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Sen. Cruz: ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Is a Standard Well Worth Our Consideration Once More

Delivers remarks and participates in Q&A on conservative foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) today delivered remarks at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) laying out his foreign policy priorities to strengthen U.S. national security interests as a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. There, he also participated in a discussion on conservative foreign policy and Q&A with Colin Dueck, professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“The National Interest standard is still rejected by many today,” Sen. Cruz said. “Some have never met a country they didn’t want to invade. Others have never met a theater they didn’t want to abandon. Neither is the right answer. Instead, we should be fierce and resolute in defending America and defeating our enemies, but we should also be extremely reluctant to intervene militarily and risk the lives of our sons and daughters. I guess you could call me a ‘non-interventionist hawk.’ One reason for a bias against intervention is that so often, under both Republicans and Democrats, our interventions have forgotten America’s national interests.”

Still photos of Sen. Cruz’s remarks may be viewed here. Watch Sen. Cruz’s full remarks here and below.

Thank you very much for having me here today.

I want to start by extending my gratitude to Arthur Brooks, for his decade of inspiring leadership at AEI, and for his leadership in conservative political thought around the country. 

And I also want to thank Colin Dueck for moderating today.

Fortunately for us, our subject matter has seldom been more pivotal or more urgent for the future of our nation.

That is the question of our foreign policy: its purposes, its goals, its execution, and who determines it.

In order to tackle these questions, we need to answer the first question: what should our foreign policy be overall?

The late celebrated political scientist Edward Corwin called the Constitution an “invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.”

That being said, in a system where there are complimentary and competing roles for each branch of government, the Senate is entrusted with a robust role in determining foreign policy.

Many historians and statesman have recognized the Senate’s disproportionate weight on questions of war and peace. As Henry Cabot Lodge said:

“War can be declared without the assent of the Executive, and peace can be made without the assent of the House… but neither war nor peace can be made without the assent of the Senate.” 

Or at least, that was the case for generations of statesmen.

It is because of the Senate’s dereliction of this particular Constitutional duty that we have seen 20 years of foreign policy varying widely in goals and outcomes, strategies and executions, seemingly without continuity from one administration to the next.

And often, without any sense of continuity even within an administration. 

And that is where we will continue to find ourselves, with the pendulum of our foreign policy swinging unpredictably, without the strong stabilizing role of the Senate.

Perhaps the key reason that the Senate has declined its role as a stabilizing force is that it is much easier to dump all your problems on the executive branch, rather than to affirmatively declare war, to make peace, and to draw real lines in the sand. 

At some point in the last few decades, Senators realized that responsibility can be more of a liability than a privilege—because it means you have to argue your case, deliberate, decide, and live with the consequences. 

For the last several decades, American foreign policy has been seen as a tug of war between Intervention and Isolation. 

In the wake of 9/11, it’s been Intervention that’s been on the ascendancy. 

But it has often been implemented—by both parties—in ham-fisted ways that have had no clear goals, exit strategies, or benefit to the vital national security interests of the United States.

Even leaders who started out winning Nobel Peace Prizes and going on tours to prove their world citizenship soon became known for drone strikes and botched regime changes.

It would take a dozen speeches to outline each of the many failures and successes in detail between the Bush and Obama administrations—and we’d spend even more time arguing about which was which.

But perhaps we can all agree: mistakes were made. 

In reaction to many years of such mistakes—in some cases, disasters—an opposite, Isolationist reaction has found new supporters in American politics.

And understandably so.

A national examination of conscience is a good thing. 

But we should not rush into the arms of Isolationism as if it were the reasonable alternative to intervention—as if our only choices are to bomb the world into democracy or ignore the world into peace.

It is not a binary choice. There is a third option, not an intermediate point between the other two, but rather a third point on the triangle: National Interest.

We should be intervening, or not, and deciding what form that intervention should take, based directly on America’s National Interest.

That may sound like common sense. Except it hasn’t been.

Since the end of WWII, generations of intelligentsia have maintained a glowing crush on Marxist regimes the world over, and wanted the United States to operate from a position of guilt for its greatness and regret for its victories.

The late, great Jeane Kirkpatrick famously rebuked this attitude when she excoriated the Carter-era weakness which, time and time again, ended up benefitting the ideological enemies of the United States.

