Our endless presidential campaign has led some citizens to shut their eyes and ears to the cacophony. However, recent events have reminded many people about our serious differences over national policies and priorities. The adage is that presidential elections are decided on peace and prosperity, especially for an incumbent; and while economic issues have dominated recent debate, suddenly there is room to discuss national security and American foreign policy. The recent terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is now a central political issue. Some voices insist this episode poses serious questions about the Obama administration’s foreign and national security policies, while others insist that a fairly minor episode is being sensationalized for partisan reasons.

How will these issues be discussed between President Obama and Governor Romney during Monday’s debate specifically focused on foreign policy? Serious citizens should pay attention.

To help guide the thoughtful citizen, I offer here comments about the current context of this debate, drawing on George Washington and with an eye toward first principles. While Washington often is considered only a figurehead among our founders, he was, in fact, the single most important leader regarding issues of national defense and foreign policy. He deliberately designed his “Farewell Address” (1796) to offer lasting principles for guiding his beloved republic, including advice and principles on how America should navigate the ever-challenging, often-dangerous arena of international affairs.

Current Debates and a Continued Need for First Principles 

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Governor Romney recently delivered his first speech in many months exclusively devoted to foreign and national security policies. Even if Americans often like to forget about foreign affairs and national security—all the more so after eleven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with an urge to “come home” and focus on our own troubles—the terrible events in Libya and the attacks on American embassies in other parts of the Islamic world have jolted us back to a sober reality. We are the world’s largest and most influential political, economic, and military power. Our global presence and influence is a consequence of American policies and cultural characteristics that stretch back at least a century, and even earlier.

In other words, we have not left the world alone, and the world is not going to leave us alone. Much of the life that we find familiar and comfortable—of global commerce and relative prosperity at home, relatively cheap energy, the internet and social media, freedom to travel or learn about the globe—these and more are products of American power and influence. Can they be sustained and enjoyed without American international leadership? And, how serious will our citizenry and our leaders be in thinking about our foreign and defense policies to cope with, or shape, this era?

In the past four years both parties have responded to the war-weariness of the electorate. Many Democrats insist that America’s principles require us to respect the views of other states and cultures; we must beware of doing more harm than good by proclaiming ourselves the world’s leader, so we must wind down the current wars and avoid further ones. Many Republicans echo the view that resisted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s assertive American internationalism—often referred to as the Taft wing, occasionally as neo-isolationists—and warn that America should focus on its own defense and interests rather than affairs abroad.

Yet voices still exist within both parties that defend American internationalism and a strong presence in both hard power (military and intelligence capabilities) and soft power (diplomacy, aid, and cultural influence) throughout the world; they particularly urge leadership regarding our important interests and ideals—in the Middle East and East Asia, most controversially.

This range of debate, and these kinds of perplexities, date at least to George Washington’s first term as our first president. Politics usually has not stopped at the water’s edge, either in good times or in crisis. After the Cold War ended two decades ago, America was the superpower with unrivaled military, economic, and cultural might, but we also saw the dawn of a global struggle with terrorism—a global hegemon, yet beset by shadowy threats and unique burdens. Now we face cyber-attacks that could disrupt or seriously damage our communications and power systems. How should we address the persistence of global terrorist networks, and the persistence of powerful authoritarian regimes in Russia and China? How should we win, or responsibly end, the war in Afghanistan? How should we respond to, or shape, events in the ongoing revolution in Arab lands hopefully deemed the Arab Spring? Should we draw a red line to stop a revolutionary Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, and enforce that with military might? Is Europe a capable ally, worthy of our support?

Our debates over the war on terror and other pressing issues have become all the more rancorous in recent decades, given the bad influence of academia and intellectuals who tend to reduce international affairs to doctrines. Realism tells us it’s all about power and interests; liberal-internationalism tells us it’s all about moral principles, international law, and global institutions; the “democratic peace” school urges democracy promotion; neo-isolationists tell us to stop meddling abroad; the list could go on. These doctrines tend to cut us off from the full balance of our first principles, and from a fresh view of new developments. Moreover, they often yield not candid deliberation but contests between armed camps.

A return to first principles may help us to chart policies and strategies more consonant with the better angels of our history and national character, and with our justifiable interests. America was the first polity in history to be deliberately founded on ideas. It would be odd to think that our subsequent rise to global dominance in both hard and soft power somehow justifies amnesia about our original aims.

Washington’s Five Principles for American Foreign and Security Policy

In order to return to first principles, and especially to our founding general and president, we first have to remove a few obstacles. During the Cold War the great scholar Hans Morgenthau urged us to see Washington as a realist, advising consideration only of national power and interests. Washington more typically labors under two graver mis-readings: that his Farewell Address and other writings avow isolationism or passivity, and, that he was just a figurehead. Fortunately, several scholars in recent decades have explained why uncertain times call for revisiting this statesman who was no simple realist or isolationist, who was an intelligent leader both at home and abroad, and who offered sound principles on right, might, and diplomacy that long were cited as the guiding ideals of our republic.

Washington closed his career with a final address to “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens” that he hoped would endure—offering for “solemn contemplation” and “frequent review” principles he thought “all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.” Leading statesmen and thinkers consulted his Farewell Address up through Henry Cabot Lodge during the First World War, and Morgenthau cited it in the Cold War. Washington’s deeds and words are no cookbook of recipes for today, since the main lessons of the address and the career informing it are architectonic, not specific: America must base its security policy on principle and prudence rather than on power or popularity, and its strength must defend a decent republican politics rather than conquest or glory.

The address encapsulates a comprehensive approach to foreign policy, security, and war, derived from Washington’s decades of service devoted to liberty, constitutionalism, and political moderation. One can glean from the Address a set of guidelines—five broad, overlapping principles for strategic thinking:

1. The priority of a decent republic, rooted in natural justice and guided by transcendent truths about humankind—the end or aim of all national policies;

2. The subordination of military to civil authority, and avoidance of either militarism or weakness—what we now might call a principle of peace through strength;

3. Balancing liberty and security through a complex, moderate constitution that divides responsibility for foreign and defense policy—thus striving for a high-minded national consensus on the best means to our ends;

4. The need for statesmanship rather than mere politics within such a complex order, especially in a presidency balancing deliberation, prudence, and flexibility in both grand strategy and tactics;

5. The search for a grand strategy that balances interest, independence, and justice in foreign affairs through prudent recourse to just war principles and the classic right of nations.

Washington was a practical man of policies and action, but he insisted that these be chosen in light of sound principles and informed judgment. Those seeking concrete ideas on pressing issues of the day, especially during an election, may think these principles vague or useless. Washington knew from hard experience, however, that republics typically falter on strategic thinking, instead seizing on short term problems, adopting favored doctrines of the day, or following popular impulses. He doubtless would admit that we face massive and new problems today. He might remind us, however, that for over two decades he defeated a superpower and managed an international coalition, forged trust among members of his own federation, and navigated ruthless great-power politics—and all with vastly fewer resources at his disposal than America can marshal today.

A closer look at these five principles—the aim of Monday’s essay—can help thoughtful citizens sort through contending views of candidates and campaigns to assess what the next president and Congress should do regarding our important national challenges.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone, and not of the US Government.