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An American Tradition In Foreign Affairs

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

Traditions rest lightly on the American people. With the founding of the Republic two centuries ago, Americans, contemplating the rich continent before them as well as the possibilities afforded by their new Constitution, could anticipate one long experiment in free government and economic progress unrestrained by the lessons of history. Through subsequent decades of predictable, generally unparalleled, material expansion, the shortness of time contrasted sharply with the immensity of the land. Amid changes that crowded one another with unprecedented rapidity, what could one generation say to the next that mattered, especially when the challenges that confronted each generation scarcely seemed to exist in the previous one? It is not strange that the country’s citizens generally detected little need for historic guidance in the formulation of attitudes, purposes, and policies. Even intellectual conservatives have often revealed little respect for the nation’s past. Still, there is now a widespread lament, shared by writers, scholars, and political leaders, that the country lacks a tradition in foreign affairs commensurate with its power and responsibilities. The only diplomatic tradition widely recognized is that of Woodrow Wilson, but Wilson’s views partook of the very exceptionalism that denied the need for examining the past for guidance. Regarding power politics, the central historic presumption of international relations, as an unacceptable, even immoral, foundation for the country’s external policies, Wilson insisted that the United States should not and need not follow the rules of traditional diplomacy. Those who reject the Wilsonian approach to international affairs often express regret over the absence of a countering American tradition that might serve as a more effective and realistic guide to national action abroad.

This is strange. The Founding Fathers were themselves the creatures of tradition, steeped in the political and diplomatic wisdom of the age. Overwhelmingly they accepted the philosophic conviction of Edmund Burke that society comprised a continuing compact between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. The living might be masters of their immediate destiny, but they would, if they were wise, take cognizance of those traditions that had the sanction of wisdom and common sense and transmit that heritage to those who would follow. In fulfilling that obligation to themselves and to posterity such early American leaders as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John and John Quincy Adams, in their voluminous writings, drew on the European past and those who had analyzed it so brilliantly—Grotius, Hobbes, Fenelon, Vattel, and Burlamaqui—to create for the United States a diplomatic tradition unmatched in history.

For the Founding Fathers the United States, as an independent nation, existed in a fundamentally anarchical world of sovereign states, each struggling to enhance its security, assure the integrity of its political life, and protect the well-being of its citizens through the exercise of power and diplomacy. Yet the acceptance of such a seemingly forbidding world view was scarcely universal. Some Americans adopted the more reassuring notion that the United States, in separating from England, had escaped the world of power politics. Thomas Paine had argued in Common Sense (1776) that America’s attachment to Britain alone had endangered its security. It was the British connection that had tended “to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint.” More specifically, Paine predicted that France and Spain, both New World powers, would never be “our enemies as Americans, but as our being subjects of Great Britain.” An independent United States would have no cause to defy other countries with demanding foreign policies. “Our plan,” he wrote, “is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port. Her trade will always be a protection, and her barrenness of gold and silver secure her from invaders.” Paine advocated a navy adequate to protect American shores. Such naval power would effectively reinforce a policy of military and political isolation from Europe.

Repeatedly in The Federalist (1788) Alexander Hamilton challenged Paine’s assumption that independence from England had freed America from the vicissitudes of European politics or that commerce, especially that conducted by republics, eliminated the danger of war. “Have republics in practice,” he asked, “been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter? Are there not adversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisitions, that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? . . . Has commerce hitherto done any thing more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory?. . . Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.” Carthage, a commercial republic, was the aggressor in the very war that terminated its existence. Holland, another commercial republic, played a conspicuous role in the wars of modern Europe. Britain’s marked addiction for commerce never prevented that country from engaging in war. Public passions could draw a country into war as readily as monarchial ambitions. “There have been . . .almost as many popular as royal wars,” Hamilton concluded. “The cries of the nation and the importunities of their representatives have, upon various occasions, dragged their monarchs into war, or continued them in it, contrary to their inclinations, and sometimes contrary to the real interests of the state.”

For the Founding Fathers competition and conflict were the normal conditions of international life. “To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood,” Hamilton observed in The Federalist No. 6, “would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.” For Hamilton the causes of hostility among nations were innumerable. The rivalry for markets among trading nations remained high on the list, but he noted also “the love of power or the desire of preeminence and dominion . . .the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes, and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members.” Too often, Hamilton warned, such men, whether favorites of the king or the people, had “abused the confidence they possessed; and assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquillity to personal advantage or personal gratification.”