Instead, she proposed a different standard of action: that America act primarily in its own interest, that it supports friends and destroy enemies, and that it do so judiciously and decisively, instead of engaging in half-hearted measures that inevitably slide down to defeat. 

Her ideas went on to become a cornerstone of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Notice that this did not result as the naysayers predicted in World War 3. It did not result in re-invading Vietnam or directly fighting the Soviets in Asia or Africa. 

Indeed, the largest military intervention by Ronald Reagan was Grenada, where our military stamped out a Marxist junta in a matter of days.

But his strong vision and moral clarity transformed the world.

This standard—the National Interest standard—is still rejected by many today.

Some have never met a country they didn’t want to invade. 

Others have never met a theater they didn’t want to abandon. 

Neither is the right answer.  Instead, we should be fierce and resolute in defending America and defeating our enemies, but we should also be extremely reluctant to intervene militarily and risk the lives of our sons and daughters.

I guess you could call me a “non-interventionist hawk.” 

One reason for a bias against intervention is that so often, under both Republicans and Democrats, our interventions have become unmoored from America’s national interests.

Uncle Sam has developed a bad habit of attempting to topple dictators who are killing terrorists, only to have them replaced by terrorists who kill Americans. 

We saw that in Iraq. We saw that in Libya.  And, had the proponents of intervention in Syria’s civil war prevailed, we very likely would have seen that in Syria as well.

At the same time, when we’re dealing with an Iran or a North Korea, or an ISIS or al Qaeda, we should be fierce and unequivocal. Because each of them directly threatens the lives and safety of Americans.

When you apply a consistent standard to various situations—when you ask the central question “is this in the national security interests of the United States”—you can get different results: results that sometimes please the interventionist, and sometimes please the isolationist, but arise from neither of their principles. And sometimes that puzzles outside observers.

Even though we should be reluctant to use force, we still need a strong military, the most powerful on the globe.

But “even though” is the wrong relator; it is because we are reluctant to use force, that we need a strong and powerful military.

This has been called Peace through Strength, and it is absolutely right. The more prepared we are to defend ourselves, the less likely we are to actually face military conflict.

That’s why I’ve been a leading proponent of the biggest military rebuild since Ronald Reagan, which we are in the midst of right now today.

In the last Congress I passed a measure mandating for the first time that the Defense Department begin implementing a test bed for space-based interceptors for missile defense, and also introduced legislation moving forward plans to develop a robust Space Force. 

We should be generally skeptical about the use of force, let alone the endless wars that America has been fighting.

But if force is necessary, we must be ready and able to make that force unstoppable.

Beyond ensuring a strong military, let’s take a look at how the National Interest standard applies in practice.

First, we have to be better at choosing the right instruments for the appropriate national security interests.

It can’t be diplomacy all the time, nor can it be guns blazing all the time.

We have a hierarchy of tools. We have our voice, the bully pulpit of the United States, a powerful tool. We have economic and diplomatic sanctions.  We have targeted military force. And we have overwhelming military force.

Each has its place. Our voice should be clarion. Clear and understandable, speaking truth. Tyrannies fear the truth. Dictators fear the sunlight, they shudder from it. Reagan illustrated this powerfully when he called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.”

The Intelligentsia in Washington recoiled, but speaking the truth pierced into the darkest prison cells.

Natan Sharansky, with whom I had the great pleasure of visiting in Jerusalem, has described how prisoners in the Gulag passed notes from cell to cell repeating Reagan’s words.  “Evil Empire.”  “Ash heap of history.” “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall.”

Those latter words are the most important words ever spoken by a leader in modern history.

The history behind those words is notable. Three times, the State Department [said] this is too belligerent, it’s too hostile, and more importantly it’s too unrealistic: Mr. President this will never, ever, ever happen.

And three times, Reagan with his own hand, wrote the words back into the speech, replying with a characteristic twinkle in his eye: you don’t understand, this is the entire point of the speech.

And just three years later, the Berlin Wall was torn to the ground. America had won the Cold War without firing a shot.

It’s one of the most remarkable achievements for peace that humanity has ever seen. Through renewed strength, which bankrupted the Soviet Union, and the moral clarity of America’s voice, the Soviet Union collapsed.

