George Washington’s Legacy as a Foreign Policy Guide

 
 

Washington’s life suggests that prudence, flexibility, and moderation both in personal and national pursuits of power should guide our leaders in their foreign policy strategies.

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In Friday’s essay I introduced five principles for foreign policy established by our first president’s example. Today I explore these principles in greater depth and suggest applications for our twenty-first-century context.

1) Natural Rights and Providence: Pillars of Defense Policy

The Declaration of Independence carefully justifies a war to protect basic natural rights and constitutional government, as a last resort; it also specifies unacceptable forms of warfare concerning civilians, property, and prisoners. This spirit of constitutional republicanism informed Washington’s General Orders of July 9, 1776, which mandated that the Declaration be read to the troops so that they might under­stand “the grounds & reasons” of the war. Washington also made appeals to divine Providence part of his public statements on war. The same General Orders, for example, provided for chaplains and religious services, and called upon the “blessing and protection of Heaven.” And after the war, Washington’s writings always cited the guidance of transcendent ideals, albeit in careful, non-sectarian language. His words suggested that a republic should neither ignore the dynamic between governmental and private morality nor adopt religious zealotry in its policies, at home or abroad.

2) Civil-Military Relations: Basic Tenet of a Stable, Strong Republic

Throughout his decades in public life, from colonial Virginia to establishing a sound national constitution by the 1790s, Washington noted the dangers of both militarism and weakness. He established the republican principle of civil-military relations, which many nations of the world still do not enjoy: a professional military is necessary to protect liberty, but its power can be checked by subordination to laws and civil authority.

Washington himself repeatedly resisted temptations to greater power both during and after the war. In quelling an incipient officer coup against civilian authority that arose at headquarters in Newburgh, New York, in 1783, Washington argued for subordination to the government and then sealed it with a dramatic remark while reading a letter from Congress: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.” The once-rebellious officers, some in tears, unanimously reaffirmed allegiance to civil authority. The main doctrinal manual of the U.S. Army today opens with a reminder of this episode. We still need armed forces with this professional ethos, and leaders—both civilian and military—who will use our power to serve higher principles even at personal or political risk.

3) Moderation: Primary Virtue in Foreign and Defense Policy

Washington is no longer given much credit for being the single most important leader of the constitutional reform movement that, from 1783 to 1789, produced a balanced government capable of handling a nation’s affairs, including war and peace. The great themes of Washington’s presidency under the new Constitution he had sought were that executive power was safe for republicanism, and that constitutional government, not populism or parties, should guide the way through domestic and foreign trials. His general principle guiding foreign and defense policy is moderation, understood as the sober balance among ideas or actions advocated by Montesquieu—the modern philosopher most keen to instruct statesmen in practical judgment.

This moderation is familiar to us today in the more obvious elements of Montesquieuan political science, such as the complexity of viewpoints and balancing of interests inherent in separation of powers and federalism. But there must be the right spirit in the statesmen who will effectively lead such a complex order. Washington had the intellectual confidence to consult a wide range of intelligent advisers, and then to rely upon one over another as he saw fit. He insisted that fashioning sound foreign and defense policies requires proper deliberation and judgment, within and across constitutional branches, about particular situations—a complex, messy process in a constitutional republic, but a path of political moderation and sobriety that avoids extremes of doctrine or momentary passion.

4) Prudence and Flexibility in Executive Power

Washington’s complex approach to formulating foreign and defense policy featured a chief executive who balanced consultation, prudential judgment, secrecy, speed, and flexibility in both grand strategy and tactics. His advocacy of practical judgment over doctrines or “isms” would be merely Machiavellian if the aims guiding that judgment were immoral or amoral, or if the ends were thought to justify any means. The pattern throughout his career, however, was to avoid either an amoral expediency or an impractical moralism.

