Foreign Policy and the Constitution

Tom Cotton
U.S. Senator from Arkansas and Author, Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery

Tom CottonTom Cotton was elected to the U.S. Senate from Arkansas in 2014, following one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves on the Senate Banking Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee. A graduate of Harvard College, he studied government at the Claremont Graduate School and received his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2002. In 2005, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, rose to 1st Lieutenant, and served deployments in Iraq with the 101st Airborne and in Afghanistan with a Provincial Reconstruction Team. His military decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and Ranger Tab. He is the author of Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on September 15, 2015, at Hillsdale College’s Sixth Annual Constitution Day Celebration in Washington, D.C.

In the last week, President Obama moved ahead with a nuclear-arms control agreement with a mortal and unrepentant enemy, having the support only of a rump, partisan minority in Congress. This dangerous turn of events offers an occasion to reflect on the state of American foreign policy today and on the Constitution’s place in our foreign policy.

Over the past 25 years, a major preoccupation of foreign-policy elites has been to forge a new grand strategy for the United States. Scholars and practitioners tend to see a foreign policy adrift after the fall of the Soviet Union, when containment of Soviet expansion became obsolete overnight. Seeing no major ideological or military rival, some believed the Owl of Minerva had taken flight, and that the end of history had reduced the need for strategic thinking. Alas, that fantasy came crashing down along with two big towers 14 years ago this month. Again, foreign-policy elites searched for a new strategy, this time for the age of Islamic terror.

Circumstances do change, and foreign policy, often a matter of prudence, must change with them to achieve the same ends. Too often, however, the search for a new strategy simply becomes the search for something new. This way of thinking carries a hint of disdain for the principles and foreign-policy traditions of our past—and disdaining those principles and traditions is a mistake. When the makers of breakfast cereals roll out a new product, after all, they say it’s “new and improved,” because the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter.

Likewise, every new and fashionable idea in foreign policy isn’t necessarily an improvement. To the contrary, we ought to pay some respect to older foreign policy ideas—the ideas that took us from a small and weak colonial outpost to the greatest superpower in history in just 170 years. With that track record, common sense would suggest there’s something special we can learn from the Constitution—and the strategies that arose from it—to help us chart our way in the world.