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The Nation - July 2, 2021

When Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks of the need for “a president who will fight against Western imperialism and fight for a just world,” she is crudely dismissed by her right-wing critics as “clueless.” When Representatives Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) call for making deep cuts in the Pentagon budget so that resources are not squandered on military interventions abroad, they are described as “admittedly extreme.” When Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks of breaking from “the colonial model of the world,” and of the vital importance of “prioritizing human rights,” he is portrayed as an idealist who is perhaps pushing the limits of the debate about foreign policy.

But these members of Congress, and others like them in an emerging generation of progressive leaders, are not expounding some new and radical faith that is delinked from US history.

Rather, they are reconnecting with the long-neglected and often-abandoned ideals that once animated honorable—if often lonely—advocates of the highest and best goals of the American experiment. 

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1821, the nation’s eighth secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, spoke to the US House of Representatives on the role that the United States should play in the world.

“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers, shall be,” Adams declared. “But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

That statement remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the morally and politically unaffordable wages of empire.

In his address Adams reminded Americans that, while they have a responsibility to speak up for global democracy clearly and without apology, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoil of other lands. The most well-traveled and engaged American diplomat of his time, Adams was no isolationist. Yet he warned that these entanglements would ultimately undermine liberty in the United States—as they would require of America economic and political compromises that were inconsistent with domestic democracy. ...
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