Two Americans were killed this past summer fighting for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in its ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Both were young men, and both were U.S. citizens. One had dual citizenship and the other joined the Israeli army after visiting the country in 2012.
It turns out that there is a long history of Americans serving in the IDF. Israel, like some other countries, mandates that all young adults serve a period of time in the military. Young Americans with dual citizenship who live in Israel must serve as well. In 2012, 350 Jewish American teens voluntarily left their families in the United States and moved to Israel to enlist in the IDF. The IDF also reports that more than 1,500 teens from all around the world have joined Israel’s military over the past 20 years through its Garin Tzabar project. About 1,000 of the 4,000 foreigners currently in the IDF are Americans.
For years Americans have joined other foreign military forces such as the French Foreign Legion. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was made up of volunteers from the United States. According to Stanley Dzuiban, author of Military Relations between the United States and Canada, 1939–1945, “Before the United States joined the Allies in WWI, a number of Americans joined the Canadian army to get in on the action” and “by the time of Pearl Harbor, more than 6,000 U.S. citizens were serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force and 10,000 in the Canadian Army.”
The U.S. State Department recommends that “U.S. nationals facing the possibility of foreign military service should do what is legally possible to avoid such service.” That is because “military service by U.S. nationals may cause problems in the conduct of our foreign relations since such service may involve U.S. nationals in hostilities against countries with which we are at peace.” Although military service in foreign armies “usually does not cause loss of nationality” in the United States because it is difficult to establish the intention to relinquish it, service “in the armed forces of a state engaged in hostilities against the United States could be viewed as indicative of an intention to relinquish U.S. nationality.”
But fighting in behalf of foreign armies works both ways. The U.S. military is open to noncitizens. Those who enlist are able to file for citizenship immediately and receive expedited treatment from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. From 2002 to 2013, almost 90,000 members of the U.S. military gained their American citizenship that way. Even certain undocumented immigrants in the United States can now join the military under a new Department of Defense policy unveiled last month.
So what does all of this have to do with foreign policy?
U.S. foreign policy is, and has been for many, many years, aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling. It is the story of interventionism, imperialism, invasion, and empire. It has a history of hegemony, nation building, regime change, and jingoism. Naturally, all of that results in hatred and terrorism directed toward the United States.
But U.S. foreign policy is also, and has been for many, many years, far adrift from that envisioned by the Founding Fathers. John Quincy Adams maintained in his brief address on foreign policy on the Fourth of July in 1821 that America “goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.” George Washington famously remarked in his Farewell Address, “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” And as Thomas Jefferson explained in his First Inaugural Address in 1801, one of the central principles of American government was, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” When Grover Cleveland delivered his first inaugural address in 1885, he saw no reason to deviate from a century of nonintervention: “The genius of our institutions, the needs of our people in their home life, and the attention which is demanded for the settlement and development of the resources of our vast territory dictate the scrupulous avoidance of any departure from the foreign policy commended by the history, the traditions, and the prosperity of our republic.”
A noninterventionist foreign policy is not only the policy of the Founders, it is a sane, moral, and common-sense policy as well. It is not the job of the United States to be the policeman, fireman, mediator, or social worker of the world.
But a foreign policy of nonintervention and neutrality on the federal level does not mean that there shouldn’t or couldn’t be a foreign policy of intervention and partisanship on an individual level.
The purpose of the U.S. military should be to protect and defend the United States, not regime change, nation building, disaster relief, spreading democracy, enforcing UN resolutions, taking sides in civil wars, maintaining no-fly zones, invading countries, occupying countries, peacekeeping, providing security, distributing humanitarian aid, rebuilding infrastructure, training armies, or, most recently, fighting Ebola. The Department of Defense should first and foremost be the Department of Homeland Security.
However, any individual American who thinks that any of those things should be done is welcome to do them.
If some American is outraged by the human rights abuses in some country, he is perfectly free to use his own resources and enlist others to help him right the wrongs that he sees.
If some American feels that the authoritarian leader of some country should be removed from power, he is perfectly free to use his own resources and enlist others to help him undertake a regime change.
If some American believes strongly in the cause of one particular side in a civil war, he is perfectly free to use his own resources and enlist others to help him fight against the other side.
If some American is burdened by children suffering in some country owing to an earthquake or typhoon, he is perfectly free to use his own resources and enlist others to help him provide relief, distribute aid, and rebuild infrastructure.
If some American thinks that the army of some country is inadequately trained, he is perfectly free to use his own resources and enlist others to help him train foreign armies.
If some American deems that more should be done to fight disease and improve sanitation in some other country, he is perfectly free to use his own resources and enlist others to help him drill water wells and educate the populace on proper hygiene.
Of course, no American who attempted to do any of those things could or should depend on U.S. military might to rescue him were he to get into trouble. He would travel at his own risk, using his own money, with only the assistance of like-minded volunteers. Why should Americans who don’t have the resources and can’t get anyone to help them expect other Americans to give of their money and risk their lives to do their bidding?
The principles of an individualistic foreign policy apply to other actions of the U.S. government as well, not just the use of its military.
The United States has maintained an embargo against Cuba since 1960. This is an assault on the natural rights of Americans to travel to and do business with the residents of Cuba. If some Americans don’t like the government of Cuba, then they should not travel to Cuba, not do business in Cuba, not trade with Cuba, not purchase products made in Cuba, and attempt to persuade other Americans to do likewise. They may help Cubans to escape from Cuba or try to change the Cuban government, and they may attempt to persuade other Americans to do likewise. They should not lobby the government to place an embargo on Cuba. And of course, the government shouldn’t institute the embargo on its own in the first place.
And then there is foreign aid. The United States government gives about $50 billion a year in foreign aid to more than 180 foreign countries. Of course, it first has to take that money out of the pockets of American taxpayers. But even though the government shouldn’t hand out foreign aid it doesn’t follow that individual Americans can’t do so. If an American feels that the government or the people or certain groups or an individual in another country is deserving of aid, then he can write a check himself instead of lobbying his government to loot other Americans.
But regardless of what individual Americans do or don’t do, regardless of what causes they support or don’t support, and regardless of which side they take in some conflict, when it comes to the subject of foreign policy, the U.S. government should be held to a policy of strict neutrality and nonintervention.