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.

While the Iran deal is the latest blow to our foreign policy tradition, a long-festering wound is the decline of our military might. Our military has endured 15 years of war and six years of repeated budget cuts. It is now breaking under the burden of a mindless sequestration that indiscriminately cuts across the board and treats every dollar of federal spending equally—whether for defense or for pork. As a consequence, our military is facing a crisis. The Navy has 260 ships—the smallest number since the end of the Cold War. Our Air Force is the smallest and oldest force in our history. The Army and the Marine Corps are on track to drop below 450,000 and 190,000 personnel, respectively—the bare minimum levels our commanders say we need to fulfill our missions.

These unwise cuts to our military call into question U.S. resolve and security commitments. It’s not a coincidence that, in the span of a few years, we have seen a revisionist Russia exert its will in Ukraine and in the Middle East, radical Jihadism metastasize across the Middle East and North Africa, China project power over more and more aerial and maritime territories, and Iran out-negotiate us while it spreads chaos across the Middle East through its proxies and clients.

This picture isn’t pretty, but as I said earlier, the American foreign policy tradition has a knack for self-correction, for turning the ship around and reversing past mistakes. To make that happen, however, we need to look back to the foundational principles of our Constitution. To restore respect for the Treaty Clause, we must make every effort over the next year to isolate and impugn the President’s nuclear deal with Iran as a singular, one-off agreement that ought never to be repeated. We must put every nation and every business on notice that this deal is temporary and unique. They must understand that U.S. sanctions on Iran—either through new legislation or through a new president—will return. We must work to elect a new president who will rescind the Iran nuclear deal—and who will restore the credible threat of force.

Put simply, our allies and our adversaries must understand that this nuclear arms control deal reached by executive agreement is not secure. They have to understand that it is in our interest and in their interest to conclude stable and long-lasting agreements by way of treaties. And all future presidents should see that building consensus through the constitutionally mandated advice and consent of the Senate will afford them a genuine, lasting legacy.

A restoration of the Treaty Clause must be accompanied by a restoration of our military might. Frederick the Great said, “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments”—in other words, inert, inaudible, and ineffective. If we want our diplomacy to be effective and our agreements to be strong, we must rebuild our military.

The American tradition has never been to seek war, or to seek it first in a dispute. Lincoln, again in his First Annual Message to Congress, prized diplomacy as a means of defusing tensions with foreign powers and maintaining our “rights and honor.” But he also called for a military build-up. “Aggressions,” said his Secretary of War Simon Cameron, “are seldom made upon a nation ever ready to defend its honor and to repel insults.”

To ensure that we are ready to defend our national honor today, we will need significantly more defense spending than Congress and the President have managed to agree upon in recent years. Our current defense budget is little more than a political compromise, which may be appropriate for highway funding or tax policy, but which is no way to fund a military or to counter rising threats. Congress and the President must return to the foundational principle that our military edge must not be challenged. We must give our fighting men and women the resources they need to deter, fight, and win wars.