American History needs a makeover. Those who lament our current status as a military superpower often employ isolated examples from the Founding generation to “prove” that America was never intended to aggressively engage in foreign affairs outside of commerce. However, an intellectually honest examination of the Founders’ political maxims and America’s early conflicts provides for a more reasoned, pragmatic approach towards world affairs.
George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is often referenced as one of the principle indicators of the common intent of the Founders with regards to America’s foreign policy. In it, Washington forewarns the Union to “steer clear of permanent alliances.” However, examining Washington’s propositions in their proper context heeds more support for the promotion of a temporary foreign policy.
Following the Revolutionary War, the U.S. stood fifty million dollars in debt. Their vessels no longer received British protection in international waters, and they did not have a standing army or navy. Plainly stated, a nascent America did not have the economic, military, or international credibility of becoming a persuasive actor on the world stage. But Washington also recognized that “the period is not far off…when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation.”
These factors seem to justify the preference of America’s early political leaders to remain uninvolved in world affairs for a time so as to rebuild and erect a solid foundation for a powerful nation.
“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?” Washington asked. “It is our true policy 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.”
Perhaps the most poignant early illustrations of American involvement in foreign affairs are the Barbary Wars. They began with Muslim nations in North Africa producing state-sponsored pirates to assault American commercial interests by taking American ships hostage in 1785.
Thomas Jefferson joined John Adams as part of a London delegation in 1786 to negotiate a resolution to the dispute with Tripoli’s emissary, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. Jefferson reported to Congress that Abdrahaman justified the right to exact money and take Americans as slaves as being “written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found…and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to heaven.” Sound familiar?
In 1801, without a congressional declaration of war, President Thomas Jefferson sent American forces into the Mediterranean, where they stormed Tripolitan ports and cities, savaging the insurgent forces and economic strongholds of the pirates.
The United States’ willingness to defend its interests abroad remains remarkably unchanged over the centuries. Washington’s Farewell Address and the Barbary Wars emphasize a common theme: America’s leaders, going back to Washington and Jefferson, have ultimately abandoned theoretical political concepts to place people ahead of their ideas.
This is not to diminish or discredit the importance of standards in those individuals’ lives. But any words uttered in the evenhanded spirit of the Constitutional Convention, or any penned in the partisan manner of post-Revolutionary War politics – any abstractions about the constitutional makeup of government, or the function of the branches, or of the conduct of the United States abroad – have, in the final analysis, become secondary to the security and common interests of the United States.
America’s true foreign policy has never been one of inherent isolationism or clear-minded empire, but simply, as Washington put it, where “we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”