The Fourth of July weekend gave me time to consider events in Iraq and Ukraine, U.S.-German relations and the Mexican borderland and immigration. I did so in the context of the founding of the United States, asking myself if America has strayed from the founders’ intent with regard to foreign policy. Many people note Thomas Jefferson’s warning that the United States should pursue “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none,” taking that as the defining strategy of the founders. I think it is better to say that was the defining wish of the founders but not one that they practiced to extremes.
As we know, U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to decrease U.S. entanglements in the world. Ironically, many on the right want to do the same. There is a common longing for an America that takes advantage of its distance from the rest of the world to avoid excessive involvement in the outside world. Whether Jefferson’s wish can constitute a strategy for the United States today is a worthy question for a July 4, but there is a profounder issue: Did his wish ever constitute American strategy?
Entangled in Foreign Affairs at Birth
The United States was born out of a deep entanglement in international affairs, extracting its independence via the founders’ astute exploitation of the tensions between Britain and France. Britain had recently won the Seven Years’ War with France, known as the French and Indian War in the colonies, where then-Col. George Washington led forces from Virginia. The British victory didn’t end hostilities with France, which provided weapons, ammunition and other supplies to the American Revolutionaries, on occasion landed troops in support of American forces and whose navy served a decisive role in securing the final U.S. victory at Yorktown.
America’s geopolitical position required that it continue to position itself in terms of this European struggle. The United States depended on trade with Europe, and particularly Britain. Revolution did not change the mutual dependence of the United States and Britain. The French Revolution of 1789, however, posed a deep dilemma for the United States. That later revolution was anti-monarchist and republican, appearing to share the values of the United States.
This forced the United States into a dilemma it has continued to face ever since. Morally, the United States appeared obligated to support France and its revolution. But as mentioned, economically, it depended on trade with the British. The Jeffersonian Democrats wanted to support the French. The Federalist Party, cautious of British naval power and aware of American dependence on trade, supported an alignment with Britain. Amid much tension, vituperation and intrigue, the United States ultimately aligned with its previous enemy, Britain.
When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he did not reverse U.S. policy. By then, the French Revolution had grown vicious, and Napoleon had come to power in 1799. Besides, Jefferson knew as well as Washington had that the United States required trade relations with Britain. At the same time, Jefferson was more aware than others that the United States was a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic and Appalachians. With minimal north-south transportation and dependence on the sea, the United States needed strategic depth.
The conflict between France and Britain was intensifying once again, and by 1803, Napoleon was planning an invasion of Britain. Napoleon’s finances were in shambles, a fact Jefferson took advantage of to solve America’s strategic problem: He negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. Although this strengthened France against Britain, Jefferson was confident that the British would not be sufficiently displeased to break off trade relations.
Jefferson thus used the Franco-British conflict to take control of the continent to the Rocky Mountains, gaining control of the Missouri-Mississippi river complex, which would serve as the highway for Midwestern agricultural products to Europe. The Federalists condemned him for violating the Constitution by not obtaining prior congressional authorization. He probably did just that, but either way he had managed to expel the French from North America and achieve strategic depth for the United States, all without triggering a crisis with Britain. For a man who didn’t care for entanglements, it was a tangled, but brilliant, achievement.
Moreover, Jefferson waged two Middle Eastern wars against what were then called the Barbary pirates. He was actually waging war against the Ottoman Empire, and in particular, the Barbary States, which comprised the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis and the independent state of Morocco. They had claimed the right to regulate commerce in the region, seizing ships flying flags that hadn’t made treaties with them and holding the crews for ransom. The Americans had been protected before independence because they had treaties with Britain, but the treaties did not apply to the independent United States. Rather than negotiate a treaty, Jefferson chose to go to war, fighting on the same Libyan soil that is so discussed today: The Marines’ Hymn, which references the shores of Tripoli, is talking about Benghazi, among other places.
The geopolitical reality was that the United States could not maintain its economy on domestic trade alone. It had to trade, and to trade it had to have access to the North Atlantic. Without that access it would fall into a depression. The idea that there would be no entangling alliances was nice in theory. But in reality, in order to trade, it had to align with the dominant naval power in the Atlantic, namely, the British. Self-sufficiency was a fantasy, and avoiding entanglement was impossible.
The War of 1812 and the Monroe Doctrine
All of this culminated in the War of 1812. By then, the Napoleonic wars were raging, and the British were hard-pressed to maintain their blockade of the European continent for lack of manpower. Its interest in blockading Napoleon led London to try to prevent the United States from trading with anyone but Britain. The British lack of manpower led London to order the seizure of U.S. ships and the impressment of British-born sailors into the Royal Navy. The British were also allied with Indian tribes to the west, which could have led to a reversal of the achievements of the Louisiana Purchase.
The British were not particularly interested in the Americans. Instead, it was their obsession with the French that led them to restrain trade and impress seaman. Their policy of allying with the Indians and expanding Canadian power was, however, a residual result of their distrust of the United States, and it could well have become a major focus of their follow-on strategy after the defeat of Napoleon.
The United States could not tolerate having the British control trade routes in the North Atlantic. Nor could it live with the British maneuvers in North America. Regardless of desires for peace with everyone and the avoidance of war, the United States accordingly declared war on Britain. Although the war resulted in the burning of Washington, the ultimate strategic outcome of the war is generally regarded as satisfactory to the United States. The British stopped threatening the Midwest from Canada, ended impressment (having defeated Napoleon, they didn’t need it anyway) and returned to a distrustful but amicable trade relationship with the United States.
This account wouldn’t be complete if I