The first declared responsibility of the Federal Government
The next two clauses in the Preamble set the stage for traditional subjects of dispute between conservatives and progressives in terms of the priority to be emphasized by the Federal Government.
The framers of the Constitution, as the framers of a building, worked in careful sequence, line upon line, clause upon clause, building up first foundational principles, then erecting walls that could securely stand upon the foundation laid.
To provide for the Common Defence [sic] is therefore the first declared responsibility of the newly created Federal Government.
The first three purposes; Unity, Justice, and Domestic Tranquility, have in mind the creation of an autonomous, independent, uniquely American nation, poised to take its place among the existing nations of the world. Such a nation would be valuable. Its riches deriving both from command of extensive natural resources, and the sum of domestic goods produced by its citizenry.
The framers purposely crafted a government of limited, enumerated powers. The powers not enumerated, they declared to belong to the States or to be retained by the People. A people, united in purpose and by the affections of national identity, enjoying equal protections of justice under a system of laws, and secured in their persons and possessions by a government committed to insuring the domestic tranquility, would be poised for economic success.
The geographical features of the United States had been exploited for well over a century by European Colonial Empires. In particular, it’s miles of coastline, with ingress provided by navigable bays and rivers, provided an economic engine to the United States, and also presented an indefensible vulnerability at its founding. Politics, Geography, and Economics are inextricably linked in the chain of historical cause and effect.
And a nation capable of producing wealth (and one that had historically produced wealth for other Empires) would become the natural temptation and target of every other more powerful nation. The new nation needed to be adequately prepared and safeguarded. With this in mind, the framers declared the responsibility of the Federal government to provide for the common, shared defensive measures necessary to secure the fledgling nation from hostility. This is a bedrock principle of Federalist, conservative political thought. Rightly so. A nation subject to pillage and plunder from stronger nations leaves nothing left to conserve.
The framers in their wisdom, and in their experience with the European monarchies of their day, knew that control of standing armies was particularly tempting to subversion by tyrants for merely personal reasons. So they placed the army under the shared authority of the elected branches of government. That way, the people would be freed from the fear that the army would be subverted by any one individual or branch, and used against themselves.
The framers declared that Congress would have the power through taxation and control of the budget, to ”raise and support armies” and to ”provide and maintain a navy”. And to Congress alone was given the power to declare war.
Command and control of the operations of the armies belongs to the Executive. That is, the President was granted power to command how the army was used to achieve its mission. The President also functions as Head of State. In this role as chief Diplomat, the President has tremendous opportunity to foster alliances that can keep the nation out of war.
The historical record reveals the nearly unanimous belief that peacetime expenditures to prepare for war would be far less costly to the nation than actual war could be. Washington, in his first Annual Address to Congress said, ”To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” His advocacy for a standing army, prepared for war as a means of avoiding it, is well known. The founders and early Administrations followed the dicta that peacetime expenditures would cost less, and be more efficiently used than expenditures would be if the country waited to be attacked before making defensive preparations.
The wisdom of these beliefs is shared by both major political parties in our day. The defense appropriations of 2020-2021 passed with bi-partisan super-majorities in both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by the then sitting, Republican president , for what were widely viewed as unrelated, and purely personal grievances. In its wisdom, Congress voted to override the veto and passed a budget including 706 billion dollars allocated to the Department of Defense.
This amount represents 15% of the federal budget and about half of all discretionary spending. It is also an amount that is greater than the next 10 countries combined. This last fact has some wondering if what has traditionally been a conservative principal has been co-opted by corporations of the so-called ”military-industrial” complex for purely pecuniary gain, in the name of the ”Common Defense”.
Many of the corporations holding contracts for the nation’s defensive efforts are fortune 500 companies whose profits would shrink if the United States Congress shifted budgeting priorities by even a fraction. These companies are powerful lobbyists and donors to the political coffers of those who will continue to apportion huge amounts of the annual budget. Tax dollars that are supposed to fund measures for common defense, not pad the profits of corporations.
Conservatives rightly advocate for an overwhelmingly strong defense. To date, at least in purely military terms, the United States remains without serious rival. But with the march of history, the areas of vulnerability are also shifting.
The United States began with no navy whatsoever and thousands of miles of coastland to guard. Its commercial vessels were subject to piracy on the high seas. Congress undertook to fund and provide a Navy. It took over a hundred years, but by the end of World War II, the United States Navy was without rival and made the United States the last standing hegemony, able to project power across the globe via its Navy and Air Force.
The Navy protects not only military interests, but also commercial ones. While most overseas commercial trade is still conducted on the water, especially to the Asia Pacific, the proliferation of air-travel and air-freight has made the might of America’s Air Force the envy of the world.
And it goes without saying that our nuclear arsenal could not only defend us, but could assure the destruction of anything on the planet worth either defending or conquering. Deterrence is the only viable reason for maintaining a nuclear arsenal of weapons.
Now, we face threats to our defense of a different sort, primarily in the cyber world. The recent state-sponsored hacks against our national digital infrastructure reveal a genuine vulnerability, one that cannot go ignored. How will budgeting priorities shift to meet this threat? Should there be a re-prioritization of educational and training resources into this area? Should there be a dedicated Corps or Cadré of elite cyber-security operatives as it’s own part of the defensive command structure?
Also, space is becoming an area of concern with the announcement that China and Russia are in the preliminary planning of a joint permanent outpost on the Moon. Does this development pose a threat to the United States? What is the mission of the newly formed Space Force?
The response to the traditional areas of vulnerability: land and the seas, and the airways; with the newly emerging threats from space and the cyber world, are primarily concerned with defending against State or State-sponsored aggressors.
Yet, the United States remains virtually defenseless against terrorist or lone-wolf attacks. How does the Federal government defend against these threats? Does it mean taking away all of our privacy and liberties in the effort to do so? Does it mean the government can put citizens on ”watch lists” and perhaps even ”kill lists” without due process, and with suspicions typically reserved for known enemies?
And what about the Nation’s diplomatic and humanitarian efforts? Is there any debate that well-funded, highly skilled diplomats and humanitarians actually serve to defend the interests of the United States as they foster understanding and de-escalate tensions abroad? How does the attitude of cooperative, multi-lateral ”friendliness” of the United States translate into tangible defensive efficacy? Might those efforts be particularly worthwhile against non-state, ideologically motivated potential threats?
While there is no serious debate that the United States should not provide for a common defense at all, there remains room, even for patriots, to debate how much is the right amount, and where the funding and efforts should be directed for the stated purpose.