Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



(This lecture was delivered to the Virginia Society, Sons of the American Revolution, on Sept. 11, 1999, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washingtons death)

We are assembled today to honor an extraordinary man and America's first president, George Washington. It is fitting, I think, that we should direct our attention to his views about how the new nation should conduct its foreign policy during troubled times, and the lessons we might learn as our country soon enters the 21st century.

I do not pretend to be an expert on the life of this Revolutionary War hero and leader in the formation of a federal union among the thirteen original states. I am qualified, however, to offer insights into how Washington viewed America's role in the world of the 1790s, and the ways in which his wisdom might be applied today in a far different world, where the United States finds itself the undisputed world power.

Let us reflect briefly on the international challenges that the fledgling United States of America faced only three months after George Washington was inaugurated as our first president, on April 30, 1789. In July a mob of poor Frenchmen stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and thereby launched the French Revolution, which eventually changed the politics of all Europe. The monarchy was soon overthrown and Louis XVI, and thousands of the French nobility were executed, many of them in the public square at Place de la Concorde. In this revolutionary situation a new radical republican regime came to power and declared war on Great Britain, in February 1793, just as Washington was finishing his first term in office. Once again, Great Britain and France, the two arch enemies that had fought for supremacy in North America only thirty years earlier, entered upon another great war to determine which of them would emerge supreme in international affairs. It was one of the crucially important tests that Washington faced during his eight years as president. The decisions he made severely divided the country politically, and it caused this proud leader much personal anguish during the final years of his life.

The issue that caused this political storm was Washington's proclamation of neutrality in the European war, on April 22, 1793. Because of its historical importance, I quote the documents essential points:

"Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain and the United Netherlands on the one part and France on the other, and the duty and interest of the United States may require that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers: I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid toward those powers respectively, and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition."

This proclamation then warned that any U.S. citizen who was apprehended by a foreign power as being in violation of the law of nations regarding aiding and abetting hostilities against any of the said powers "will not receive the protection of the United States against such punishment or forfeiture." It also warned that any citizen apprehended within the jurisdiction of American courts would be prosecuted by the U.S. government.

Washington's action caused outrage among many Americans, for two reasons: first, many merchants, specifically shippers, were hoping to profit handsomely by providing aid to either side in the war, but were now subject to prosecution either in a country at war or in the United States; second, pro-French leaders in Washington's Cabinet and in Congress considered this declaration to be dishonorable toward France, which had been a friend and ally during the war for independence from Britain. Among the strongest critics were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who resigned over the matter, and Senator James Madison, both of them Virginians. In addition to his sympathies for France, Jefferson argued that Congress, not the president, had the authority under the constitution to make such foreign policy declarations. After leaving the cabinet, Jefferson set about to establish the Republican Party to counter the Federalist's increasingly pro-British foreign policy, and to limit the growth of federal power at the expense of the thirteen states.

Washington's neutrality proclamation required courage and statesmanship, and a realistic view of America's national interests in the 1790s. Courage was required because the decision was unpopular with a large segment of the public, and it severely divided the country along partisan lines at a time that it needed national unity. More important, the decision required a keen sense of realism about Americas weak position in the world, in. contrast to the idealism and sentimental attachment that Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and others had toward republican France.

What were these realistic considerations that motivated Washington's policy?

First, as a military man he knew that the United States was a weak country, with no navy and only a small militia force. Although France had a large navy and powerful army, the British Navy dominated the seas and most of the shipping lanes to North America. If Britain eventually defeated France and the United States had supported the French cause, Washington calculated that the London government might renew the recent war with the United States and attack south along the Canadian border as well as the Ohio territory. He feared the disintegration of the union if the country became involved in the European war.

Second, Washington and his Federalist colleagues, especially Alexander Hamilton, were in sympathy with Great Britain in its war with France, whose radical revolutionaries they viewed as unpredictable extremists bent on destroying the international order in Europe. Hamilton argued in a newspaper article that the United States had no legal or moral obligation to the new regime in France because it had overthrown the king with whom America had concluded the 1778 treaty of alliance.