Washington, like Lincoln and Churchill after him, was guided not by abstract moral principles alone but by prudence that connects larger moral ends with particular actions and policies. As general and president he oversaw secret intelligence missions and other covert operations while stopping short of ruthlessness. In 1835 Tocqueville praised his ability to discern a sound policy in the 1790s when the French Revolution and Europe’s great power contest unleashed a storm of ideas and passions upon the American body politic. A statesman’s hand at the helm was needed, and Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America that “nothing less than the inflexible character of Washington” could check popular opinion “to prevent war from being declared on England.” Tocqueville noted: “The majority pronounced against his policy; now the entire people approves it. If the Constitution and public favor had not given the direction of the external affairs of the state to Washington, it is certain that the nation would have done then precisely what it condemns today.”

Washington’s statesmanship is a high bar to meet, but citizens, pundits, and scholars should judge particular leaders and policies against this broad standard.

5) Theories of Just War and Natural Law: Guiding Sources for Grand Strategy

As president, Washington’s main policies sought an adequate federal army and navy; peace with Indian nations and defense of existing American settlements by force if necessary, but not expansion; and protection of the republic not only from European great powers but also from two rival doctrines about relations with them. In pursuit of these aims, he adopted neither the realism of Hamilton nor the liberal internationalism or idealism advocated by Madison and Jefferson in germ, later by Woodrow Wilson more fully.

Instead, Washington blended principles from the just war tradition developed by classical philosophy and Christianity with the modern natural law and international law theory developed by Grotius, Pufendorf, and Montesquieu. These minds led Washington to apply moderation by balancing the growth of military power with limits to war grounded by natural rights and basic international rights.

The great test of Washington’s principle of moderation stemmed from the upheaval of the French Revolution and the radical democratic theory France sought to impress upon the world. His 1793 Neutrality Proclamation and 1795 treaty with Britain (the Jay Treaty) were to him the best options—or least-worst options—for securing both justice and national interest. Throughout partisan turmoil he defended the Constitution’s principle that foreign policy should bow neither to popular passions nor abstract creeds but should be debated by the branches somewhat insulated from popular opinion, the Senate and president. In an address to Congress he defended the “prudence and moderation” that had obtained and ratified the Treaty, and sought an honorable peace as the basis for America’s future prosperity and strength.

Washington’s maxim “to steer clear of permanent Alliances” is among the best-known ideas of the Farewell Address. Many accounts of his foreign policy confuse it with Jefferson’s later maxim about “entangling alliances,” which fosters the erroneous view that the Address launches a doctrine of isolationism. Instead, his main principle was that a secure, independent nation should surrender to neither interest nor abstract justice, neither passions nor fixed doctrines, but must balance and find moderation among these human propensities. In this prudential spirit, he rises above current disputes to state a general principle of a grand strategy: “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 speaking, command of its own fortunes.”

His main concern was that a nation be independent enough to act wisely and justly; the fundamental principle was to be able to “choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.” He long had advocated provision for “the national security”; Theodore Roosevelt praised the maxim from Washington’s First Annual Message that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” He thus calls America to “observe good faith and justice towards all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?” He endorses the utilitarian maxim that “honesty is always the best policy,” but also urges America to “give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”

Republican Prudence for Our Globalized World

In the hope that these principles drawn from Washington’s legacy might spur greater engagement with our founding principles today, I conclude by floating a few suggestions about their relevance for our twenty-first-century dilemmas. Such counsels of republican prudence may seem platitudes—they don’t immediately provide policy advice on Iran, or cyber security, or defense spending—but in their way they are deeply relevant for sorting through policy options and debates.

First, we should observe the great success achieved by placing principle above power, by sticking to moderate policies amid partisan claims, and by carefully matching means to higher ends. The statesman widely held to be the Founding Father, in his own moment of dominance, resisted both the fog of power and the thrill of partisanship by sticking to the virtues and aims that had earned the public trust. Washington’s first principle—adherence to republicanism, natural justice, and transcendent truths about humankind—also makes him confident, in his Farewell Address, that America will be “at no distant period, a great Nation.” Washington’s other principles, and all his policies, rest on this foundation. If such discipline brought about the founding of America, and was at least partially adhered to by his successors as we rose to world power, on what grounds should we ignore it now? Are compromises with this principle—and Washington knew that human affairs always require compromises to some degree—justified by larger support for this principle itself?

