John Quincy Adams delivered his address celebrating American independence two hundred years ago this week, and in that speech he famously told his fellow Americans that their country does not go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." This was just one part of his paean to American independence, which was then not yet half a century old, but it is the part that is most often cited because it sets out a clear rule for how America should conduct itself in the world. It is also the part that later generations of American leaders have chosen to disregard entirely to our detriment and that of the rest of the world.
In the two centuries since Adams warned against enlisting in the causes of other nations, the U.S. has increasingly involved itself in "the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom." Because our government presumes to "lead" the world, it takes it as a given that it has the right to interfere anywhere and to intervene forcibly whenever it wishes. Today our government wears the "imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murkey radiance of dominion and power" just as Adams feared that it would if it ignored the principles he defended. The question for Americans today is whether we want to cast off that imperial diadem and reclaim some measure of self-government by ending our involvement in our many foreign wars and entanglements.
Adams’ words still resonate two hundred years later because he tied his vision of America’s role in the world to the principles of American independence and liberty, and he spelled out how those principles would be corrupted if America sought to ensnare itself in the conflicts of the world. Now there are desperate interventionist attempts to deny that Adams meant what he said. Hawkish interventionists even make ludicrous arguments that Adams was an early advocate of American primacy, a sort of neoconservative avant la lettre. It is not surprising that they feel threatened by the revival of interest in Adams’ views, because that means there is renewed interest in keeping America out of unnecessary wars. If America’s role is not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, then the foreign policy that interventionists support is a perversion of who Americans should be as a nation.
One of the many corrupting effects of going abroad to destroy monsters is that it leads to vilifying and dehumanizing other nations and viewing them as if they were colonial subjects. When the US sets itself against some authoritarian state, this has frequently meant that the US also inflicts collective punishment on the people living under that government. Supporters of these collective punishment campaigns even have the nerve to claim that they are on the side of the people they strangle and kill with sanctions. We saw this with sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, and we see it again today with "maximum pressure" campaigns against Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea. Our political leaders and policymakers rationalize these extraordinarily cruel and monstrous policies by claiming that they are aimed only at the government and not at the people, but inevitably these policies do great harm to everyone in the targeted country because they are indiscriminate.
Treating certain foreign states as monsters to be slain has another ugly consequence, namely that of aligning the US with equally or more monstrous states because they happen to be rivals of the government that Washington opposes. The US has supported and armed many brutal governments around the world over the last eighty years, and these relationships are always rationalized as necessary to serve some larger strategic design. In practice, almost none of these relationships was necessary, and every time it implicated the US in grave abuses and crimes. When the Cold War ended, new excuses were found to keep most of these relationships going, and then the "war on terror" provided another set of excuses. Tomorrow it will likely be rivalry with China that serves as the overarching justification for propping up this or that dictator. Instead of destroying monsters, the US ends up enabling and strengthening many of them.
When the US appoints itself as a monster-slaying knight, it gives itself license to bend and break the laws that it insists that others follow. Illegal and aggressive warfare gets conveniently redefined as "anticipatory self-defense" in Iraq because the government being targeted for destruction is a brutal one. Other states are expected to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of others, but the US can run roughshod over the sovereignty of other states without even offering up an excuse. The US acts as if it were world sovereign with the authority to create exceptions for itself, and it reserves the right to punish the rest. The "rules-based order" in practice means that the US makes the rules and gives the orders, and everyone else is supposed to fall in line or suffer the consequences. That is what America has become as it has gone out into the world to destroy monsters.
Adams warned that the "fundamental maxims" of American policy "would insensibly change from liberty to force" if the US took part in the conflicts of other nations. In the last century, there is no question that this is what happened. Our foreign policy has become thoroughly militarized, and our government is engaged in hostilities in some part of the world at almost all times. This has trapped our country in a prison of our own making, so that we can hardly imagine what it would look like to have a normal foreign policy that is much more peaceful than the one we have had for the last four generations. We need to recapture the spirit of independence that Adams extolled and throw off the shackles of the empire we have created for ourselves. We have nothing to lose but our entanglements.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.