Editor’s note: This is one in a series examining the Constitution and Federalist Papers in today’s America. Click HERE to read the series.
I’m delighted that The Washington Times is taking up the call of America’s founding with a series of essays on The Federalist Papers. This project reminds me of the day I arrived at West Point as a cadet, when I was issued a copy of the 85 essays penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. I quickly realized then that The Federalist Papers were relevant not only for undergraduates, but also for everyone else interested in America’s experiment in freedom. All these years later, they remain a crucial source of wisdom for the Trump administration’s foreign policy — a policy well-grounded in America’s founding principles.
The first purpose of America’s government is security for our people, which requires a strong military. At our founding, the United States didn’t even have a standing army and so was unable to defend itself. Without such a force — and, one day, officers to lead it from places like West Point — Federalist No. 25 told us America would be vulnerable to invasion. “We must receive the blow, before we are even prepared to return it.” And the possibility of attack was very real because the union was surrounded “from Maine to Georgia” by foreign powers.
Today, America has strategic interests around the world. Unfortunately, prior administrations allowed our military readiness to weaken, endangering our security. The Trump administration has worked to reverse this, including by rebuilding our armed forces, engaging our NATO allies to increase defense spending by $400 billion and focusing our efforts on great-power competitors such as Russia and China.
Another lesson from The Federalist Papers is that a secure, strong America is good for the world. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, if freedom fails in America, it would be “considered the general misfortune of mankind.” It was up to America to settle “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
And America has proved without a doubt that mankind is capable of self-government. The framework established by our Constitution and explained in The Federalist Papers is grounded in the self-evident truth that all men and women are created equal. The State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights found that, from the design of the Constitution to the fight to end slavery to constitutional amendments protecting the rights of women and racial minorities to the long struggle for civil rights, by realizing the ideals of our founding, America has served as a beacon to the world.
I witnessed that fact up close as a young officer stationed in West Germany in the late 1980s, when President Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II described the evils of the Soviet Union and made the moral case for human dignity. When the Iron Curtain came down, people went west, toward freedom, not east, toward communism.
Today, the Trump administration calls out human rights abusers in places such as Iran, Venezuela, China and elsewhere. We know that their people deserve to live free from the likes of Nicolas Maduro and Xi Jinping’s predations because they, too, have unalienable rights.
Another lesson from The Federalist Papers is the importance of realism in foreign policy. “The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable,” Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 6. They include “the love of power or the desire of pre-eminence and dominion … the desire of equality and safety … and the rivalships and competitions of commerce.” A realistic understanding of our own interests and values, as well as those of other nations, is vital to navigating war, competition and peace successfully.
Many of our nation’s past foreign policy failures stemmed from a blindness to the true natures of hostile regimes. For example, the Iran Deal was based on the flawed notion that Tehran would stop its nuclear program in exchange for joining the “community of nations.” This ignored the regime’s anti-Western, radical, revolutionary nature stretching back to 1979. Similarly, America’s often uncritical engagement didn’t change the Chinese Communist Party into a “responsible stakeholder,” but rather gave the party new tools for domestic repression and international aggression.
The Trump administration’s approach of principled realism provides a crucial correction. We’ve executed a maximum pressure campaign to deprive the Islamic Republic of tens of billions of dollars that could have gone to terror. And we’ve led an international campaign to take on the challenge from the Chinese Communist Party. We’re putting principled realism into action in the spirit of the great traditions of American statecraft.
There are countless other valuable lessons from The Federalist Papers. But one of the most important is that freedom and democracy in America depend on the moral character of our nation’s citizenry. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” Madison wrote in Federalist No. 55, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” Madison believed that “republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
American history is replete with heroes who embody these republican virtues. People like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King Jr. returned to America’s founding documents in the hope of making good on their “promissory note” for all Americans. These American heroes recognized the responsibility of every generation to secure freedom.
That’s our task today. My current role has given me more than one occasion to draw wisdom from the lessons of the past. I still have that same copy of The Federalist Papers I received as an undergraduate. Though its cover is faded and its pages frayed, I appreciate it now in ways I didn’t yet as a young man. Two hundred and thirty-one years after The Federalist’s arguments won the day and the Constitution became the supreme law of the land, it’s a privilege to put our Founders’ vision into action as America’s 70th secretary of state.
• Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo was a four-term congressman from Kansas. He is a Harvard Law School graduate who served as an Army cavalry officer upon graduating first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
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