Don’t Tread On Me! What it Means for Foreign Policy

The bold letters of the Gadsden Flag have become the slogan of America’s 21st century Tea Party movement and a symbol of the unique American spirit. Most resurgent patriots intuitively grasp the essence of American exceptionalism, but not all understand what it means for U.S. foreign policy.

The distinct yellow flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden who led the Sons of Liberty in South Carolina prior to the American Revolution. His design called for:

an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”

The sentiment of the Gadsden Flag can be traced to the founding of the United States, as can its implications for American statecraft. Among these are a strong military, a foreign policy that is unencumbered by international institutions which undermine its political independence, and a diplomacy that reflects America’s political principles.

Today, the Gadsden Flag has become, once again, the symbol of American independence, justice, and strength. But some conservatives had wondered if the surge of the Tea Party movement would lead to calls for a more isolationist foreign policy. Progressives too had claimed that the Tea Party should join with them to slash U.S. military spending in order to restore fiscal discipline. Happily, however, it appears that most Tea Party activists understand the foreign policy parallels of America’s political traditions and, as Colin Dueck has noted, are not tempted to advocate for an isolationist foreign policy.

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America’s unique role in the world depends not only on the strength of its political principles, but also on its material capabilities. George Washington, in his Farewell Address to Congress in 1796, noted the importance of military preparation and political independence in order to allow America to “defy material injury from external annoyance” and to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Only in this position of strength, is America able to stand for liberty and protect its interests in a complex and often dangerous world.

The Tea Party movement and the 2010 midterm elections will most assuredly have ramifications for U.S. foreign policy, but it promises to be a return to the statecraft of the Founding Fathers—who were themselves far from isolationist. As engaged citizens seek to make their government more accountable and transparent, we must not forget the principles and traditions of American foreign policy, which may be summed up as “peace through strength”.

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