When it comes to tyranny, when it comes to human rights abuses across the globe, we should use that voice across the world. This is something all too often the Isolationists don’t understand. That just because you may not be prepared to send in the marines, doesn’t been American should be silent in the face of human rights abuses and injustices. Sunlight and transparency is itself a powerful tool. 

The next tool is economic and diplomatic sanctions. A tool to change the behavior of others, we should use it vigorously against America’s enemies.

Whether Iran or North Korea or Nicaragua, America’s economic weight can be a powerful tool to constrain their aggression and to weaken their despotic regimes.

The next tool is military force, targeted or overwhelming. The former is appropriate for terrorists, from ISIS to al Qaeda. The latter, which we should use very, very rarely, should be the standard if we are ever called to direct military conflict.

We are deeply reluctant to fight. The threshold for putting our children in harm’s way is extremely high. But when we do fight, we win, and we bring our boys home.

Let’s look around the world at how this standard would apply in practice.

We have to acknowledge the world as it is. There are friends and enemies. There are rivals and problematic allies. There are human rights crises. Each of these require different approaches.

What tools we use, and how we use them, depends on who we’re dealing with, and what is in America’s National Interest.

Let’s break down the world into four baskets—baskets that our country should handle differently, depending on the contents: 


  1. friends
  2. enemies
  3. rivals
  4. problematic allies


We will start with our friends. I will use an obvious example near and dear to my heart: Israel. It’s our top ally in the Middle East, and it’s not simply a charity case as sometimes public discussions suggest. We get much more in terms of strengthening American national security. In terms of logistics, and intelligence, from the $3 billion a year in military assistance. If America tried to recreate what we get from our alliance with Israel it would cost many billions more than standing alongside our friend.

Israel is key to the safety and security of Americans both at home and abroad. It is the very definition of a friend.

So how do you treat an ally? I’ll tell you how you don’t treat them. You don’t go to them and lecture them, and tell them where they should draw their borders when they’re constantly being attacked by enemies. That’s simply hubris. 

President Obama sadly was unremittingly hostile to the State of Israel. In December 2016 his administration maneuvered the United Nations to pass U.N. Security Council 2334, which condemned Israel and was so broad that it would make it illegal for Israeli Jews to build homes in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.

What a disgraceful, dishonest endeavor for American diplomats to participate in, much less orchestrate. 

Instead, we should be supporting the authority and autonomy of our allies, by putting our embassy in their actual capital.

We should support their claims to territory rightfully gained in defensive wars, territory necessary to their continued protection. That’s why I’ve been leading the fight to officially recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, won in a defensive war, and critically necessary for Israel’s security given Iran’s presence in Syria. 

And that effort is seeing growing, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

That’s also one of the many reasons I advocated that the United States move our embassy to Jerusalem, which was the single most powerful signal the Trump administration could send that America had returned to standing behind our allies.

There was a vigorous debate within the administration, both State and Defense opposed moving our embassy, but thankfully the President agreed and did so. With that single act, the Trump administration rebuked Resolution 2334. It should be, and increasingly is, a dead letter.

Then there are regimes which are clearly, undeniably enemies. It is in our national security interest to confront them.

Here I part ways, not just with liberals, but with isolationists in both parties.

Some tend to look at enemies and see potential friends, and they downplay the need for economic—let alone military—pressure.

The results are often naked appeasement, sometimes line-drawing with no plan for success, and always disastrous.

Iran is an enemy. The possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran is the greatest national security threat facing America across the world. 

I urged the President to withdraw from the disastrous Obama Iran nuclear deal. Yet again, both State and Defense opposed this move, but yet again thankfully the President agreed, and pulling out of that deal was the single most important national security step taken in the last two years.

Instead of sending the Ayatollah billions in the dark of night, we should be imposing maximum economic pressure on Iran.

For that reason last Congress, I introduced a bill – the Blocking Iranian Illicit Finance Act – that would fully cut off Iran from the global financial system.

I will be reintroducing it this Congress as well. Enough is enough.

And if we ever discover the Ayatollah is on the verge of getting nuclear weapons, and I believe his ambitions will be to continue to do just that, we should be prepared to use crushing military force to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Military force to destroy their nuclear capacity.  That should be our objective. Why? Because that is what our National Interest is. To prevent an Ayatollah who chants “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” from ever having weapons capable of murdering in a flash of light millions of American souls.

