Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett

In the previous essay we saw the causes in the Twentieth Century that led to the creation of international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations Organization. In this essay we look at why the American Founders and Framers would counsel a prudent caution against unlimited commitment to and reliance on international organizations for dealing with foreign affairs.

First, the Founders would remind us that, in committing our national resources to promoting the good of the world community through international organizations, we must not lose sight of the fact that our government has a paramount obligation to secure the rights and vital interests of the United States and its citizens. These are what James Madison called “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” in The Federalist No. 10. This fundamental obligation of our government is expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which claims “that to secure these rights” – the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others – “governments are instituted among men.” The Preamble to the United States Constitution reaffirms the fundamental purpose for which our government was designed; the American people ordained our Constitution to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.”[1] The American Founders would therefore caution against the view – as held by leaders such as Woodrow Wilson – that America’s highest obligation is to put our immediate interest aside in order to promote the good of the world community, an end that is most effectively achieved through our commitment to international organizations.

Some of the American Founders might have conceded the idea that international organizations could be useful to bring nations to a more common understanding of what justice among nations should be like. However, they would also caution that reliance on international organizations for this purpose could potentially lull us into abandoning the necessary discernment, vigilance, and prudence of determining the motives and measures of other nations – and possibly even the willingness to resort to force when necessary for our defense. A reliance on international organizations could beguile us into believing that all nations now behave rationally and can be trusted to resolve problems by dialogue alone. In other words, reliance on international organizations can give us the comfortable feeling that we have reached “the End of History,” and that modern nations have evolved beyond the motives and means of the Twentieth Century. However, plenty of real-world examples – the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example – show the naivete of this view. Furthermore, we might be tempted to forget that The United Nations is made up of nations with governments or regimes that are fundamentally hostile to the principles of justice upon which the United States was founded. Alexander Hamilton, writing as Publius in The Federalist No. 6, reminds us that so long as human beings are capable of being “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious,” and so long as governments are administered by human beings, there will always be nations inclined to go to war for a variety of reasons. As Hamilton writes:

The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable…Of this description are the love of power or the desire of pre-eminence and dominion – the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety. There are others which have a more circumscribed though an equally operative influence within their spheres. Such are the rivalships and competitions of commerce between commercial nations. And there are others, not less numerous than either of the former, which take their origin entirely in private passions; in the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes, and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members. Men of this class … have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquillity to personal advantage or personal gratification.

Even commercial republics and democracies – though founded on the principle of popular rather than monarchical rule – are prone to conflict amongst themselves. Alexander Hamilton might say, therefore, that “one must be far gone in utopian speculations” to assume that nations would actually put aside their own interests and govern cooperatively through the United Nations Organization for the good of the whole. Such an assumption would be dangerous and potentially destructive to the “permanent and aggregate interests” of the citizens of the United States.

The third concern the Founders might caution us about is that in committing the United States to the authority of international organizations, we might inadvertently relinquish our domestic sovereignty and our political independence from other nations. We might also lose our liberty as a nation to decide things like what our real obligations are to other nations, and when, how, and why we should act when dealing with foreign policy issues. These considerations are what led the U.S. Senate to vote against membership in the League of Nations in 1919.

This is a lesson President George Washington learned very well in the 1790s. The United States had signed a treaty of mutual defense with France in 1778; however, as the French Revolution turned into terror, the new French regime claimed that the treaty obligated the United States to assist them in their war against monarchical regimes throughout Europe. The treaty threatened to embroil the United States in a European war, effectively stripping the United States of its political independence and the liberty of choosing when, and when not, to go to war. From this example, Washington learned several lessons that should caution us against over-commitment to treaty-based international organizations today. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” Washington wrote in his Farewell Address. “Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” Washington understood that maintaining our political independence and national liberty is vital so that “we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

It is vital to maintain this political independence so that government may best choose how to fulfill its fundamental Constitutional duty of securing the rights and liberties of its citizens. This leads to a final word of caution regarding American commitment to international organizations. The American people, through their Constitution, have vested control over foreign affairs in Congress and the President. Congress, for example, is vested with the power of declaring war, and the President is vested with the authority to act as Commander in Chief of the country’s military forces. Because the American people have granted these powers, they have entrusted the American government with the responsibility of dealing with foreign policy issues for the security of our rights. According to the U.S. Constitution, however, the American people did not authorize our government to “delegate” that responsibility or those powers to another governing body, including international organizations – especially ones comprised of nations that abhor the very principles of justice for which the United States stands.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.


[1] Emphasis added.


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