Small Wars Journal

Liberty and Freedom: America Must Go Abroad in Search of Monsters

Sun, 03/06/2022 - 4:42pm


Liberty and Freedom: America Must Go Abroad in Search of Monsters

Guido L. Torres

But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. John Quincy Adams- July 4, 1824


Two decades of war have left the nation weary of intervening abroad. The nation’s most protracted conflict has taken a toll on the country, its citizens, the military, and its reputation on the international stage. However, war was inevitable after the most brazen and deadly attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001. Critics have argued that going abroad as the world’s protector of democracy has unnecessarily placed it in the crosshairs of many. During the Trump administration, and even today, many have echoed the comments of John Quincy Adams’ famous foreign policy speech to not interfere in the interests of other nations. Instead, those same pundits and politicians prefer to focus domestically on America’s preservation and vitality.

This article asserts that to protect America’s values of liberty and justice in the 21st century, it must modernize deterrence measures by focusing on building coalitions, galvanizing alliances, and competing for influence and legitimacy across the globe. Military superiority and geography are not enough. Those who wish America ill-will and hope to diminish the post-WWII free and democratic world order do not see borders. The unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine is a dark example. Autocracies are rising, and these regimes successfully erode U.S. national interests abroad.

Evolving Foreign Policy

In a speech to Congress on July 4, 1821, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams proposed a set of principles to guide American foreign policy. Politicians and pundits have since cited Adams’ words that America will “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” regularly. In the republic's early days, Adams’ foreign policy perspective was adequate. However, U.S. leaders have not always adhered to Adams’ message. As America grew more powerful, it faced a global geopolitical landscape that was not static but dynamic. U.S. policy had to change with it and must continue to evolve. Two world wars serve as prime examples. The U.S. does not enjoy the luxury of solely focusing on its domestic issues in the 21st century. It does not need to search for monsters…. monsters are searching for the U.S. One takes the shape of a dragon and the other a bear. 

Illustration by: David Gothard in WSJ

The founding fathers had principled views and sought liberty without foreign intervention. Conversely, Adams, and others like him, did not want to interfere in other nations’ issues. Instead, they preferred their young nation further solidify itself as independent. The U.S. did not yet have ambitions of growing into a global power. It did not aspire to have the largest economy in the world. It did not have an armada to sail the oceans and expand its territory. Nor a sustainable army capable of more protracted wars. The U.S. wanted its priority on domestically focused goals. However, America could not keep this view on a permanent basis.

Contemporary Challenges

The 20th century challenged America’s early isolationist policies. The nation had to change to meet those challenges. However, as it changed, the U.S. was a prominent benefactor of an emerging interconnected global system while simultaneously rising as a superpower. To maintain its international prominence, the U.S. can no longer consider its neighboring oceans enough protection from the monsters that seek it. The 9/11 memorial on Greenwich Street of New York City is a constant reminder. The U.S. cannot just mind its own business. It must also mind the business of its allies and that of the monsters lurking about. The two world wars and the Global War on Terror (GWOT) compelled the U.S. to take action abroad. Now, post-GWOT, America is engaged in strategic competition with great powers such as China and Russia. This competition is rooted in gaining strategic global influence while remaining below the threshold of a conventional conflict. Yet, the same competition requires a posture that favors preparation for war. Adams’ domestically focused views would make America vulnerable in this current competition. The U.S. must go abroad. It must make allies abroad. It must make the journey difficult for monsters. 

According to senior national security experts, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, China is America’s pacing threat. Furthermore, a multitude of state and non-state actors challenge America’s global influence. As a result, America’s exceptionalism, founded on principles such as democracy and liberty, is under attack. An insider working on the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) stated that a critical component of the strategy is integrated deterrence. Simply put, the strategy calls for unified action across all domains and multinational allies. The NDS takes America abroad.

Monsters Seek America

China’s rise threatens U.S. democracy, and its economy is second only to America’s. China is estimated to surpass the American economy within the next decade. In “The hundred-year marathon,” Pillsbury states that China views the U.S. as its primary adversary, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has established a 100-year plan to supplant America [and the West] as the global hegemon. China’s strategy is based on economic and influence dominance. It uses coercive methods to enter multinational organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO), to name a few. From inside these organizations, China forces its will upon others. Additionally, China preys on vulnerable nations by enticing them with infrastructure projects, [predatory] loans, and affordable technology. It concentrates on countries that negotiate from a position of weakness. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a prime example of PRC's economic strategy to reclaim its place as the “Middle Kingdom.” These tactics are commonly referred to as the “carrot and stick” or “predatory economics.” America must lead, grow, and sustain alliances to counter these threats.

On the other hand, Russia does not have the economic prominence to take the same approach as China. It prefers waging hybrid, political, and information warfare, the Gerasimov Doctrine,” as commonly known. The Kremlin aims to diminish Western alliances and fracture international partnerships and influence. Vladimir Putin employs disinformation campaigns and proxies (e.g., Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, etc.) against the West and its partners. He employs coercive measures to seek his political objectives. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is the most recent example of Russia’s rogue behavior and irresponsible defiance of the liberal world order. Putin’s recent actions reinforce the need to go abroad and strengthen alliances and partnerships. The unprecedented and overwhelming international condemnation and sanctions levied upon the Russian Federation make this evident.