Critically, if it ever comes to military conflict, our objective shouldn’t be to invade and try to turn Iran into a democratic utopia; instead, it should be to defend America and prevent a nuclear Iran. Clear, simple, focused with an unmistakable end point. 

Likewise, North Korea is an enemy. They threaten us, they threaten South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, all of our friends. 

Kim says repeatedly he’s willing to launch nuclear weapons at the American homeland. It’s both a military challenge and a human rights catastrophe.

Here I’ve pushed that we use all of our tools, from missile defense to using the bully pulpit to highlight the plight of seized and murdered Americans such as Otto Warmbier. 

And if military intervention becomes the only way to stop a nuclear attack on American cities, then of course we have to be willing and able to do so with overwhelming force. 

That unequivocal promise, by the way, is our single best hope at deterrence.

Third, there are countries which are not enemies, but certainly not allies, which are rivals seeking to undermine and surpass our influence. 

I am thinking primarily of Russia and China.

As a practical matter, we have to do business with them. The global economy is intertwined, but we have to make sure we’re aware of the risks, and deal with open eyes with those risks.

We need to make sure we’re maintaining a robust military to deter those rivals. 

We need to make sure we’re protecting our allies from them.

We should be prepared to use sanctions and diplomatic pressure where necessary. 

China is undeniably our top geopolitical rival. Russia is second, and I’m glad that the liberals have recently discovered that. It’s about time. Some of us remember Barack Obama turning to Mitt Romney in 2012 and saying “Mitt, the 80s have called and they want their foreign policy back.” All we needed was President Trump for liberals to suddenly discover that Russia is a bad place and that Putin is a bad guy.

I’ll take late rather than never.

Dealing with China is fraught with risks, from espionage to full-blown military threats.

For too long we failed to acknowledge the risks from China.

We had our own Defense Department funding Chinese Confucius Institutes, which are programs in American universities that the Chinese say are for building cultural ties but instead are being used for espionage.

We likewise allowed the Chinese to participate in RIMPAC naval exercises, the world's largest maritime warfare exercise. In the last Congress I introduced and passed legislation prohibiting both of those foolish practices

This Congress I’ll be reintroducing my SHEET Act, more broadly targeted at stopping Chinese espionage in higher education. A growing threat to intellectual property and national security.

We need to make sure Taiwan, Japan, Ukraine, and other allies are protected from these hostile rivals.

I’ve long pushed to expand port calls with Taiwan, for instance, and to share more military information with them.

Finally, there are Problematic Allies.

Here again we come to Jeane Kirkpatrick.

We have problematic allies across the world.

Those who are merely the lesser of two evils, whose continued existence prevents far worse violence or instability.

We should be pressuring them to improve and reform, while working with them in ways that concretely advance American national interests. 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are problematic allies. Mubarak was a problematic ally.

What the Saudis did to Khashoggi was wrong. It was horrific, state-sponsored murder. But nobody is under any illusions about the morality of the Saudis.

In the Middle East, there are a lot of problematic actors and the Saudis are a regional counterpoint to the Iranians, who are led by a genocidal maniac who wants to murder Americans. 

We need the Saudis, and a strong Saudi Arabia, to balance Iran, on everything from Yemen to oil sanctions. It’s simply not in our National Interest to weaken the Saudis. 

Contrast that with the coalition of liberals, isolationists, and even some self-described neoconservatives who regularly attack Saudi Arabia, including and especially in Congress. I ask you a simple question: what does weakening Saudi Arabia and strengthening the Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran – what does that do to advance American national interest? Those are the questions we should be asking.

Among all of those baskets - enemies, rivals, and problematic allies, you may find grievous human rights abuses. 

Whether in China, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs languish in re-education camps, or in Venezuela where Maduro is oppressing his own people, or Ortega in Nicaragua torturing and murdering those speaking for freedom. 

Or Islamist militias in Africa killing, raping, and pillaging across the land. 

Or, the women, homosexuals, and religious dissidents who continue to suffer persecution in Saudi Arabia. 

These atrocities, and countless more around the world, rightly raise the hackles of every good American. 

We are a country that wants to see injustice smashed wherever it lies.

Here is a simple fact: we cannot invade all the world to set it right. As it has been said many times: we are not the world’s policeman. 