It was not strange that the country’s early leaders advocated a reliance on power. Hamilton advocated a high level of naval preparedness. Jefferson reminded John Jay in August 1785 that “weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish it prevents it.” Similarly John Adams confided to Jefferson in October 1787: “I have long been settled in my own opinion that neither Philosophy, nor Religion, nor Morality, nor Wisdom, nor Interest, will ever govern nations or Parties, against their Vanity, their Pride, their Resentment or Revenge, or their Avarice or Ambition. Nothing but Force and Power and Strength can restrain them.” Nowhere in international life, such early leaders acknowledged, was there any standard of morality to which they could appeal to influence the behavior of other countries.


In the 18th-century world of power politics all nations were free to define and pursue their own interests. The reality that each national sovereignty was responsible only to itself left little room for trust, except to trust that nations would indeed be guided by their own interests. That fundamental principle permitted Washington to laud the alliance with France, although the United States was entrusting its destiny to Europe’s most powerful monarchy. As Washington explained in November 1778: “Hatred of England may carry some to excess of Confidence in France. . . . I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favourable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree; but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.” When a British general chided the United States in the House of Commons for making an unnatural alliance with France, John Adams retorted: “I know of no better rule than this, —when two nations have the same interests in general, they are natural allies; when they have opposite interests, they are natural enemies. . . . [But] the habits of affection or enmity between nations are easily changed as circumstances vary, and as essential interests alter.” Like all alliances, Adams knew, that with France would be temporary, created only to satisfy an immediate mutual interest in the defeat of Great Britain.

No less than Washington and Adams, members of Congress welcomed the French alliance because they, too, assumed the existence of strong mutual interests between the United States and France in the struggle against Britain. “[W]e must expect all nations will be influenced by their own interest,” wrote William Whipple of New Hampshire in July 1779, “and so far we may expect the Friendship of any power that inclines to form an alliance with us, but if we expect more, we shall certainly be disappointed.” France’s decision of 1781 to entrust its peace efforts to Russia and Prussia as mediating powers troubled those who had no confidence in the two continental courts. But France, noted Maryland’s Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer in June 1781, “must procure us tolerable terms, or She cannot expect to keep us long in her interest. . . .” Similarly Delaware’s Thomas Rodney, despite his distrust of European monarchs, agreed that the mediating powers would readily consent to American independence because “it will be ever the Interest of France that they should do this lest we should at a future day form an Alliance with great Britain.” Such observations proved to be accurate. France never faltered in its quest of American independence.

Experience taught the Founding Fathers that the major forces of international society tended simultaneously toward stability and change. Individual nations ranged themselves on one side or the other of this equation in accordance with their immediate or long-term interests, as they understood them. It was the uncertainty, the lack of precision, in the international system that rendered assessments difficult. Decisions, once made, soon engaged the interests and preferences of other countries. For the Founding Fathers, no less than for Europe’s statesmen, the central task of diplomacy was that of limiting the behavior of the ambitious in a fundamentally anarchical international environment to what they regarded acceptable. What preserved Europe’s remarkable stability and the general outlines of its international boundaries, despite the continuing wars, was the existence of an equilibrium or balance of power. Writers on the balance of power assumed that one or more ambitious countries would always seek to enhance, if not to maximize, their power. Nations checked such recurrent aggressiveness with counterchecks composed of opposing combinations of power. Indeed, every state, in its own interest and in the interest of the equilibrium, carried the obligation to prevent any one country from becoming too powerful. On the day that one country became strong enough to challenge all others combined, the balancing system would cease to exist. The Founding Fathers discovered early that the European equilibrium would be the essential source of American security. Even as colonists the American people achieved major victories over Europe’s two most powerful nations by managing to throw British power against France to drive the French from the North American Continent, and then, within 20 years, to drive the British out of the 13 colonies by utilizing the power of France.

