Cotton’s speech in full, coupled with an array of critical appraisals.
Thank you all very much for that incredibly warm welcome. To my old teacher and friend, Charles Kesler, thank you for your kind introduction. After that, even I am interested in what I’m going to say tonight. Do not abandon hope yet.
It’s good to be back at the Claremont Institute. This dinner in honor of our hero Sir Winston Churchill is something of an annual reunion for all of us. We’re here tonight to show our continued support for the Institute and its work. I know you all hope to see its work shape the direction of our country, including its alumni rising to high positions of influence in government, media, and business. And when that happens, it’s natural to ask one to return for an occasion like this. So tonight, let me simply say: I’m sorry you’re stuck with me instead.
Twenty-one years ago this summer, I participated in the Institute’s Publius Fellowship Program. That’s where I got to know Charles, Mike Uhlmann, Larry Arnn, and so many others who have remained friends and counselors ever since. As important, I learned a lot about the American political tradition-not abstract philosophy, not brass knuckle practical politics, but how the two come together in the American founding and across our history. That’s the craft of statesmanship, a subject central to the Institute’s mission.
Statesmen are not uniquely American, of course, as evidenced by the man we honor tonight. But wherever and whenever we find them, they grapple with the same fundamental questions about human life. For instance, it’s been 53 years since Winston Churchill died, and the world has changed a lot, but we’re still facing a central question to which he dedicated himself: How ought a free people govern themselves? This is the question of self-government by citizens. It’s also a question of what we can expect from our statesmen.
Churchill liked to say that a key distinction between nations is whether “the people own the government, or the government owns the people.” The former condition, the only tolerable one, is what he called “civilization” or a “society based upon the opinion of civilians.” By that he meant that violence gave way to order; crime, warfare, and tyranny gave way to parliaments, law courts, and stability: a country where one could live his life in safety, free from coercion and oppression. He echoed Alexander Hamilton, who wrote in Federalist 1 that the American experiment would show the world whether mankind could be governed by “reflection and choice” or instead only by “accident and force.” The two statesmen echo across the ages because both of our countries aspire to the same standard of civilization, where, as Churchill said, “a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people.”
Churchill, like any one of us here, ranked the “citizen higher than the state,” but that raises the question of what exactly is a citizen? It’s not a subject or a vassal or a serf. It’s a free and equal member of a distinct and particular political community. This is particularly true in our nation of immigrants, where there’s no crown to which we pledge loyalty; no ties of kinship hold us together.
Instead, what unites us is a shared way of life toward shared purposes, which finds its most direct expression in the laws we make for ourselves through our elected representatives. Like Lincoln before him, Churchill located the “highest expression” of these ideas in the “American Declaration of Independence.”
The statesman needs to understand that the rule of law, made by the elected representatives of free and equal citizens, is what sets us apart. It’s reasonable for our citizens to expect this from our statesmen, and for them to expect this knowledge in our statesmen to put their interests first in making our laws. And after the Declaration and the Constitution, is there any more fundamental law than the rules we set for how other people can join our shared political community?
Our Founders understood all this, but I’m sorry to say that today too many of our elites in both parties do not. Immigration was an issue of signal importance in the 2016 election, and it remains so today. That makes sense, because immigration is more than just another issue. It touches upon fundamental questions of economics, identity, and citizenship. And for too long, a bipartisan, cosmopolitan elite in Washington has dismissed our people’s legitimate concerns about these things and tended to put its own interests or the interests of foreigners above the national interest.
No one captured this sensibility better than our last president, when he famously called himself “a citizen of the world.” With that phrase, he revealed a deep misunderstanding of the nature of citizenship. After all, “citizen” and “city” share the same Latin root word: citizenship by definition means that you belong to a particular political community. Yet many of our elites share his sensibility. They believe that American citizenship—real, actual citizenship—is meaningless, ought not be foreclosed to anyone, and ought not be the basis for distinctions between citizens and foreigners. You might even say they think American exceptionalism lies in not making exceptions when it comes to citizenship.
But this mindset is not only foreign to most Americans. It’s also foreign to the Anglo-American political tradition, as Churchill proclaimed repeatedly in defense of the principles of the “English-speaking peoples.” Take the Declaration of Independence. Our cosmopolitan elites love to cite its stirring passages about the rights of mankind when they talk about immigration or refugees. They’re not wrong to do so. In fact, many of us do so. Unlike any other country, America is an idea—but it is not only an idea. America is also a real, particular place with real borders and real, flesh-and-blood people. And the Declaration tells us it was so from the very beginning. Prior to those stirring passages about “unalienable Rights” and “Nature’s God,” in the Declaration’s very first sentence in fact, the Founders say it has become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands” that tie them to another—one people, not all people, not citizens of the world, but actual people who make up actual colonies. The Founders frequently use the words we and us throughout the Declaration to describe that people.
Furthermore, on several occasions, the Declaration speaks of “these Colonies” or “these States.” The Founders were concerned about their own circumstances. They owed a duty to their own people who had sent them as representatives to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They weren’t trying to free South America from Spanish or Portuguese dominion, much as they might have condemned that dominion. Perhaps most notably, the Founders explain towards the end of the Declaration that they had appealed not only to King George for redress, but also to their fellow British citizens, yet those fellow citizens had been “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” Consanguinity! Blood ties! That’s pretty much the opposite of being a citizen of the world. So while the Declaration is of course a universal document, it’s also a particular document about one nation and one people. Its signers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to each other, in English, right here in America—not in Esperanto to all mankind in Brussels. Yet our cosmopolitan elites seem heedless of this distinction. They think because anyone can believe the same things as an American, we’re morally obligated to treat everyone like an American.