Later, in his farewell address to the nation in 1796, Washington defended the government's decision to remain neutral in the European war: "With me, a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speking, the command of its own fortune."

In that same farewell letter Washington made his famous statements about alliances with other countries. Here are his words: "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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop {emhasis added}....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."

Finally, the president said: "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....Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." {emphasis added}

Nowhere in his farewell address did the president use the words "isolationism" or "entangling alliances." Those were terms coined later by politicians to justify American noninvolvement in European affairs after the First World War. Our first president's view was that America should establish good relations with all countries, especially where commerce was concerned, and that it should not make military guarantees except in "extraordinary emergencies."

* * *

Let us now move forward two hundred years and examine American foreign policy priorities at the close of the 20th century, and see whether George Washington's cautious approach to foreign policy issues has relevance today.

Most people today think that Washingtons counsel against "permanent alliances" is simply not applicable to todays world, with nuclear missiles that can destroy our country in less than thirty minutes from launching, and with instantaneous communications around the globe. That is, of course, a valid point. But the larger question that Washington raised is this: does the United States need to be involved in alliances, i.e. guarantees, with so many nations around the world in order to feel secure and to prosper economically? On this point, there is growing debate in the country on whether the United States in the 21st century should be what some call a "world policeman." Is it necessary, many ask, to go beyond our military commitments to NATO and Japan, two important alliances that resulted from the Cold War, in order to feel secure in North America?

Two fundamental questions are involved here. The first is how the United States defines its national interests in the 21st century, specifically what we should view as "vital interests" which may require the use of military forces. The second is the process by which our government decides which issues are vital, and which ones are less than vital and should require political and economic measures, but not military force.

The U.S. government has become less cautious in the 1990s about when and where its forces should be used in hostile situations. I cite several cases to make the point: Somalia in 1992-93, which ended in failure to stop its tribal warfare; Haiti in 1994, when U.S. troops restored an elected president to power but whose government made no progress toward building democracy and improving living standards; Bosnia in 1995-96, where ethnic cleansing was stopped, but no progress has been made on rebuilding a multiethnic society; and, most recently, Kosovo where the United States and NATO intervened on the territory of a sovereign state, against its will, in order to provide autonomy for a minority population. Even in the case of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, where the violation of international law was clear and the economic stake was large, the result was that, although Iraq was defeated, its dictator, Saddam Hussein, remains in power and has, since then, tied down thousands of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf area, and Turkey

Were George Washington alive during the 20th century, we might speculate on how he would view these and other major American foreign policy decisions. I believe he would have approved of the U.S. intervention in World War II to prevent Nazi Germany from dominating all of Europe and much of the Middle East. He would also, I think, have viewed the Soviet Union an equally menacing threat to Europe and agreed that a North Atlantic alliance was necessary to meet an "extraordinar emergency" (his words) in which the United States had an enormous stake. He would probably have agreed too that Japan, which was occupied by U.S. forces following its surrender in 1945, needed protection because of its strategic location in relation to the Soviet Union and to Communist China.

But what else would this prudent president have considered to be vital to the security and economic well-being of the United States? Canada and Mexico would, of course, qualify because of their proximity and strong commercial ties to the United States. Washington would probably include the islands of the West Indies, and certainly the Panama Canal, at least for sixty years after its completion in 1914. But once the United States had a large two-ocean Navy and carriers that could not use the waterway, he might have agreed with a Pentagon assessment that the canal was no longer a vital strategic asset and might be turned over to Panama with appropriate security guarantees.