John Adams, representing the young republic in Europe, understood clearly that as long as Britain and France, occupying the two poles of the European equilibrium, emerged from the war strong and antagonistic toward one another, the United States was safe. In his tardy acceptance of the French alliance, Adams could foresee no future American war except against Britain and Britain’s allies. “The United States . . .,” he concluded, “will be for ages the natural bulwark of France against the hostile designs of England against her, and France is the natural defense of the United States against the rapacious spirit of Great Britain against them. France is a nation so vastly eminent. . .that united in close alliance with our States, . . .there is not the smallest reason to doubt but both will be a sufficient curb upon the naval power of Great Britain.” At the same time Adams recognized Britain’s importance to the European equilibrium. A Dutch merchant in Paris informed him “that they in Holland had regarded England as the Bulwark of the Protestant Religion and the most important Weight in the Ballance of Power in Europe against France.” “I answered,” Adams reported, “that I had been educated from my Cradle in the same opinion. . . .” Adams knew that Britain would leave the war as an essential element in the European equilibrium and a defense against French ambition in the New World.

With the achievement of peace in 1783, Adams believed the European balance of power sufficiently stable to guarantee America’s future independence. “[T]here is a Ballance of Power in Europe,” he assured James Warren in March. “Nature has formed it. Practice and Habit have confirmed it, and it must forever exist. It may be disturbed for a time, by the accidental Removal of a Weight from one Scale to the other; but there will be a continual Effort to restore the Equilibrium.” Before the war the nations of Europe had regarded Britain too powerful; now they accepted the diminution of British power with pleasure. With Europe’s equilibrium restored, neither London nor Paris could cross the Atlantic with sufficient force to endanger the territories, much less the independence, of the United States without facing an overwhelming coalition of countering power in Europe itself. Thomas Boylston Adams, one of the sons of John Adams, expressed this truth in October 1799: “It must always happen, so long as America is an independent Republic or nation, that the balance of power in Europe will continue to be of the utmost important to her welfare. The moment that France is victorious and Great Britain with her allies depressed, we have cause for alarm ourselves. The same is true when the reverse of this happens.”

None of the nation’s early leaders matched Thomas Jefferson in his persistent concern for the European equilibrium. During his years as minister to France he commented often and brilliantly on Europe’s shifting balance of power and its significance for European and Atlantic stability. For Jefferson it was essential that the United States judge its interests and manage its policies in accordance with the vicissitudes of the European equilibrium. “While there are powers in Europe which fear our views. . .,” he observed in December 1787, “we should keep an eye on them, their connections and oppositions, that in a moment of need we may avail ourselves of their weakness with respect to others as well as ourselves, and calculate their designs and movements on all the circumstances under which they exist.”

With the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars after 1803, with the full might of Napoleon’s France confronting that of Britain and the rest of Europe, Jefferson feared a victory of either France or Britain over the other. After Napoleon’s triumph at Austerlitz in 1806, Jefferson, as president, considered an alliance with Britain. Soon British insolence forced him back into a posture of neutrality, although he continued to believe that the French emperor endangered the balance of power and thus the security of the United States. Jefferson wrote that he still favored “an English ascendancy on the ocean [as being] safer for us than that of France.” In the wake of the Chesapeake affair in 1807, however, he confessed: “I never expected to be under the necessity of wishing success to Buonaparte. But the English being equally tyrannical at sea as he is on land, & the tyranny bearing on us in every point of either honor or interest, I say “down with England” and as for what Buonaparte is then to do to us, let us trust to the chapter of accidents. I cannot with the Anglomen prefer a certain present evil to a future hypothetical one.”

Even as the United States entered its war against England in 1812, Jefferson believed that Napoleon, now America’s informal ally, had grown too powerful and hoped that Britain, although the declared enemy of the United States, would find an opportunity for reducing its great rival. Jefferson wrote on that occasion: “We especially ought to pray that the powers of Europe may be so poised and counterpoised among themselves, that their own security may require the presence of all their forces at home, leaving the other quarters of the globe in undisturbed tranquility.” Throughout the war it mattered less to Jefferson whether Britain or France triumphed in Europe than that the European equilibrium remained intact. He no more than the Adamses would entrust American security to the Atlantic alone.


If the pursuit of precisely defined and limited interests in a carefully balanced world of sovereign nations established the outlines of American foreign policy, the Founding Fathers faced powerful impediments to their closely calculated approach to world affairs. From the beginning the American people displayed a profound propensity to involve themselves in external affairs far beyond either their interests or their effective power. The French Revolution quickly taught President Washington and his Federalist advisers that the country’s republican ideology and revolutionary zeal, unleashed by the American Revolution itself, could readily encourage Americans to make other people’s causes their own. When Washington attempted to maintain the official neutrality of the United States in the burgeoning war between France and the allied powers led by Britain, his political opponents accused him of ignoring the cause of liberty. Only with difficulty did the Washington administration prevent the country from mounting a futile crusade in behalf of the French.

