Washington’s Words Worth Recalling

Americans need to recall the wise and prudent teachings of George Washington, America’s premier founder in war and peace, before they embrace an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, far removed from that proffered by our first president.

Going well beyond the wholesome desire to target, capture, or kill terrorists wherever and whenever they can be found, many on the Right and Left hail the transformation of pre-modern or conflicted societies throughout the world into democratic political systems, through force of arms if necessary, while leapfrogging over the necessary cultural and economic preconditions which allow for New England town-hall meetings and parliaments to flourish.

Even if a preemptive or preventive war passes muster under the just war doctrine, it still may not be prudent given the iron law of unforeseen consequences and the potential costs in blood and treasure. Our current dilemma in Iraq highlights this truth. George Washington provides a useful corrective to imprudent and overly moralistic military interventions.

George Washington published his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, near the end of his second term as president.

Washington composed this address (“the disinterested warnings of a parting friend”) with the assistance of Hamilton and Madison. It was never publicly delivered, having been first published in a Philadelphia paper and then in others throughout the country.

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all…,” said the Father of our country. But in executing this plan “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.”

For Washington a nation which indulges towards another “an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.” It is a slave to its animosity or its affection which, in turn, can “lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Sustained animosity or antipathy between nations leads to ill-will and resentment and “sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy,” said Washington.

Washington cautioned against “a passionate attachment of one nation for another” which facilitates “the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists,” drawing the former into the quarrels and wars of the latter. Such attachments “are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.”

“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,” maintained the first president. By all means, extend our commercial relations, but in a manner with “as little political connections as possible.” “So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

“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 not at liberty to do it, for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing arrangements,” declared the indispensable man.

Washington put great store in America’s “detached and distant situation” which “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.” He was, however, mindful of unexpected threats and challenges. While insisting that we always keep ourselves “on a respectably defensive posture,” he recognized that “we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

Many of us born after World War II (an “extraordinary emergency” for sure), who came to maturity during the Cold War, were dismissive of George Washington’s Farewell Address as merely a useful guide for a fledgling nation. This patronizing attitude was often an excuse for not reading, much less studying, the Address, and appreciating its compelling reasoning, prudential judgment, and towering rhetoric.

It is always risky to project the thinking of a historic figure on present or future circumstances. There is an existential component to the application of sound principles to current contingencies. Nor is it fruitful to speculate as to whether the Father of our country would be a realist or a neoconservative, an internationalist or an isolationist.

Yet it is safe to say that an activist, interventionist foreign policy would not be the default position of any government claiming to operate in the spirit of George Washington. Such a policy would be conservative in a non-ideological sense.

A government pursuing a Washingtonian policy would not presume to control events or the destiny of other nations. It would practice a more humble foreign policy, recalling the classic definition of humility as the recognition of the truth of one’s strengths and limitations.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

G. Tracy Mehan, III, a consultant in Arlington, VA, served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is an Adjunct Professor at George Mason University School of Law.

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