So I’m still kicking around the principles of American conservatism. How does it fit into the world in which we live?
The United States obviously hasn’t been hiding within our borders and avoiding foreign entanglements like George Washington suggested. On the other hand, maybe we misunderstand George Washington. Were the Founders isolationists with non-interference as their guiding principle? Certainly our policies have changed and adapted over the decades to respond to the real world in which we live, but principles are supposed to be unchanging and permanent. America is a defender of liberty at home and, until the 20th century, we maintained our independence and pursued our own interests while standing for political freedom across the globe. When our government’s practices have deviated from our principles, we have stumbled and conservatives have, at times, stumbled as well.
One thing to know is that isolationism was not really part of America’s political lexicon until the 20th century. It shortly came to be understood as the antithesis of internationalism. By the end of the 20th century, few objected when historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described American reaction against Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism as a return to the “familiar and soothing isolationism” articulated by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I admit, that was what I was taught in high school Government class.
Throughout the 20th century, many scholars and politicians viewed America’s Founding Fathers as naïve, isolated innocents in world affairs. The academic fields of international relations and foreign policy have steadily replaced history, philosophy, and literature with the scientific method and quantitative research. This social science approach spawned researchers and practitioners who confine themselves to rigid theories that create fanciful understandings of international relations and America’s place in the world. The America’s Founders have been afforded little attention, though their principled, common-sense understanding of America’s role in the world and their example of statecraft have great relevance for the United States today.
George Washington recommended a foreign policy of independence and strength that would allow America to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” By emphasizing the importance of both interest and justice, Washington recognized that there are no easy answers to the hard questions of foreign policy. Principles must operate in a real world. The Founders sought to apply America’s principles of liberty, which define its sense of justice, to the circumstances of the day, to secure the blessings of liberty for the American people in a complex and sometimes hostile world.
US sovereign independence could be threatened by international treaties and alliances. America’s very first treaty was the 1778 military alliance with France, which helped secure American independence. A treaty of necessity, it jeopardized American interests when, during the negotiations in Paris that officially ended the Revolutionary War (1782-83) France tried to use the new country as a pawn in their greater game of European diplomacy. The US learned quickly to vigilantly guard against any encroachments upon its sovereignty—even from allies. This is why Washington cautioned against permanent military alliances that restricted the future independence of America to act in pursuit of its interests and in accordance with its principles.
Temporary alliances, however, were not out of the question in times of emergency. During Thomas Jefferson’s administration, the United States joined forces with Sweden and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies during the Tripolitan War against the Barbary Pirates. Such foreign military cooperation was essential in defeating the Muslim privateers who were attacking American ships of commerce in the Mediterranean Sea. This was America’s first foreign war, fought just 13 years after the Constitution was ratified. The most important goal of American foreign policy continues to be defending the independence of the United States so that America can govern itself according to its principles and pursue its national interests.
The Declaration of Independence states that all mankind is endowed with the same unalienable rights and that, to secure those rights, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The American Founders spoke universal truths and created a powerful model of liberty for the whole world, but they understood that America’s commitment to its principles—in both domestic and foreign policy—has profound consequences for the cause of liberty everywhere. This did not imply a duty to spread the ideas of liberty through force, but it did highlight America’s unique role in the cause of liberty in the world. Unlike the European nations, U.S. foreign policy was not manipulated by a grand strategist who controlled the levers of statecraft. Instead, American statecraft consisted of a varied and vibrant set of actors reflecting the self-governing nature and enterprising spirit of the American people. Nowhere was this more evident than in trade and commerce, a central element of America’s foreign relations.
Instead of military alliances, the U.S. sought to secure treaties of “peace and friendship” with foreign countries as a means of facilitating commerce. While European countries sponsored trading companies, conquered foreign territory, and sought to enforce mercantilism, the activity of American craftsmen, farmers, merchants, and traders far outpaced the scope or control of the U.S. government. Rather than the state propping up business, many of the Founders expected that private enterprise and the trade of the American people would be the key to America’s prosperity and national success.