Leadership, however, is a choice. To maintain global influence, the U.S. must choose to protect itself and its allies by not revisiting Adams’ protectionism and isolationist foreign policy views. Instead, it must choose global leadership. In this role, America has a global responsibility to maintain its geostrategic position. This alone will slow China and Russia. America’s leadership does not mean it has become the dictatress of the world; it has just matured to protect liberty and justice for those with shared values.

America Must Go Abroad in Search of Allies

To protect democracy, free trade, and maintain the balance of the free world, the U.S. must revitalize alliances and establish new ones. American international allies all have one thing in common -- they live abroad. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established in 1949, is arguably the most interoperable coalition in the world. However, it is not without its faults. Still, recently NATO began recognizing the threat to its technology, economy, military, and sovereignty posed by China and Russia. America’s leadership within NATO promotes deterrence on Europe’s eastern flank from Russian belligerence, but it must remain steadfast and committed to the principles of the alliance.

Putin’s miscalculated invasion has had the opposite effect to his intended aims. Paradoxically, instead of fracturing the alliance, his brazen act has bolstered NATO’s commitment and unity. America should encourage European nations such as Sweden and Finland to join NATO and further bolster the power of a free Europe. In addition, NATO should unequivocally allow Ukraine and Georgia into its membership umbrella of protection. The U.S. can do the same with other strategic partnerships to promote power projection in the Indo-Pacific. To achieve such goals, the U.S. must be more active with its allies across both oceans.

Formally recognizing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India could prove a powerful deterrent. And establishing a new alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, call it the “Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization” (IPTO), with similar articles for protection as NATO’s Article five would signal strength to China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. The U.S. could further security cooperation and intelligence sharing with these same nations. The QSD and [proposed] IPTO would counterbalance the seemingly lopsided influence of China in the Pacific. Alliances are foundational to U.S. strategy against its monsters. Establishing these as NATO-like alliances would make the dragon [and the bear] take pause.   

21st Century Approach to Global Competition

Monsters will always exist. This is a fact. Nevertheless, America can choose how to deal with its monsters. It can hope that oceans protect its homeland and that monsters cannot swim. However, hope is not a method. Or America can deal with its monsters accordingly.

Adams’ speech was rather brilliant. It was what America needed when it needed it. However, since the late 18th century America has needed and still needs something else, something different. The U.S. has learned that oceans help but do not fully protect the homeland. America has learned that it is better to have a proactive foreign policy than a reactive one. It has learned that the world is so intertwined we cannot isolate ourselves even if America wanted to. Economies, information, and technology all transcend international borders in an immeasurable fashion. Therefore, America should strengthen its alliances to compete in space, cyberspace, information, cognitive spheres, and the remaining domains to keep adversaries unbalanced.

Competition consists of many facets. Alliances bring strength in numbers but combined with an all-of-society grand strategy, America’s advantage becomes pronounced. For the U.S. military, in particular, irregular warfare offers a practical approach to focus its overstretched and resource-limited department throughout the spectrum of conflict. The ability to build partners’ capacities and interoperability, establish resistance mechanisms, increase or maintain influence and legitimacy requires an irregular competitive system. The 2022 NDS should not lose sight of this while globally posturing for integrated deterrence. In the event of war, the U.S. must assure its allies that America will defend their interests against all threats. Statecraft, diplomacy, cooperative private industry, and an irregular competitive approach [with its allies and partners] can be the formula that creates dilemmas for those that challenge democratic values.

Oceans Are Not Enough

John Quincy Adams designed a foreign policy approach well suited for the republic's early days. But unfortunately, the first half of the 20th century changed the global environment to the degree that made Adams’ views antiquated. Presently, the world cannot ignore China’s and Russia’s growing threats. Instead, these global stakeholders must coexist with America or choose to face an ironclad international unified front aimed at malign actors and rogue states. In addition, Western nations should develop collective strategies to provide vulnerable nations options for telecommunication, commerce, security, resistance, and infrastructure. Liberal democracies should assist these nations with hardening their resilience mechanisms and institutions.

Monsters traveling beyond their own borders is not novel. John Quincy Adams said that America “has her spear and shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace.” To maintain the spirit of the motto and protect her independence, America must go abroad to strengthen international alliances and coalitions, hold to the values of American exceptionalism, and promote liberty and democracy. Because, as it turns out, bears can swim, and dragons can fly.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author alone. They do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, Intelligence Community, or any other entity within the U.S. Government.


About the Author(s)

Guido Torres is a veteran of the U.S. Army and is a DoD Civilian with over 20 years in the intelligence community. He holds a B.A. in Intelligence Studies and is an M.A. candidate in Global Security [and Strategic Studies] at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, AAP. Mr. Torres has spent his government service working within the special operations community, contributing to national security topics related to Latin America and the Caribbean, counterterrorism, strategic competition, and irregular forms of warfare.