Alexander Hamilton rushed to the defense of the Washington administration with a series of brilliant essays, published in 1793 and 1794 under the names “Pacificus” and “Americanus.” These writings constituted the most pervading examination of the diplomatic principles guiding the young Republic to come from the pen of any of the nation’s early leaders. The country’s pro-French legions had anchored their demands for a strong national allegiance to France on the assumptions that the United States must be faithful to its treaty obligations, show gratitude for previous assistance, and underscore its affinity for republican institutions in a monarchical world. Hamilton attacked these notions head on. He argued in “Pacificus” that the country’s first obligation was to itself. Without sea power the United States carried no obligation even to the French islands in the West Indies. There could be no balance, enjoying the sanction of common sense, between the damage that the United States would inflict on itself by opposing Britain and the advantages that it might bring to France. “All contracts,” wrote Hamilton, “are to receive a reasonable construction. Self-preservation is the first duty of a Nation; and though in the performance of stipulations relating to war, good faith requires that the ordinary hazards of war should be fairly encountered, . . .yet it does not require that extraordinary and extreme hazards should be run. . . .” From engaging in a naval war with Great Britain, without a navy or coastal fortifications, he concluded, “we are dissuaded by the most cogent motives of self-preservation, no less than of interest.”

What troubled Hamilton especially was the popular plea that the United States owed a debt of gratitude to France. Hamilton reminded his readers that the conduct of external relations was purely a governmental function, one not belonging to individuals or the people. Thus the commitment to moral obligations by a government, acting as an agent and not a principal, could not be the same as that of an individual. “Existing millions and for the most part future generations,” he wrote, “are concerned in the present measures of a government: While the consequences of the private actions of an individual, for the most part, terminate with himself or are circumscribed within a narrow compass. Whence it follows, that an individual may on numerous occasions meritoriously indulge the emotions of generosity and benevolence; not only without an eye to, but even at the expense of his own interest. But a Nation can rarely be justified in pursuing [a similar] course; and when it does so ought to confine itself within much stricter bounds.” It was essential that governments contemplate the long-term interests of society and not moral impulses shared only by some of its members.

Rather than follow the dictates of partiality toward other countries, the United States, believed Hamilton, should seek the best possible relations with all. In defending the Jay Treaty with his remarkable “Camillus” papers of 1795—a primer on Vattel—Hamilton argued that peaceful arrangements, even when not totally satisfactory, would serve the nation’s interests far better than war. Nor did he believe that concepts of national honor or moral disapprobation should eliminate efforts at compromise. Seldom in history, he noted, did national outrages upon others render negotiations dishonorable. “Nations,” he wrote, “ought to calculate as well as individuals, to compare evils, and to prefer the lesser to the greater; to act otherwise, is to act unreasonably; those who advocate it are imposters and madmen.”

Throughout his second term Washington was dismayed by the intense partisanship which too many Americans entertained toward the European belligerents. He stressed the necessity of greater attention to American interests in a letter to Patrick Henry: “My ardent desire is . . .to see that [the United States] may be independent of all, and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others. . ..” In his Farewell Address Washington explained why foreign attachments endangered the nation’s well-being: “The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interests.” Sympathy for favored countries, Washington warned, assumed common interests which seldom existed and enmeshed a people in the enmities of others without justification.

John Quincy Adams, ultimately the greatest of all American diplomatists, assigned himself the special task to warn the nation against unnecessary and unpromising involvements in the affairs of others. When pro-French pressures mounted against the Washington administration in 1793, Adams wrote in his “Marcellus” essays: “As men, we must undoubtedly lament the effusion of human blood, and the mass of misery and distress which is preparing for the great part of the civilized world; but as the citizens of a nation at a vast distance from the continent of Europe, . . .disconnected from all European interests and European politics, it is our duty to remain, the peaceable and silent, though sorrowful spectators of the sanguinary scene.” In December 1817, as secretary of state, John Quincy Adams complained to his father that Latin America, then in revolution against Spain, had replaced France as the great external source of discord in the United States. “The republican spirit of our country,” he wrote, “not only sympathizes with people struggling in a cause, . . .but it is working into indignation against the relapse of Europe into the opposite principle of monkery and despotism. And now, as at the early stage of the French Revolution, we have ardent spirits who are for rushing into the conflict, without looking to the consequences.”

