Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Celebrating Independence

James Skillen


July 3, 2009

Tomorrow we celebrate Independence Day, the day the colonists declared their independence from Great Britain. Indeed, as the battles unfolded, independence from the Crown was achieved and the Founders set about to organize their cooperating states into a modest federation. Signaling the importance of keeping the central government weak, George Washington came to Annapolis in 1783 (then the capital of the country where the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War) to resign his commission as the nation’s commanding general. The federal republic was not going to maintain a standing army.

The Independence Day we celebrate also represents the beginning of an experiment in representative government, whose aim was to remain free of foreign entanglements. The national government was established to serve the States, where the center of gravity for most responsibilities of government was located. Everything about the structure of the republic was intended to emphasize its limits and restraints. And the federal Constitution crafted for that republic remains almost unchanged today despite the fact that our nationally integrated polity of 300 million people has all but burst its bounds.

On this Fourth of July let’s celebrate again the independence of our beloved country, its survival through a Civil War, its endurance through the world wars of last century, and its leadership in international affairs for almost a century. Yet in our celebrating we should reflect anew on what American “independence” has come to mean.

Today, most Americans assume that national independence requires not only the maintenance of a standing army (and navy and marines and an air force) but also the forward positioning of those forces throughout the world. When we think of our security, we take for granted borders as far away as Afghanistan, Taiwan, Iraq, Poland, and Japan. Yet many of our military engagements continued—or continue—as state-building operations in places such as Japan, Germany, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. National Security Adviser James L. Jones explained earlier this week, for example, that the primary efforts of the US and NATO in Afghanistan would now have to be the promotion of economic development and improved governance.

If, however, the picture you have in mind is that of an American-led effort like the one to rebuild Europe after World War II, when America was the world’s largest exporter to, and investor in, other countries, think again. The US is now the world’s most indebted nation, whose imports greatly exceed its exports. Moreover, our States are no longer what they used to be; they are deeply dependent on the nation’s overall economic condition. California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are struggling today to stave off bankruptcy and are asking for more help from Washington. Yet our national government is no longer independently able to help them, for it depends extensively on China and other countries to keep buying our bonds (and much more) to finance our debt-laden public and private ways of life.

Unless things change radically, Americans may begin to wonder how we can afford to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year to defend or prop up countries around the world when we can’t adequately prop up schools and hospitals in Ohio, Minnesota, and New Jersey and can’t resolve border problems with our near neighbor Mexico. The maintenance of a massive worldwide military may soon come to be seen as an overwhelmingly expensive burden rather than the guarantor of our independence.

There are many ways the US can use its limited strengths constructively to help shape our increasingly inter-dependent world. Those ways, however, require a radically revised understanding of American independence in the twenty-first century.

— James W. Skillen, President
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”