By Francis P. Sempa.

Patrick J. Buchanan has announced his retirement from writing his syndicated column. He is, at age 84, reportedly working on a memoir. Long before Donald Trump strode onto the political scene, Buchanan laid the intellectual foundations for an “America First” foreign policy. And that foundation was best expressed in two of his books: A Republic Not an Empire (1999) and Day of Reckoning (2007). 

Buchanan started writing A Republic Not an Empire after his unsuccessful run for the GOP’s nomination for president in 1996. Buchanan sensed that the United States, in the aftermath of its Cold War victory—Buchanan was present in the White House during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies and was a Cold War hawk—was expanding its overseas commitments instead of returning to its traditional foreign policy roots as expressed in President George Washington’s Farewell Address and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ cautionary advice to avoid going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. U.S. leaders of both parties “from arrogance and hubris,” Buchanan wrote, were engaging in “imperial overstretch” even as they were reducing defense expenditures as a result of what was termed a post-Cold War “peace dividend.” “As we pile commitment upon commitment, in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf,” he continued, “American power continues to contract—a sure formula for foreign policy disaster.”   

Buchanan viewed the Cold War as an “exceptional time” in American history when U.S. security required entering into, in George Washington’s words, “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” With the collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe, Japan, and South Korea, he believed, were now more than capable of providing for their own defense. Instead of recognizing the new security situation, the United States made more overseas commitments, including expanding NATO to Russia’s borders. Buchanan agreed with George F. Kennan that this move was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.” NATO, Buchanan argued, had shifted from being a necessary Cold War alliance to a United States protectorate. “NATO expansion,” Buchanan wrote, “is a rash and provocative act, unrelated to our true security interests and rooted in an ignorance of American history and traditions.” 

One consequence of NATO expansion, Buchanan predicted, would be the formation of a “strategic partnership” between China and Russia, effectively undoing the brilliant triangular diplomacy of the Nixon administration which exploited Sino-Soviet political divisions to America’s benefit. Buchanan’s observation here was geopolitics 101: American security depended on the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. Yet, the Clinton administration seemed oblivious to this possibility. It moved ahead with the first round of NATO expansion and set in motion a process that added 14 more countries to the alliance, including Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia and North Macedonia. America’s nuclear guarantee eventually was extended to all of those nations. And in 2007-2008, the George W. Bush administration talked about inviting Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance. 

But the bulk of A Republic Not an Empire showed that America’s latest commitments were a dramatic break with the most cherished and prudent traditions of American foreign policy. Washington’s Farewell Address was front and center in this story. Washington and all other presidents up to William Howard Taft would have been astonished at the notion that the United States should seek to spread democracy to other nations and that alliances should outlive the reasons for their existence. Yet most twentieth and twenty-first-century presidents have fallen into the ideological trap of equating our interests with our values. The two are not the same. That is why John Quincy Adams urged Americans to recognize that while we are the well-wishers of freedom and liberty for all, we are the champions and vindicators only of our own. 

The great German chancellor Otto von Bismarck said that “it is unworthy of a great state to dispute over something which does not concern its interests.” Buchanan argued that no U.S. interests were involved in pushing NATO closer to Russia’s borders, especially after George H. W. Bush’s administration told Russian leaders we would not do so. As Buchanan noted, “By pushing a U.S. alliance up to Russia’s borders, we are violating solemn pledges given when Moscow agreed to German unification.” Russia’s reaction was predictable. As Susan Eisenhower noted, “it is not surprising that NATO expansion has been viewed with great hostility across the entire Russian political spectrum.” And this was before Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president. 

Buchanan also criticized the Clinton administration’s military efforts in the Balkans, which were undertaken on the basis of values, not strategic interests. He warned that we were engaging in a “neo-imperial” policy that would involve us in unnecessary wars without concrete national interests. He even speculated that a second Gulf War could result in a region-wide Islamic jihad designed to drive America out of the Middle East. 

Buchanan did not have to wait long to see some of his predictions come true. NATO expansion, as he warned, resulted in reviving Russian nationalist-imperialist impulses and helped drive Russia further into the arms of China. The United States launched a second Gulf War, and in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, transformed the war into a messy and costly occupation and a crusade to spread democracy throughout the region. In the midst of further NATO expansions and the second Gulf War, Buchanan wrote Day of Reckoning. 

Day of Reckoning was to some extent an “I told you so” book. Buchanan had been right. So, he reminded everyone, was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had advised post-Cold War America to return to being a “normal” country. But American policymakers did not listen. The hubris and arrogance of Cold War victory led to the nemesis of imperial overstretch. Buchanan identified the so-called Wolfowitz memorandum, written by Bush 41 Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, as the intellectual seed of future trouble. Wolfowitz essentially portrayed America as the new Rome that needed to prevent the rise of other great powers who might challenge U.S. hegemony.

At first, Buchanan noted, George W. Bush sounded like anything but a Wilsonian. But then 9/11 happened and Bush 43 the pragmatist became Bush 43 the “democratist.” Not only would the United States preemptively strike other nations if we believed those nations posed an “imminent” threat to U.S. interests, but we would launch a crusade to democratize the Middle East because America could only be safe, Bush claimed, if those nations became democracies. Buchanan presented Bush quote after Bush quote to show how the ideology of democratism dominated the president’s foreign policy approach to the world. Bush, Buchanan wrote, was worse than Wilson: Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy; Bush wanted to spread democracy throughout the world. George Washington and John Quincy Adams would have been appalled.

Buchanan characterized the Bush 43 foreign policy as “messianic” and “utopian.” He predicted that the ideology of democratism would “bleed, bankrupt, and break this republic in endless crusades and interminable wars.” “We have crossed the line between republic and empire,” Buchanan wrote, and “[o]ur situation is unsustainable, and retreat inevitable.” He urged U.S. policymakers to heed the wisdom of Walter Lippmann who defined an effective foreign policy as one that aligns commitments with resources. That meant, for Buchanan, “retrenchment”—a return to the foreign policy approach of Washington and Adams, an end to crusades abroad, a return to foreign policy normalcy. 

And Buchanan sensed that the new foreign policy debate in the United States was between globalists and populists; between those foreign policy elites who seek multinational solutions to global problems and promote global governance, and populist conservatives who want a foreign policy committed to America’s interests—period. Buchanan’s presidential campaigns and foreign policy books are the intellectual foundations of the “America First” movement that catapulted Donald Trump into the White House. Indeed, the last sentence of Day of Reckoning is: “Time to put America first.”

Sometimes Buchanan got carried away with his own arguments. He failed to fully appreciate the strategic benefit to the United States of our alliance with Israel. He wrote an entire book trying to explain why World War II was an “unnecessary war,” and even called Winston Churchill, who saved the civilization that Buchanan cherishes, a failed statesman. Sometimes Buchanan’s pugilism got the better of him.  

But Buchanan was right more often than wrong. His weekly literary pugilism will be missed as he retires his syndicated column. One looks forward to the completion of his memoirs, especially the insider tales of the Nixon and Reagan years. He has always been courageous and compelling in debate and unflappable in his commitment to conservative populist principles. He, perhaps more than any public figure, waged the culture wars with grit, determination, and eloquence. And he tried his very best to return America back to its best foreign policy traditions.  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. His work has also appeared in The American Spectator, the Claremont Review of Books, and Human Events.

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