For John Quincy Adams it was improper for the American people or their government to judge the right or wrong in the behavior of other countries, especially when the practices regarded abhorrent in no way endangered the interests of the United States, and those condemning the alleged evils had no intention of underwriting their sentiments with policies designed to effect the desired changes. When in 1821 enthusiasts, with no attention to means, sought to launch a crusade to save the Greeks from Turkish oppression, Adams again admonished his fellow Americans in his noted July 4 address of that year. “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled,” he declared, “there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. 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.” For Adams the issue was not the country’s weakness. He went on to say that America

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 standards 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 no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.

Adams, no less than Hamilton and Washington, saw that such moral impulses seldom conformed to the nation’s interests and never emanated from the American people generally, but only from influential minorities who had some special material, political, or ideological interest in the external situation that aroused their sentiments. Concern for the Greek cause languished until 1823 when Edward Everett, professor of Greek literature at Harvard and editor of The North American Review, championed Greek independence on the pages of his journal. Adams was not impressed. He argued strongly against any American meddling in the affairs of Greece and Turkey, especially since the country was not prepared financially or militarily to intervene. For Adams the United States was under no obligation to do what it could not do. When William Crawford and John C. Calhoun, as members of the cabinet, expressed great enthusiasm for the Greeks, Adams recorded in disgust:

[Albert] Gallatin had proposed in one of his last dispatches, as if he was serious, that we should assist the Greeks with our naval force in the Mediterranean—one frigate, one corvette, and one schooner. Mr. Crawford and Mr. Calhoun inclined to countenance this project. Crawford asked, hesitatingly, whether we were at peace with Turkey, and seemed only to wait for opposition to maintain that we were not. Calhoun descanted upon his great enthusiasm for the cause of the Greeks; he was for taking no heed of Turkey whatever. In this, as in many other cases, these gentlemen have two sources of eloquence at these Cabinet meetings—one with reference to sentiment, and the other to action. Their enthusiasm for the Greeks is all sentiment, and the standard of this is the prevailing popular feeling. As for action, they are seldom agreed; and after two hours of discussion this day the subject was dismissed, leaving it precisely where it was— nothing determined, and nothing practicable proposed by either of them.

Amid the critical cabinet debates on President James Monroe’s annual message of December 1823, which was to include his famed Monroe Doctrine, Adams again passed judgment on the Greek issue and the motives of those who favored intervention. Adams called on the president and found Gallatin there, urging Monroe to send a naval force as well as money to the revolting Greeks. Because of his high regard for Gallatin, Adams wondered why an experienced diplomat who knew that the United States would not embark on any program to aid the Greeks, would foster such a proposal. He found Gallatin’s motives not unlike those of others who had preached crusades in behalf of the oppressed. “Mr. Gallatin,” Adams confided to his diary, “still builds castles in the air of popularity and, being under no responsibility for consequences, patronizes the Greek cause for the sake of raising his reputation. His measure will not succeed, and even if it should, all the burden and danger of it will not bear upon him, but upon the Administration, and he will be the great champion of Grecian liberty.”


It was not strange that the Founding Fathers, facing recurrent pressures for foreign involvements which they opposed, fostered isolationism. But their isolationism was never that of Tom Paine who found his assurances of peace and non-involvement in world politics in the broad Atlantic and the civilizing quality of commerce. The Founding Fathers, in expanding the concept of geographical isolation into a fundamental element of national policy, never regarded the Atlantic a sure defense against reluctant involvements in defense of distant interests. Washington’s Farewell Address, the ultimate prescription for American isolationism, was scarcely an isolationist document at all. Nowhere did Washington’s recognition of distance and oceans as significant sources of security and power vary from Britain’s reliance on the English Channel as a protection against continental encroachments on its freedom of action. What country did not seek to maximize its physical advantages in its contests with others? Washington emphasized America’s separation from Europe, not because the Atlantic freed the United States from the traditional rules of international behavior, but because the Atlantic was a special asset worth exploiting in the design of external policy. Washington noted, with simple good sense, that the United States could sustain its geographical advantages only if it, like Britain, avoided unnecessary involvements on the European continent. “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?” he pleaded. “Why quit our own to stand on foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”

Washington anchored his opposition to involvements in purely European quarrels to the reasonable supposition that the issues over which Europeans had fought for centuries were not the concern of the United States. “Europe,” he wrote, “has a set of primary interests which to us have none or very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.” Washington’s convictions reflected as well a realistic judgment of European power and the conclusion that the young republic would merely waste its energies if it engaged in struggles abroad that it could not control. “Our detached and distant situation,” he rejoiced, “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.” If the Founding Fathers claimed a special United States interest in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, it was because the hemisphere’s geographical insulation from Europe’s power centers would contribute to the defense of those interests.