Anything less, they say, is a betrayal of our ideals. But that’s wrong. Just because you can become an American doesn’t mean you are an American. And it certainly doesn’t mean we must treat you as an American, especially if you don’t play by our rules to begin with. After all, in our unique brand of nationalism, which connects our people through our ideas, repudiating our law is kind of like renouncing your blood ties in the monarchical lands of old. And what law is more central to a political community than who gets to become a citizen, under what conditions, and when? While we wish our fellow man well, it’s only our fellow citizens to whom we have a duty and whose rights our government was created to protect. And among the highest obligations we owe to each other is to ensure that every working American can lead a dignified life. If you look across our history, I’d argue that’s always been the purpose of our immigration system: to create conditions in which normal, hard-working Americans can thrive.
Look no further than what James Madison said on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1790, when the very first Congress was debating our very first naturalization law. He said, “It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours.” “The worthy part,” not the entire world. Madison continued, “But why is this desirable? Not merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community.”
“To increase the wealth and strength of the community.” That’s quite a contrast to today’s elite consensus. Our immigration system shouldn’t serve the interests of foreigners or merely wealthy Americans. No, it ought to benefit all Americans and serve our common good-that’s the purpose of immigration and the obligation of a statesman.
The government is our creation, after all. As self-governing citizens, we exercise our sovereignty by electing representatives to tend to our affairs, protect our interests, and preserve our liberty. And that’s what we expect: that the men and women we elect will care for our common concerns. They should be far-sighted and prudent. They should not put the interests of foreigners and foreign nations before ours, or succumb to abstractions and intellectual fads. But today, we have too many elites who do just that and not enough statesmen. Too many act like Mrs. Jellyby, obsessed with Borrio-boola-Gha and the well-being of its residents rather than what’s best for their fellow citizens.
This is foolhardy, as the recent immigration debates have shown, and it’s dangerous as well. That’s because a self-governing citizenry expects its statesmen not only to put their interests first, but also to manage those affairs that we cannot handle individually. This is nowhere more true than the common defense of our democracy. Churchill struggled mightily in the 1930s to do just this, against the wishful thinking of others in the government. He failed in part because of what an old Claremont Institute fellow, the late Bill Rood, called the “democratic strategic deficit.” Democratic peoples have a dangerous inclination to believe that war is no longer possible. We organize our lives around negotiation, compromise, and consent. Violence is strictly controlled and aberrational in our societies. Commerce and other peaceful pursuits dominate our lives. There’s a natural tendency among democratic peoples therefore to believe that these principles apply in international relations as well.
But they don’t. The world is a struggle for mastery and dominance of the international order, in which, as Bill Rood said, “You run the show or the show runs you.” Dictators organize their domestic order with force and violence and live in constant fear for their own lives and grasp on power, so they understand this all too well.
Because the United States dominates the world order today, we need to understand these things and overcome this strategic deficit even more than most. What revisionist powers want to revise, after all, is the American role in the world. For all the tensions between great-power rivals like Russia and China or outlaw nations like Iran and North Korea, they can all agree on sticking it to the United States. Yet we’re often slow to this realization. Against the risks of deterrence and the horrors of war, Americans are apt to conciliate an incremental aggressor, no less than any other democratic people. Unfortunately, this is not a strategic approach.
Nor does it yield sound strategic forecasts. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates testified to the Armed Services Committee a few years back: “Our record since Vietnam in predicting where and how we will be engaged militarily next-even a few months out-is perfect: we have never once gotten it right. We never expected to be engaged militarily in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya (twice), Iraq (now three times), Afghanistan, the Balkans, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and, most recently, West Africa to combat Ebola.” To which we must now add Syria, too. America is a continental nation, full of riches, an ingenious people, and a fearsome military. We have a larger margin of error than small, weak, poor countries in Eurasia. But we cannot afford large strategic mistakes or small ones indefinitely.
The answer to the democratic strategic deficit is better, more strategic-minded statesmanship. It falls to us in the government, whether elected or appointed officials, to understand the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be, and to do what’s necessary to protect our people against hostile powers bent on our destruction. It’s what our citizens expect of us, and it’s the fundamental reason they hire us in the first place. The good news is, the strategic mindset has a long pedigree in American statecraft, so it’s something to recover, not something to introduce. The father of our country, our first president, proclaimed it when he said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving the peace.”
Not hoping for peace, not wishing for it, not entrusting it to other nations or international organizations-Washington knew none of those things preserve the peace. Only preparing for war does. And not only that. Being prepared for war is also what allows the United States to defend the cause of justice. In his famous Melian Dialogue, Thucydides records a perverted view of justice that is regrettably all too common across the ages: “the strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must.” But when the strong are also the just, then the weak have no need to fear them. Or as Bill Rood put it, “It is only the strong that can afford to be kind and only the strong that can protect the weak.”
“Only the strong can protect the weak”—perhaps that in a nutshell says what our elites have forgotten. Only when our citizens are strong and flourishing can our country prosper. Only when our government has the strength and energy to protect our citizens can we also be a beacon of hope to the world.
And if he were here tonight, I suspect Sir Winston would agree. It’s not for nothing that this man, who loved Great Britain so dearly, nevertheless declared that the “great men who founded the American Constitution” created “a system of law and liberty under which they thrived and reached the physical and … the moral leadership of the world.” It is the American statesman’s duty to preserve that moral leadership, to protect our system of “law and liberty” on behalf of our fellow citizens. It’s also the mission of the Claremont Institute, and I thank you for your devotion to the philosophical foundation of the American experiment in self-government. I am humbled to receive your Statesmanship Award, and I am honored to join you in that noble effort.
God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.