But there is also great force in America’s principles, and in loudly and unapologetically advocating those principles!

Reagan did not bomb the Berlin Wall into dust. His words inspired millions to render it to dust of their own accord. 

We can be a beacon among the nations. We can assume that old responsibility, from the first days of our Republic, to lead the world to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - to protect the fundamental dignity of every human being.

We should be highlighting human rights abuses every way we can, rhetorically and through legislation where possible.

Last year we successfully passed my Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which imposes sanctions on Ortega and his regime for human rights abuses.

Several years ago, the Senate also unanimously passed my legislation to rename the street in front of the Chinese embassy Liu Xiaobo Plaza, after the wrongfully imprisoned Nobel laureate.

That idea echoes one implemented by Reagan, who renamed the street in front of the Soviet embassy Sakharov Plaza, after yet another imprisoned Nobel laureate.

That proposed legislation shone an uncomfortable light on China’s human rights abuses, and it helped pressure China to finally release Liu’s widow, Liu Xia.

Likewise, when Sudan imprisoned and sentenced to death Mariam Ibrahim for the crime of being a Christian, America needed to speak out. 

I championed her cause, along with millions of believers across the world. 

Sadly, despite my repeated efforts, I could never convince President Obama to even say her name.

But, nonetheless, the light and attention of others was strong enough, and Sudan relented, releasing her from prison and allowing her and her husband to come to America.

We need to speak out clearly, repeatedly, and consistently, when people are imprisoned: whether for being Christian, as happens too often in Pakistan and Iran, or fighting for free speech, as happens too often in China and Cuba and Venezuela.

Now that we’ve completed our worldwide tour, let me close by coming back home.

Who in Washington will approach the world in the way I have described? 

Who will put America’s National Interest first? 

Forging a strong, just, and intelligent foreign policy is, at this moment, a critical responsibility of the Republican Party.

In this endeavor, we can and we ultimately need Democratic allies. 

Many of my Democratic colleagues privately yearn for sanity in our foreign policy, and I welcome them with open arms.

Some, like Bob Menendez, faced vicious retribution from the Obama Administration when he dared speak out against the catastrophic Iran nuclear deal.

Others, like Joe Lieberman—who was the only Democrat who joined me and other Republicans in Jerusalem for the opening of our embassy—have been virtually excommunicated from their party.

There was a time when Scoop Jackson Democrats were more commonplace.

But sadly, as a group, Leftists in Congress and in the media now have one standard of judgement when it comes to anything from border walls to how they take their coffee: if President Trump supports it, we hate it. If he hates it, we support it.

Thus, last night at the State of the Union address, virtually every Democrat in Congress sat stone-faced when the President referenced pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. 

Thus, last night, virtually every single Democrat refused to applaud moving our embassy to Jerusalem—despite that fact that most of them claimed to support that policy just a few short years ago. 

So, it falls on the rest of us— a coalition of the willing—to establish a new era of American foreign policy that leaves those overtly political motivations behind us.

Wanting to avoid war does not make one a coward, or weak.

Wanting to stop terrorists and protect against hostile regimes does not make one a warmonger.

The longer we argue in these terms, the harder it is to develop a cohesive standard of action for the 21st century. 

Those who came here today expecting a forceful rebuke of the current administration might be disappointed.

But with its relentless focus on American greatness, concern for the wishes of regular American families, and skepticism of military intervention, the Trump administration is primed to be a great incubator for a National Interest-based foreign policy—if it has the right leaders, mentors, advisors, and friends.

We cannot squander this opportunity to set right generations of confusion we have inherited from both parties.

It is an opportunity that is greater than all of our differences. 

As I have said, a National Interest foreign policy is not some strange middle point between Intervention and Isolation. Because it does not exist on the same axis.

It is not a cookie cutter that prescribes the same action to every situation, but it’s a pragmatic standard of judgement, under which some situations merit force, some, the soft touch of diplomacy, and some, no involvement at all.

The principles of National Interest have been advocated by great conservative thinkers long before Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Indeed, all the way back to George Washington, we can find its roots.

It’s banner is a Gadsden flag emblazoned with the legend, with the standard “Don’t Tread on Me.” That’s a standard well worth our consideration, once more.

Thank you.


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