Second, his insistence that we avoid both militarism and weakness implicates a range of issues from our defense force structure to public and private diplomacy. Washington’s advice to balance the claims of republican liberty and national defense arises in part from his awareness that the Romans lost their republic to an empire. Patient diplomacy must always be equal to, or supersede, the claims of pride and power in making national policy. This is not to say Washington would place a primary trust in international institutions or law, or in utopias of perpetual or democratic peace, but that we should maintain perspective and balance about our own temptations and motives as well as those of allies and adversaries.

Third, Washington’s specific constitutional ideas also touch policy at home and abroad. We should affirm a complex structure for formulating foreign and security policy as best for balancing liberty and security, and vet policies through both the executive and legislative branches—seeking not the lowest common denominator but the highest possible consensus on means and aims. Washington hoped his moderate principles would “prevent our Nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the Destiny of Nations,” but this presupposed that vigilance about both necessary defenses and the perils of war would animate all elements of the complex political order he founded.

Fourth, Washington’s counsel that executives should employ consultations, prudence, and flexibility in both grand strategy and tactics is difficult to achieve today, since we embrace populism, partisanship, and permanent campaigning more than the founders ever could. One maxim both Thucydides and Washington might offer is to resist the temptation to let current dominance and superior technology narrow our thinking about whether, when, or how to wage war, or about what the consequences or complications might be when a battle or missile strike is long over. Nor, at the other extreme, should we think we can hide behind a wall of technology and security while problems fester and allies falter abroad. We should not confuse Washington’s counsel of independence and moderation for a doctrine of passivity.

Should we generally adopt American internationalism and an assertive presence of both hard and soft power abroad in order to serve our interests and justice, or adopt an emphasis on diplomacy and international law, or a retreat from supposed over-commitments while using hard power only to address glaring, imminent threats? Washington’s counsels do not easily fit this typical menu of discrete, rival doctrines. A Washingtonian view might observe, for example, that a balanced policy of non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and democracy promotion is animated both by interest and benevolent justice—an enlightened self-interest of inextricably blended motives. Such a blend is as characteristic of American self-understanding as Washington hoped it would be.

Our challenges indeed are new in many ways, but the highest consensus of the founders still is the general aim proclaimed by all American presidents and parties—to benefit mankind and ourselves by respecting, as Washington stated, “the obligation[s] which justice and humanity impose on every Nation.” He stated in his Farewell Address that international affairs always requires “temporary alliances” and engagement with foreign nations, while America should try to “cultivate peace and harmony” with all. He might agree that the complexities of our age and our power now compel engagement to a great degree, such as our enduring leadership of the NATO alliance—since America could retain independent judgment for balancing interest and justice while leading (rather than being subordinate in) an alliance. Indeed, his advice on “permanent alliances” concerned doctrinaire thinking as much as alliances, since “permanent, inveterate” antipathies or attachments lay behind such commitments. He instead sought the independence and flexibility necessary to find a sound blend of the possible, the expedient, and the dutiful.

Specific debates on a preemptive strike, or a regime change, or a humanitarian intervention always must be pulled up to that broader calculus, and there is no codebook in the sky that captures just what is right or what will succeed. Washington’s principles thus are difficult and elude snappy slogans, but counsel moderation as we debate contending policy views—calling for both the moral principle to stand up for right and the humility to check one’s own power, to lead alone if necessary but with allies and by persuasion whenever possible. It is precisely the gravity of the threats and opportunities facing America today that justifies recurrence to the thought of such great statesmen as Washington, even if our novel circumstances require new applications of their principles and prudence to our problems.

Paul Carrese is a professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone, and not of the U.S. Government.

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