Since the end of the Cold War American foreign policy has been incoherent. The Clinton administration has sent U.S. troops under U.N. authority to Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti; tried to broker peace talks in Northern Ireland and the Middle East; bombed Iraq; ordered American warships to the Taiwan Straits; and antagonized China and Russia—while simultaneously feminizing the military. Most disturbing of all is Clinton’s trivialization of foreign policy: the inability to identify primary strategic interests. But a model for post-Cold War American foreign policy does exist, and it was formulated by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft.

The Cincinnati native, son of former President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft, had a prestigious career in the Senate from 1939 until his death in 1953. Taft was “Mr. Republican,” not only because of his leadership of the GOP during its long years out of power but because of his principled opposition to FDR’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. A three-time presidential contender, he came close to defeating Eisenhower for the Republican nomination—and he almost certainly Taft on Crusades for Democracy: “We cannot undertake a crusade to spread the ideals which we approve without admitting the right of others to crusade for their ideals. A world of crusades would be a world perpetually at war.” would have won the presidency. Taft was more than just the leader of the GOP forces in the Senate: he was also the political leader of the conservative Old Right. Although ideologically diverse. Old Right conservatives shared a common antipathy to statism at home and interventionism abroad.

Unlike most post-World War II American conservatives who have come to accept the New Deal and who strongly supported the policy of containment and global anticommunism throughout the Cold War, Taft saw a direct link between internationalism in foreign affairs and the growth of big government in domestic affairs (what he referred to as “creeping socialism”). Opposed to American entry into World War II and critical of the Cold War liberalism which championed the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO, Taft argued that interventionism abroad would only lead to bloated military budgets and “crushing taxation” at home. The Ohio Senator stressed that it was not the duty of the United States to export and protect democracy and human rights around the world. Such a Wilsonian policy would involve America in countless conflicts around the world wasting vast amounts of blood and treasure in the service of vacuous humanitarian goals which did not serve the national interest. Moreover, Taft understood that “a democratic form of government cannot be conferred on the rest of the world by force, by war, or by our domination of the world.” He maintained that “democracy must rest on local self-government arising from within each people itself” By embracing an imperial role based on democratic universalism, the United States threatened to transform itself “into a militaristic and totalitarian nation as Rome turned from a republic to an empire.”

For Taft, the primary objective of American foreign policy lay in preserving and protecting “the freedoms and liberty” of the American people and not those of other countries and peoples. Yet this did not mean that Taft was or considered himself to be an “isolationist”—a term of derision invented and used by supporters of Roosevelt’s internationalist foreign policy to slander administration critics who sought to keep the United States from entering World War II. Taft never desired that the United States remain “isolated” from world affairs; rather, he understood that foreign policy was about making difficult choices on what to do in the world—and what not to do. American diplomacy, he believed, should be based on a prudent regard for the national interest.

This meant that the United States should follow a policy of unilateralism (or what he called a “free hand”), preserving its national sovereignty and independence in international affairs; that the United States should avoid involvement in military conflicts as much as possible; that the decision to go to war should be a last resort and only if the nation’s vital security interests were at stake. Taft championed a continental realism, arguing that America could preserve its security and avoid involvement in foreign wars by erecting an impregnable Western Hemispheric defense perimeter encompassing North America, the Caribbean, and the northern tier of South America.

However, Taft did not believe that the United States should not concern itself with events beyond the Western Hemisphere. On the contrary, Taft consistently demonstrated a shrewd understanding of geopolitics: he supported economic aid to Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany; he sought financial assistance for Finland in its defense against Soviet aggression in 1940; he was a principled critic of FDR’s war-time alliance with Stalin; he denounced the postwar Soviet domination of Eastern Europe; he voted in favor of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; and finally, he expressed sympathy for small Asian nations such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea against the threat posed by Red China. Yet this did not mean the United States should involve itself in a shooting war either on mainland Asia or on the European continent. Taft warned that “nothing is so destructive of forms of government, particularly forms of democratic government, as war.” The United States as the world’s greatest democracy “must avoid war like poison, except when it is absolutely essential to protect our liberty.” At his core, Taft was a geopolitical realist who understood that it was in America’s longterm interest to have a multipolar world and to avoid unnecessary military conflicts.

For Taft, trade policy and national security were closely intertwined: a nation must have complete control over its economy as well as its national security. He opposed having America’s economy or military intermeshed with those of other countries. On trade issues, Taft was a staunch protectionist in the Ohio Republican tradition of William McKinley and Warren Harding, believing that the protection of the domestic market took precedence over the need to expand export markets. Throughout his career he slashed away at foreign aid programs and multilateral trade pacts as wasteful and damaging to American taxpayers and workers. If he were alive today, Taft would certainly have voted against NAFTA, viewing its environmental and labor regulations as an abrogation of American sovereignty, and competition with Mexico’s low-wage economy as harmful to the jobs of American workers. He would also call for the abolition of the IMF, the World Bank, and all other multinational economic organizations that use American tax dollars to serve the interests of foreign countries—and foreign business. He would be against any bailout of the failing Asian economies. Taft’s message would be unequivocally clear: American tax money should stay where it belongs—at home.

Although a strong supporter of international law and the United Nations’ Charter, Taft rejected the notion of having American soldiers serve under U.N. command as they did during the Korean War. “So far as the Korean War is concerned,” he declared in 1953, “forget the United Nations.” He believed that if American troops must fight on foreign soil, they should do so only under American military command—definitely not as they are today, with American men (and women) serving under the authority of U.N. bureaucrats in so-called “peacekeeping” operations around the world.

Taft was an early and vociferous critic of what would later be called the “imperial presidency.” Persuaded that FDR’s cynical attempts to push the United States into war prior to Pearl Harbor, as well as Truman’s decision to send troops to Korea without congressional approval, had established dangerous precedents, he demanded that Congress be fully consulted and have a strong voice in foreign policy decisions. He feared that the absence of presidential accountability and congressional oversight would lead the United States into imperial endeavors in far-off nations of little interest and value to ordinary Americans. Taft’s point about the dangers resulting from a lack of congressional authority in foreign affairs was especially prescient in light of subsequent American history: Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti. All of these interventions have been characterized by “mission creep,” the absence of congressional involvement, and a failure to achieve electoral consensus.

Looking at American diplomacy today, Taft would almost certainly be outraged, decrying the neo-Wilsonian enthusiasm to intervene in hot spots all over the globe without any clear sense of the national interest or of limits on the country’s resources and ability to sustain its overweening international presence. Taft would call for a retrenchment of America’s superpower role in the world. He would say it is time for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Bosnia and Haiti; he would say “no” to NATO expansion into Eastern Europe; he would insist that Japan and Western Europe bear more of the responsibility for their own military security; and he would demand an end to foreign aid to Russia, which has seen billions of dollars thrown down a rathole, serving only to sustain the corrupt former communists who continue to thwart real economic reform.

As an anti-statist conservative, Taft was repelled by what an activist foreign policy required —massive foreign aid programs, large military budgets, big government. Critics have long argued that, in an age dominated by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, Taft’s desire to confine America’s vital interests to the Western Hemisphere was unrealistic. Even if this were true, the Cold War has been over for nearly a decade, and there are no great totalitarian powers left in the world. Surely, it is now time for a neo-Taftite foreign policy to reverse America’s march toward empire and to forge instead a diplomacy devoted to the national interest, to limited government, and to the restoration of the Old Republic.