A GOP debate preview

(Published in The National Review Online, pg. 3 of 5, November 22, 2011)

By David B. Rivkin, Jr. and Andrew Grossman

“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be first.” So wrote John Jay in Federalist No. 3. Yet in this election cycle, the means of providing for that safety — what we broadly label “foreign policy” — actually seems to be last on the mind of many candidates and voters. This simply reflects how far we’ve drifted from constitutional government.

Nearly all of the objects that occupy our attention, except for foreign relations and the national defense, fall far outside the federal government’s limited powers, as originally understood. Under the Articles of Confederation, the national army was dependent on the states for troops, materiel, and money, which were only grudgingly given, if at all, leaving the nation unable even to secure its own territories from the British and the Spanish. Foreign relations were in chaos, with each state able to veto any treaty’s ratification and all states at war with one another for foreign trade. More than anything, the Constitution aimed to remedy these defects by fortifying federal power over foreign affairs and placing chief responsibility for external relations in the hands of the president; on the domestic side, by contrast, the Constitution little altered the states’ primacy.

With oceans providing little isolation these days, America faces more and greater threats than it did in 1789, balanced against the also greater benefits of interconnectedness. As the current president learned within his first days in office, defending the nation against transnational terrorism is itself a full-time job, requiring vigilance, resolve, and sound judgment. Then there is the growing military might of China and India; Iran’s nuclear ambitions; the nuclear-armed asylum of North Korea; and growing instability in Mexico. Beyond those direct threats to security are risks to our vital interests, from the anxiety and uncertainty of the Arab Fall and Russia’s aggressive energy politics to the plight of the tottering eurozone. Not least is America’s aspiration to be the beacon of light and hope to the world’s repressed and a consistent force for freedom and against tyranny.

To a constitutionalist, the president is foremost America’s commander-in-chief and head diplomat, and so he is principally responsible for all of these things. One need only consider America’s declining standing in the world these past three years to understand fully why foreign policy matters in a president.

— David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman are lawyers at the Washington, D.C., office of Baker Hostetler LLP. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s office in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.

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