Writing in the American Conservative, Patrick J. Buchanan has joined the current foreign policy debate with a thoughtful article that questions the Biden administration’s and much of the American foreign policy establishment’s notion of a 21st-century struggle between democracy and autocracy. Buchanan, who in the past has been accused of being an isolationist, is in reality a foreign policy realist in the tradition of Presidents George Washington and John Quincy Adams; and, one might add, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Walter Lippmann.
What Buchanan sometimes misses is the geopolitical consequences of American retrenchment in the face of expansionist powers.
Buchanan’s magnum opus in this regard is A Republic, Not an Empire, originally published in 1999 at the dawn of the 21st century. It is a book full of historical insights into American foreign policy traditions, and it is well worth reading today. Had Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama followed Buchanan’s approach as laid out in that book, the United States would have avoided the costly “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a sense, Buchanan’s book was the intellectual foundation for President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy approach.
Buchanan’s essay in the American Conservative is a concise summary of the argument he made in A Republic, Not an Empire. He notes that the idea that democracy and autocracy are in a “climactic ideological crusade to determine the destiny of mankind” was anathema to most American statesmen throughout our history. He writes, “[I]n the two-century rise of the United States to world preeminence and power, autocrats have proven invaluable allies.”
Buchanan points out that France’s autocratic regime helped us win the War of Independence; autocratic Russia was our ally in World War I; autocrat Chiang Kai-shek of China fought with us against Japan in World War II; Joseph Stalin was a necessary ally against Adolf Hitler’s Germany; the autocratic regime of Syngman Rhee fought alongside us during the Korean War; and during the Cold War we benefited from autocratic allies such as the Shah of Iran, the House of Saud, General Francisco Franco of Spain, the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Arab emirs and sultans, and many other autocratic governments. Buchanan’s point is that “the internal politics of foreign lands, especially in wartime, have rarely been America’s primary concern.” The important question for U.S. foreign policy, he writes, is whether an autocracy is “enlisted in the same cause as we, and fighting alongside us.” In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
At the end of his essay in the American Conservative, Buchanan, as he did in A Republic, Not an Empire, returns to the prudent counsel of Washington to avoid foreign quarrels whenever possible and Adams’ exhortation to avoid going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”
Buchanan in past essays has urged American policymakers to look to end the war in Ukraine “before it expands into a nuclear war.” He has also doubted the wisdom of coming to Taiwan’s aid should China attack or invade the island.
“How many battle deaths, how many war dead, are we willing to sacrifice to prevent Beijing taking political control of an island of 23 million Taiwanese 6,000 miles away from the United States?” he asks.
What Buchanan sometimes misses, however, is the geopolitical consequences of American retrenchment in the face of expansionist powers. It is not the internal politics of China or Russia that should determine our responses to their aggressive actions, but rather whether those aggressive actions impact the vital national security interests of the United States. And while the answer to that question is not as simple as saying “America First,” it is America’s interests — not the “global community’s” — that should be of paramount concern. An ideological crusade against autocracy is not a vital U.S. national security interest.
Even if you disagree with Buchanan’s positions on Ukraine and/or Taiwan, he asks questions that need to be asked in this important foreign policy debate. These are questions that should be asked and answered before the United States commits itself to war in Europe or the Far East.