After 1783 all the Founding Fathers advocated a policy of neutrality toward Europe’s wars under the assumption that the European equilibrium would limit the conquences of war and thus prevent the emergence of any European danger to America’s security and commercial interests. In practice they never divorced their preference for noninvolvement from their judgment of any war’s effect on the balance of power. Neutrality, they knew, would remain precarious. Recent experience had demonstrated the problem of maintaining official policies of neutrality against the pressures exerted by American partisanship in behalf of foreign belligerents. No less apparent was the propensity of European belligerents, in recognizing this country’s economic importance, to war on its neutrality. No country could sustain its freedom of action that lacked the strength and political will to enforce its neutrality. Washington recognized the relationship between national power and neutrality when he wrote: “If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we . . .may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations . . .will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation. . . .”

What mattered was the country’s freedom to judge its interests in Europe’s wars, even to the making of alliances. “It is our true policy,” Washington acknowledged, “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it.” At the same time Washington foresaw that special emergencies might demand temporary alliances. He hoped only that the United States would maintain sufficient strength to protect its interests in such arrangements. Alliances had limitations, demanding caution. Even if their provisions left nothing to discretion, they still depended for their execution on the good faith of the parties. As early as The Federalist Hamilton warned that alliances were “subject to the usual vicissitudes of peace and war, of observance and nonobservance, as the interests or passions of the contracting power dictate. . . .” Nowhere did Washington’s Farewell Address or other writings of the Founders excuse the government of the United States from acting when the country’s interests justified involvements abroad. By maintaining a close balance between its commitments and its power, the nation could choose, in Washington’s words, “peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Whatever course of action toward Europe the nation might choose, its leaders, through a remarkably instructive quarter century of continuous involvement in European affairs, had recognized all the elements of power politics that would determine the success or failure of any new venture abroad.

Convinced that the United States, as an independent republic, was an integral part of the international order, the Founding Fathers agreed that the United States, in its external relations, could not ignore the opinions of other peoples and governments. Hamilton especially admonished the American public to foster policies that appeared meritorious to foreign as well as domestic observers. Such attention to the judgments of others he regarded essential for two reasons. The first, he wrote, “is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honourable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.” In “Camillus” Hamilton asked his readers to recall that the United States, like the powers of Europe, lived under established modes of international behavior. In controversies with other countries, he advised, “it is of real importance to conciliate the good opinion of mankind, and it is even useful to preserve or gain that of our enemy. The latter facilitates accommodation and peace—the former attracts good offices, friendly interventions, sometimes direct support from others.” Hamilton saw only trouble in unilateral policies that defied external opinion.

This sampling of the thought of the Founding Fathers on foreign affairs cannot render full justice to their voluminous writings, but it demonstrates the quality of mind and felicity of expression that established their place in history. It reveals as well that no aspect of international life escaped them. No less than Europe’s leading analysts they recognized the rules of conduct that enabled sovereign states to thrive in a world without law. They adapted the established principles of modern diplomacy to the peculiar needs and advantages of the American republic. The Founding Fathers assumed that foreign policies emanated from government itself. For them it mattered only that officials seek the best ideas available, whatever their origins. They acknowledged the astuteness that generations of experience had provided the leading governments of Europe, and thus the wisdom of soliciting their advice on external issues. Understanding the nation’s propensity to overextend its purposes abroad, the Founding Fathers argued especially against the two fundamental tendencies toward overcommitment: partiality toward other people’s quarrels and the inclination to enter foreign crusades beyond the country’s means or real intentions. They condemned the use of popular phrases, capable of enlisting domestic and even foreign support but too vague to commit the United States or other countries to any specific course of action. The international system, they knew, responded to the interests of nations, not to generally accepted codes of international behavior. The United States would serve human society by pursuing its real interests, nothing more. If the precepts of the early republic regarding foreign affairs became lost to later generations, the tradition they embodied remains an illustrious element in the nation’s heritage, one to be recalled and pondered by those who seek direction in this complex and troubled world.


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