The Once and Future Foreign Policy

Most of us who grew up in the 20th century probably assume that the twin pillars of our foreign policy, dollar diplomacy and big stick diplomacy, are America’s traditional methods of international relations. Not so. At her founding, and for a good many years afterward, America maintained a policy that (in the technical parlance of international diplomacy) was called “minding our own damned business.”

In President Washington’s farewell address he reminded Americans, “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.” In his inaugural address, with his usual eloquence, President Thomas Jefferson advised that America should seek “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Did this mean America was afraid to wield a “big stick” when needed? Not at all. The Barbary Wars (1801-1805, 1815) and the War of 1812 demonstrate that when America had clear and immediate threats to it’s people or tangible interests it would defend them.

America retained this policy of non-interventionism roughly until the Spanish-American War (1898). Someday, when the federal government can no longer afford to maintain a global empire because of the weight of its own indebtedness, this may again become the de facto foreign policy.

The best articulation of traditional American non-interventionism is John Quincy Adams’ Independence Day speech to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1821, when Adams was serving as U.S. Secretary of State. His speech explains this premise passionately and poetically. Here it is:

John Quincy Adams on U.S. Foreign Policy (July 4, 1821)

And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?

Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.

She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.

She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.

She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.

She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her 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.

She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She 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 standard 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 be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….

[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.


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