These would have been among the less difficult decisions for George Washington to accept, were he living in our times. But what he surely would not understand, let alone accept, would be the recently enunciated notion that the United States should use military forces in peacekeeping missions anywhere in the world where despots intimidate their neighbors and/or brutalize their own populations. The idea that America should act as a "world policeman" would be repugnant to him. I suspect that he would oppose our current president and secretary of state in their idealist rhetoric and actions, which is a throwback to the idealism espoused by Jefferson and Madison, to send U.S. military forces anywhere to uphold justice and human rights. I suspect that our first president would also have had difficulty accepting George Bush's courageous decision in 1991 to launch a war against Iraq in order to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf oil, even though he might have appreciated the commercial interests at stake.

George Washington, were he living in our times, would agree, I think, that the United States continues to have a vital interest in defending Europe and Japan against aggressive foreign powers because they have great strategic and economic importance. Yet, he might question the wisdom of continuing these formal alliances because, he might say, the Cold War is over and no "extraordinary emergency," to use his words, now exists. I suggest that in the current situation, he might instead favor a policy which the British in the 19th century called "splendid isolation" to describe a policy in which it avoided binding commitments but retained freedom to use force whenever its interests were endangered. This would not be a prudent policy today for the United States. But George Washington might reasonably ask in 1999: Why, as there re no current military threats to North America, Europe or Japan, should the United States continue to maintain 100,000 forces in Europe, 100,000 in East Asia, and another 8-9,000 in the Persian Gulf and Turkey?

Another major consideration today involves the manner in which the U.S. government decides that an international issue is indeed vital and must be defended by armed force. On this point, I am less sure how George Washington would decide if he were living today. On the one hand our first president was a staunch defender of presidential authority in the face of congressional attempts to infringe it. He opposed Jeffersons and Madison's view that Congress should have debated and issued the neutrality proclamation of 1793. And he unilaterally decided to send John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain and persuade it to evacuate its outposts south of the Canadian border. He submitted Jay's controversial treaty to Congress for ratification but did not feel obliged to consult with it beforehand. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether Washington would have used the armed forces outside the United States without a congressional declaration of war. He was fully aware that the Constitutional Convention had debated whether to give Congress or the president command of the armed forces. It decided finally to vest that power in the chief executive. Being a prudent president, George Washington would have understood that if he could not persuade Congress of the rightness of his decision of engage in warfare, his policy could not be properly implemented.

Today we have a situation where no war has been declared since 1941 but large numbers of American troops have fought and died in Korea and Vietnam, and some in places like Lebanon and Somalia because the president decided that a vital American interest was at stake. Harry Truman based the intervention in Korea on obligations under the United Nations Charter; Lyndon Johnson justified the intervention in Vietnam on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which Congress passed in 1964 without any expectation that it would lead to a large war in Southeast Asia; Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Beirut in 1982 to stop the fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces: and George Bush sent troops to Somalia at the end of 1992 for humanitarian reasons.

George Washington would have agreed, I think, with President Bush's insistence in January 1991 that Congress must debate and vote on his proposal, that the United States should lead a military operation to liberate Kuwait and force Iraq to cease its threats in the Persian Gulf. Congress was reluctant to vote on this divisive issue, but after a thorough debate both the Senate and House of Representatives gave their consent to war. It was a fine precedent that ought to be followed whenever a large military deployment is planned.

As the United States enters a new century as the only superpower in the world, we need to think more clearly about what price we as a country are willing to pay to shape the world according to our democratic principles and our set of values. Too often we look at the idealistic objectives to be achieved, but give too little attention to the probable costs. Our first president would have insisted that his Cabinet carefully calculate all the potential risks and costs of a foreign policy crisis, especially if military forces were contemplated. He would then have consulted with congressional leaders to be reasonably certain that he would have political support in the country. Presidents who act without careful calculation of the costs and risks in foreign policy may bring great harm to the countrys internal cohesion, as we learned from the painful Vietnam experience.

In sum, George Washington was a wise and prudent president who carefully steered the nation through perilous times. And I suggest that his cautious foreign policy has much to recommend it as we enter the 21st century.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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