We Shall Return: The Six Core Principles of American World Leadership

When Obama finally slinks out of the White House to deliver TED talks, here's how we'll repair the damage.

By Jason Scott Jones Published on April 20, 2015

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur was finally ordered to evacuate the Philippines in 1942 after a bitter defensive fight against overwhelming Japanese firepower, he vowed to those islands’ residents: “I shall return.” America needs to offer the world a similar promise, that after the eight years of Barack Obama’s rudderless leadership, which somehow managed to be neither principled nor pragmatic, we shall return. Yes, many Americans welcomed the election of Obama as an exciting, fresh start. So did much of the world, which greeted him with messianic fervor and granted him the Nobel Peace Prize simply for showing up. We have learned a grim lesson together.

Especially over the past two years, as we marked the somber centennial of the outbreak of World War I, we have seen the explosion of violent ethnic conflicts, the implosions of sovereign states and a vast increase in religious terrorism. On the bitter anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, commemorated this month, religious zealots threaten the lives of other minorities, from the Assyrians and Yazidis of Iraq to the Christians of Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan, the Nuba of Sudan, even Ethiopians in Libya. The world’s quotient of ugliness and intolerance has not diminished in 100 years.

Unlike the often-dilettantish politicians of August 1914, we know precisely how costly in human lives the collapse of international order can be. Some 100 million murdered civilians perished in the past century because of feckless or reckless decisions. Now that weapons are even deadlier, and hatreds even sharper, the duty to hold peace together is more solemn than ever before.

Let’s hope that whoever wins the next presidential election pledges to repair the international damage left behind by the current administration. Let’s pray the candidate can admit past mistakes, but remain deeply committed to these ideals that governed American foreign policy for most of its history:

  1. We are friends of freedom. The basic human rights to life, liberty, property and the free exercise of religion are the logical extensions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which views the human person as an image of God, with all the dignity that implies. Regimes that treat such rights as less than sacred may join us at times to fight greater evils, but our true and lasting partners will always be governments that treat their people with respect. Such regimes are often liberal democracies, but not always; in some countries with fragile protections for minority rights, majority rule would lead to less freedom, not more. Much more important is the protection and growth of a free civil society, which can lay the groundwork for a democratic society in the future.
  2. We pursue and protect our legitimate national interests, and project force primarily to further that end — not to transform the world in our own self-image. We lack both the power and the godlike knowledge to accomplish such a task, even if we thought that it was desirable.
  3. We also will use force to defend our allies from harm, and to blunt the assaults of tyrants or terrorists against the helpless. We are the natural friends of embattled minority groups whose human dignity is threatened by hostile governments. We are especially committed to aiding religious minorities, since their struggle for freedom so closely mirrors the reasons our country was founded. Our policies in the Middle East, for instance, will be guided by this principle.
  4. We believe in free trade, free markets, the protection of private property, and economic growth as the answers to poverty — not redistribution of wealth, state seizure of private businesses, government monopolies or economic nationalism. But freedom is a two-way street. We expect our trading partners to play by the same rules that we do.
  5. We will work with and through international institutions, when doing so accords with each of the aforementioned principles. Cooperation with honest partners is key to exercising leadership. But we will not violate those principles nor leave our allies hanging because of decrees by transnational organizations or entities. Like military force, they are a means, not an end in themselves.
  6. America will be true to its word, consistent to its principles, loyal to its friends and steadfast before its enemies. It will not seek quarrels lightly, nor retire from them without victory.

These are the maxims that made America great, that allowed her to grow from a marginal string of settlements on the edge of a howling wilderness, to the champion of freedom against totalitarian empires. If we return to this creed with fortitude and humility, we can again serve the world as a solid bulwark of justice in increasingly desperate times.

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