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Entangling Alliances and the Military-Industrial Complex

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the establishment of a military-industrial complex:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

He continued:

“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

With security and liberty in mind, we must endeavor to estimate the risks of militarization within the United States during the major wars since the Revolution: namely World War II (1941-45) and the War between the States. Has American militarization through its various departments, as measured in enhanced scale, presence, power, influence, readiness, and materiel, become so threatening to American liberty, so discouraging to the people in the expression of their grievances and the protection of their rights, as to (potentially more than) offset the gains of victory to the public? In this calculus we must account for the standing armies and the worldwide occupations which have habituated the public to the presence of troops (and the business of war) in their midst, to an extent that would formerly (in the first century of the Republic) have been startling if not offensive. This, combined with the fleeting causes of war and the ever-changing gales of politics, presents an urgent question about whether or when those wars might rightly be said to have been in vain. 

This is a question not merely of academic importance, but to be answered with reverence for the sanctity of life: a sacrifice in war to be assessed (before and afterward) to better judge the efficacy of war, the costs of future conflicts, and the standards for just war. 

President Thomas Jefferson spoke of this issue when he summarized his essential principles of government in his first inaugural address March 4, 1801, when he expounded on "the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration": 

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none…”

To engage in an alliance to defeat a common foe is one thing, but to jeopardize the rights of the people or the constitution of government through entanglements is another, and a dangerous affair indeed. Once word of this kind is given to form an entangling alliance, there is the real risk that I will condemn itself to ruin. Whether by the unforeseen or poor judgment, that ally is best served by dissolving that alliance where it fundamentally threatens its obligations to its own people and their general welfare. Indeed, there are such flagrant errors of judgment and existential threats to life and liberty that must invalidate the alliance for the sake of the republic (and its constitution) and the security and happiness of the people. Above all, especially in America, it is worth remembering that, in the midst of any alliance, there is the stake of liberty: a stake far more important than any other abroad, from Europe to Jerusalem.

The word of a government is not the word of the people, but the word of one particular regime or administration. One regime or administration, forming any entangling alliance in defiance of its constitution or in betrayal of its people, whether intentionally or resultantly, needn’t condemn the next administration or regime to the same errors. While it is true that a man ought to honor his words and his commitments, administrations commit wrongs and mistakes that needn’t transcend their terms or continue to threaten the public, their rights, and their government’s constitution; in the same way that a company might renegotiate or redefine its terms of service in order to better serve its customers or to return to (and honor) its original promises. Indeed, this is the most honorable commitment, and one that the general government has to the people of the several states. Just as the Supreme Court has erred in judgment, and has occasionally admitted as much, so too can the righteous administration correct the wrongs of its predecessors, among them the unconstitutional or unreasonable commitments made during their respective terms. From a practical point of view, this must be handled diplomatically to maintain good standing and friendships with foreign nations, but nonetheless it’s up to representatives to correct the wrongs, not to continue them just because of a misguided or unjust agreement. As President Eisenhower put it in his farewell address:

“It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

The Constitution is for specified purposes, not one of which pertains to the perpetual security or happiness of its allies. While it may, from time to time, enter into alliances for some mutual advantage in the name of its own defense, it must limit those alliances to the short term for specified and achievable objectives. As Jefferson put it, it should not engage in entangling alliances that, merely for the sake of “honor” or obligation, condemn the people to its mistakes and the whims of politicians abroad. If the general government were truly representative of the people, and if their representatives hadn’t relinquished their war powers, the general government would still lack a sufficient case to condemn all of the people and future generations to the mistakes of a wrongheaded administration.

The effect of treaties was intensely debated in the infancy of the American Republic. On one side, Alexander Hamilton regarded treaties as the unquestioned authority:

“The House of Representatives have no moral power to refuse the execution of a treaty, which is not contrary to the Constitution, because it pledges the public faith, and have no legal power to refuse its execution because it is a law—until at least it ceases to be a law by a regular act of revocation of the competent authority.”

Whereas James Madison claimed that each treaty must be deliberated by “The House, in its Legislative capacity, [in the] exercise [of] its reason”:

“The House, in its Legislative capacity, must exercise its reason; it must deliberate; for deliberation is implied in legislation. If it must carry all Treaties into effect, . . . it would be the mere instrument of the will of another department, and would have no will of its own.”

To that end, William Blount added:

“When a Treaty stipulates regulations on any of the subjects submitted by the Constitution to the power of Congress, it must depend, for its execution, as to such stipulations, on a law or laws to be passed by Congress. And it is the Constitutional right and duty of the House of Representatives, in all such cases, to deliberate on the expediency or inexpediency of carrying such Treaty into effect, and to determine and act thereon, as, in their judgment, may be most conducive to the public good.”

Ultimately, from the principles outlined heretofore we shall conclude that Americans and their government are not condemned to the treaties entered into by their predecessors; that, through improved judgment and calculus, we may be able to make more informed determinations on just war; that entangling alliances are entered into on invalid premises and assumptions (or for fleeting objectives) not strictly enumerated, not specifically authorized by the Constitution, and not specifically in the interest of domestic security or the general welfare; that entangling alliances are a distinct form of an alliance threatening to the people, their liberty, and their government’s constitution; that entangling alliances are incompatible with the vision for American liberty; that treaties condemning the people to war or economic sacrifice, without their approval through their representatives, is immoral, impractical, and unconstitutional.


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