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  • Yes, the Founding Fathers Have Foreign Policy First Principles

    James Downie, standing in for Jonathan Chait at The New Republic, believes that The Heritage Foundation’s view of the relationship between first principles and foreign policy is wrong, and contrary to George Washington’s vision. Inevitably, he seeks to prove his point by quoting Washington’s Farewell Address. His case would be even less persuasive if he’d read a little more, or a little more thoroughly.

    But before we go into that, it’s worth drawing attention to Downie’s concluding point: “the Founding Fathers don’t provide much of a foundation at all” for foreign policy. That’s a characteristically liberal view, and utterly wrong. Only a simpleton would argue that Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams tell us exactly and directly what we should do today.  But the Founding Fathers created the United States as a sovereign nation. That in itself is directly and obviously relevant to the conduct of American foreign policy, both because it is what enable us to have a foreign policy in the first place, and because it emphasizes the value the Founders placed on sovereignty.

    More than that: the Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, which express both our values and define the institutions by which we make policy—including foreign policy. And they were men of wisdom and experience, who wrote widely and well on every aspect of governing. The Left dislikes appeals to the Founders for a simple reason: they have a vision for the United States that is rooted in the progressivism of the late 19th century, not in the thought of the Founders.

    The most important fact about the United States is that it is a nation built on an idea. This idea is that people are endowed by their creator with God-given rights, and that they form a government to protect those rights. This is not just an idea, of course: it is a statement about values, about morality, and about freedoms. The United States cannot have a foreign policy that dismisses or ignores this idea, because, as Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter found out to their detriment, the American people will not stand for it for very long. And though the American idea has deep roots in Western civilization, it was the Founders who built a nation on it. We can therefore learn a lot about ourselves, and what principles our policies should be based on, by learning about them.

    So let’s return to George Washington. If Downie had read a little further in Washington’s Farewell Address —only to the next sentence, in fact—he would have found the following: “If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when . . . we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Washington was not, in our terms, a realist.  But he was also not an idealist. He believed in advancing the American interest, but he also believed that interests did not speak for themselves. They had to be guided by justice. So while Washington did not use the term “values”—that is our modern language—the idea that foreign policy had to rest on our sense both of justice and of our interests is his own.  And Heritage is proud to follow in his tradition.

    In the context of his Farewell Address—with the wars of the French Revolution raging in Europe—Washington’s primary concern was to assert the value of American unity and independence, and to assure that the new nation was defended against attempted subversions from, or conquests by, France or England. That particular problem is no longer relevant, but Washington’s broader concern for American independence, the sovereignty of American institutions, and the need to support the common defense are of enduring importance., As we wrote earlier this week, those are exactly the beliefs that Heritage holds as central to the making of American foreign (and domestic) policy.

    Of course, defining “justice” is no easy task. We might gain some insight into what Washington meant by this by looking further at the Farewell Address, and some of his other statements. One of these is particularly short and readable: his speech on resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to Congress on December 23, 1783. Every American should read this statement. In it, Washington said that:

    Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.

    Justice is concerned with assessing rights and remedying wrongs, and with a sense of fairness. If we understood what kind of government Washington thought was right and what was wrong, we could better judge our just duties—which clearly for him also include upholding signed and ratified treaties—toward other states. What, therefore, is “a respectable Nation”?

    It is clearly connected to the possession of independence and sovereignty. In the context of Washington’s resignation, it means the possession of well-ordered armed forces that are subordinate to civilian authority.  But it means more than that. It means that, as he put it in this Farewell Address, “those entrusted with its administration [should] confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres.” It means that we should “cherish public credit.” It means that a respectable nation is a sovereign nation of laws, able to govern itself constitutionally and affordably at home, and defend and negotiate for itself abroad, in a way that accorded with its conception of justice and its interests. It means, in short, the U.S., and other nations that live up to those standards.

    And it therefore means one more thing. Washington—like the other Founders, and like The Heritage Foundation—did not cherish many illusions about international relations. His view was that “it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character.” But he also believed that democratic governments—he called them “popular,” the language of his day—were different from, and better than, autocratic ones, because they expressed the American idea.

    In his words, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?… In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

    In other words, the American people must be virtuous, because otherwise free government will not endure  That virtue consists in part in education, partly in religion, but also in dedication to the nation, its institutions, and the Constitution. The government of a free people gives force to their opinions, which are grounded in their virtues and which define their conception of justice.

