Toward the Rule of Law in Foreign Affairs:
The Foreign Policy Vision of Senator Robert A. Taft


The presidential election year 2008 will mark the 55th anniversary of the death of Robert A. Taft, who represented Ohio in the United States Senate from 1939 to 1953. If Taft were alive today, he could offer all the U.S. presidential candidates sound advice on how to move toward a safer world without overextending our military capabilities.

Although Taft is often dismissed as a naive “isolationist” on foreign policy, his critique of internationalism has been vindicated on many points. For example, Taft warned that even a well-meaning internationalism would necessarily degenerate over time into a form of imperialism, eventually breeding resentment against the United States around the globe. He also predicted—correctly—that a steady rise in defense outlays would inevitably lead to a “garrison state” and the erosion of civil liberties. Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, writing in the midst of the Vietnam conflict, accurately characterized Taft’s foreign policy vision as “a way to defend the country without destroying it, a way to be part of the world without running it.”

In opposing much of the New Deal and Fair Deal, Taft consistently sought to maximize individual liberty while minimizing relationships based on power and control. He saw in the United States a society of free individuals pursuing their own diverse goals under the rule of law, and he favored a free-market economy, less because it was efficient than because it was founded on liberty.

Taft approached international affairs with this same libertarian philosophy. After World War II, Taft called for an international tribunal founded on the rule of law. If adopted, this would have established within the international arena the same regime he espoused in domestic affairs, maximizing the freedom of individual states to pursue their own national objectives subject only to universally accepted rules of international conduct. This would have subordinated power politics to the rule of law and established genuine equality of all nations under international law.

As Taft observed, the United Nations was not founded on any underlying body of international law. To make matters worse, Security Council members’ ability to veto resolutions cemented into place a permanent regime of inequality under the law. While Taft’s proposal for an international tribunal may seem utopian, he sure was correct in noting the gap between the United Nations as we know it, and a regime that really incorporated the rule of law into international affairs.

As the world’s only remaining superpower, the United States could lead the way in transforming the U.N. into a body which establishes in international relations equality under the law. Although progress would necessarily be slow and difficult, we could judge whether particular foreign policy actions move us closer to or further away from the kind of system Taft envisioned. At present, clearly we are moving in the opposite direction, pursuing homeland security through overwhelming military capability and the threat of preventive war. When the United States engages in preventive war, as it did in Iraq and is considering again in Iran, it asserts the right to indict other nations, to try them, convict them, and then to render punishment—all functions which, under the rule of law, would be placed in independent institutions.

Preventive war—read aggressive war—is inconsistent with the ideals for which we claim to stand as a nation. Moreover, both homeland security and international stability are more likely to be attained through the patient, incremental pursuit of the kind of regime Taft envisioned. Will the United States prove willing to forego empire for a different kind of system, one in which equality under the law at least begins to supersede power as the basis for international relations? Can we afford not to?

Michael T. Hayes is a professor of political science at Colgate University.