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Thursday, September 1

U.S. President George Washington's foreign policy advice

The outspoken Lord Oakeshott, Britain's former Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, did not receive the news in philosophical fashion when he learned the latest figure on the cost of the Afghan War to taxpayers in the United Kingdom.

"That's £500 for every taxpayer at a time when the public and household purses are stretched to breaking point," he snapped. "Britain would be a far safer and stronger country if we spent this money fighting gang warfare and illiteracy. The outlook is bleak when a fifth of our young people cannot read, write or add up properly ... virtually unemployable in a 21st-century developed society."

Yes, well, Oakeshott is up against the British foreign office, which has been in hog heaven since the advent of the 'Arab Spring.'

"We are going to be working at this for the rest of our lives," announced Foreign Secretary William Hague, after explaining that re-ordering the Middle East wasn't a video game one could simply walk away from when one got bored.

My reaction to learning we'd be working on the Arab Spring for the rest of our lives was to blurt, "What you mean 'we,' Kemosabe?"

Then I remembered the T-shirt message I'd once seen in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC: "Oh no! I'm becoming my mother!"

It's a little late in the day for any American to complain that Washington is becoming Whitehall, but as we head into the Labor Day holiday Americans who find themselves asking how the USA got so entangled in so many tangled foreign situations might do well to read the foreign policy portion of George Washington's farewell address as president.

The address, delivered in the form of a letter to the public, was meant to serve as a road map for the young nation and so it covers many topics -- including the perils of going into debt -- but below I've excerpted just the quotes pertaining to Washington's general advice on foreign relations.

(Other than inserting a few paragraph breaks, in a nod to internet readers' preference for short paragraphs, and taking the liberty of adding and deleting a few commas and modernizing the spelling of 'privilege,' I've left the letter as it was originally written.)

Now one may argue, and I think the French at least would argue, that Washington's decision while president to normalize trade relations with Britain at the time Britain and France went to war was not exactly a model of neutrality regarding European affairs. But the decision was made prior to Washington's farewell address, which distilled his hard-won wisdom about matters of state.

For a time Washington's advice on foreign relations, which was neither isolationist nor against temporary alliances in matters of "extraordinary emergencies," was generally followed by subsequent early U.S. presidential administrations. Then the advice was relegated to the dustbin of American history. And here we are today, facing the prospect of yet more foreign entanglements that will last us the rest of our lives.

And while one could muster an ocean of words to justify every U.S. intervention in the affairs of other countries and every long-standing U.S. alliance, and argue that America's gravest problems today are not the consequence of its foreign relations policies over decades, all those words crash against a singular rock-hard reality: The more the United States has ignored Washington's advice, the weaker the United States has become internally.

With that observation I bid you goodbye for a time. I'm determined to get in a few more days vacation then I must deal with personal matters before I can return to blogging. I'll try to check in on the morning of September 5 and if not, on September 15. Until then, I wish Pundita readers, and all fellow Americans, the best.

From the Farewell Address (pages 3 and 4)
President George Washington
September 19, 1796

Friends, and Fellow-Citizens:

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? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.

Who can doubt that in the course of time and things the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human Nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

In the execution of such a 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.

The 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 to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.

Antipathy in one Nation against another, disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate envenomed, and bloody contests.

The Nation, prompted by ill will and resentment, sometimes impels to War the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the Nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the Liberty, of Nations has been the victim.

So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favourite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and Wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification:

It leads also to concessions to the favourite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld:

And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favourite Nation) facility to betray, or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation a commendable deference for public opinion or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption or infatuation.

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent Patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public Councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful, Nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.

But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. 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.

Real Patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favourite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

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.

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships, or enmities:

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; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice?

'Tis 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, for let me not be understood as capable of patronising infidelity to existing engagements (I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy).

I repeat it therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all Nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our Commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand: neither seeking nor granting exclusive favours or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of Commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing with Powers so disposed; in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our Merchants, and to enable the Government to support them; conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view, that 'tis folly in one Nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its Independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favours and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.

There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favours from Nation to Nation. 'Tis an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.


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