    And those opinions will not stop at the borders of the nation. The American people can therefore be expected to judge other states, and our policies towards them, by the same fundamental standards they apply to their own government. They will ask, first, whether the other states are basically respectable. And all too often, today, the answer is that they—and the international institutions they populate—are not. Why, for example, is it respectable for Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to sit in judgment as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council on the U.S.’s human rights record?

    The importance of respectability is no reason, as Washington warned – and as we said – to indulge in imprudent moralizing, precisely because power matters a great deal in foreign policy.  Nor, therefore, should we base policy on illusions about engagement or diplomacy without strength.  But Washington’s own words gives the lie to the common argument that he was a simple-minded realist, uninterested in, or hostile to, any connection between our conception of justice, our understanding of our interests, and our policies in the world.  The fact that liberals believe this testifies only to their impoverished view of the Founding Fathers and American foreign policy.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    11 Responses to Yes, the Founding Fathers Have Foreign Policy First Principles

    1. Bobbie says:

      How could anybody be so blind with ignorance? These ignorant fools! This is what they are indoctrinating in public education and how they are rewriting history.

    2. Rick, Austin says:

      Personally I think you should be ashamed of yourself for attempting to twist the clear meaning of Washington's address this way.

      "His view was that “it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character.” But he also believed that democratic governments—he called them “popular,” the language of his day—were different from, and better than, autocratic ones, because they expressed the American idea."

      Right. So if we go to war, it will be justified, no matter how it is conducted because we're "better" than those Monarchies…..

      No matter. This country is going to be so broke it won't be able to conduct wars anymore. The rest of the world will sigh with great relief when the oh-so-morally-superior, pre-emptive war machine comes to a grinding halt.

    3. George Colgrove, VA says:

      Here is a little more of that quote:

      "Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; 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, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

      "Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon 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?

      "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; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

      "Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."

      - George Washington


      Why dont any of our leaders talk like this any more?

    4. Steven Glenn Poyzer, says:

      I would quote from George Washington's "Farewell Address:"

      "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible."

      "Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences;"

      "Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other."

      "Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign World"

      And as Thomas Jefferson wrote President Monroe in 1823, “Our first and fundamental maxim should be, never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe. Our second, never to suffer Europe to intermeddle with cis-Atlantic affairs. America…has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own.”

    5. john licona jr. says:

      Of course, the founding fathers had foreign policy high on it's agenda when penning the Constitution. One our greatest command delegated to us by our Constitution is as foreign policy as you can get: "defend and protect our borders". Borders denote foreign. In the eyes of the Founders any territory or State not yet unionized was considered "foreign territory". At the penning of our Constitution we had such a small border as compared to now meaning foreign has been pretty much established until further manifest destiny takes place….

    6. Dennis Georgia says:

      America under "master obama" has a foreign policy, one of saying we are wrong, one of inviting the most harsh and mean into this country. Our forign policy is one of we give up, we wre wrong for even thinking we are geat, we are not a "super power" we are just a puppet on a string to the rest of the world. We will give you all of our wealth, after all obama said to "spread the wealth" we will make America dependent on the rest of the world. We will change our way of life to please all the world, if a stronger power shows up we will change again. The American citizens do not have the ability to make decisons, I obama have all the knowledge, all the answers, and will "spred the wealth", after all i propsed to the American people the idea of "hope and change".

    7. Warner Todd Huston says:

      One other thing, Washington is famous for having said that the best way to keep the peace it to be ready for war. But he knew that the early USA was in no way ready to step out on the international stage and still be prepared for war. We were too poor and powerless still when he was going back to Mount Vernon for the last time. He knew that. Washington's warning about "foreign entanglements" was based on the simple fact that we weren't capable yet to do so. After all, the USA was already up to her neck in European "entanglements" even in Washington's time. A great book on the farewell address is "To the Farewell Address" by Felix Gilbert.

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    9. Drew Page, IL says:

      To George Colgrove in Va — You ask why don't leaders talk like this anymore?

      In my opinion George, we don't have leaders anymore; they have been replaced with politicians. They have replaced Washington's exhortation of "honesty is the best policy" with "plauseable deniability".

    10. Z. Baker says:

      please note that the founding fathers where against a 2 party system (along with many other policies and establishment) because it blinds people and set them against each other instead of against corruption and the abuse of power. Our government has fallen into a dilapidated state. If the found fathers where a live to day they would most like be labeled terrorists because they would be at the hart of a new revolution.

    11. Z. Baker says:

      (to admins) admin. approval of comments is against the spirt of the first amendment, and yes I realize that it's your site and it's your rite to put what you want on it. why not put it to a vote majority of dislikes or likes in the first month or week decides whether it stays up?

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