America’s political ideas in the realm of foreign policy would be tested early when, in 1789, the French Revolution replaced the absolute French monarchy with a nation founded on the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The new French Republic soon found itself fighting a war with Great Britain and a civil war at home. The French revolutionaries appealed to the United States to support their cause. Washington quickly saw that the young and militarily unprepared American republic needed to pursue a policy of neutrality. The debate over this gave rise to America’s first political parties, by the way, as the new nation argued — not for isolationism — but for taking sides. One faction wanted to side with the French and the other faction wanted to side with Great Britain. Washington chose neutrality which worked until our independence was repeatedly threatened by both powers violating American sovereignty by impressing American sailors, obstructing sea trade, and imperiling the lives of American citizens. This led to the War of 1812 when we settled the issue of our independence and sovereignty once and for all.
European conflicts continued to extend into the Americas, threatening US national security, impeding freedom of commerce or endangering liberty somewhere in the world. As Latin America began to throw off the yoke of Spanish imperial rule, they appealed to the United States for support. This eventually culminated in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, maintaining American independence and protecting the principles of liberty in the Americas.
The Monroe Doctrine was a statement of America’s moral opposition to the ideas of colonialism and empire. The idea of human liberty and its political corollary—the principle of self-government—were universal principles that the United States would respect in both foreign and domestic policies. America could not be isolated or unconcerned about manifestations of liberty around the world. The American system prudentially applied the political principles of the American Founding to the practice of foreign policy. Far from being a statement of isolationism, the Monroe Doctrine was a bold and assertive interpretation of world affairs and helped to shift the global order away from a system of empires and toward our modern global system of nation-states in which self-government is a respected principle.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that popular sovereignty is the preeminent principle of government. The Founders understood that the U.S. could not predetermine where liberty would spring forth, but when the desire for republican self-government does emerge, the cause of liberty should be supported. The early security of the United States itself had depended on French military assistance and foreign financial credit. These benefactors, however, could not have imposed self-government upon the Americans; they could merely support the American experiment. There is sometimes a great gap between a people’s natural right to liberty and their capacity for self-government. American foreign policy, however, has contended that when this distance is overcome organically by a people yearning for freedom, it should be acknowledged and even supported.
The debate over the appropriate means will always depend on the circumstances and should be guided by prudence. The Founders clearly favored a foreign policy that advanced the ideas of liberty through example, public opinion, and vigorous diplomacy. From the historical record, it is clear that America’s early statesmen understood diplomacy not merely as a means of negotiating interests, but as a tool for advancing the ideas of liberty. Significantly, this does not necessitate military intervention.
The Founders did not believe that America had a duty to spread the ideas of liberty by waging wars that might be detrimental to America’s interests and security, but they welcomed opportunities to support the principles and practice of liberty prudently around the world. This distinction between duty and opportunity is most clearly visible in the American reaction to Revolutionary France’s foreign policy. In contrast the Greek and Hungarian revolutions attempted to provide for their countries’ own independence rather than expand their system through military force. Americans recognized the cause of liberty in their attempts at self-government. The Greek and Hungarian revolutions were, however, threatened by the complex European network of despotic alliances that America had determined to avoid but that seemed destined to snuff out the flickering light of liberty on the European continent. These circumstances presented the young American Republic with another solemn opportunity to intervene on behalf of liberty. Many Americans, animated by their commitment to the cause of liberty and emboldened by American diplomatic support for the Greeks, donated funds and supplies to aid the Greeks’ fight for independence. Later, Ambassador Daniel Webster sharply criticized the Austrian Empire for trying to oppress the Hungarian uprising and refused to withdraw his critique even at risk of war, stating that the principles of liberty were too important to remain neutral.
The American people rightly place great importance on the permanence of their political principles. It’s crucial to understand the Founders’ approach to foreign policy, not only because the early years of American foreign policy were so successful, but also because their foreign policy decisions were self-consciously based on the ideals of the Founding. It would be historically inaccurate and a dangerous misunderstanding to reduce the Founders’ principled foreign policy to a simplistic rule of non-interventionism.