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.
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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 didn’t mention the Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823 with the goal of regulating the extent to which European powers could be involved in the Americas. Originally considered a joint U.S.-British document, the United States ultimately decided to announce the principles itself. (It wasn’t called the Monroe Doctrine until much later.) Interestingly, the United States was in no position to enforce the doctrine; it could do so only in cooperation with Britain. Yet even so it asserted its unwillingness to allow European powers to intrude in the Western Hemisphere.
A History of Inevitable Alignments
Where Jefferson spoke of entangling alliances, it might be said that no alliances were signed, but alignment was pursued. From the beginning of the American project, entanglement in Europe was inevitable. The republic was born from that entanglement and survived because of the skill and cunning with which the founders managed their entanglement. What is important for today is that economic self-sufficiency was a dream of the founders, albeit one they could never achieve. They had to have trade, and from the beginning, trade brought conflict and war.
In his farewell address, frequently cited as an argument for avoiding foreign adventures, George Washington had a much more complex and sophisticated approach than Jefferson’s one-liner did (and Jefferson himself was far more sophisticated than that one-liner). It is worth extracting one section:
“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.
…Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”
Washington noted that American distance gave it the hope that “the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance.” For him, this was a goal, not a reality. But he could not make it a reality because the United States was economically entangled with Europe from the start, and its geography, rather than protecting it from entanglement, forced it into trade, which had to be protected against pirates and potentates. As a result, the United States was fighting in the Middle East by the turn of the 19th century.
It is important to distinguish what the founders wished from what they did. Unlike the French Revolutionaries, who took the revolution to its bloody reduction ad absurdum, the Americans had modest expectations for their revolution: They wished for a time when they weren’t drawn into conflict. But as we have seen, they were neither surprised nor reticent when conflict proved necessary. It was Jefferson, after all, who led the country to its first Middle Eastern adventure.
For me, the crucial line from Washington is the search for the time “…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.”
It’s not clear that that time has come or that it will come. What undermined the peace Washington and Jefferson craved was the need for trade. It made the United States, weak as it was, vulnerable to Britain and France and even the Ottomans and forced the United States to engage in the very activity Washington and Jefferson warned against. Indeed, Washington and Jefferson were forced to engage in that activity. The United States is much more powerful today, and its gross domestic product constitutes more than 20 percent of the GDP in the world. The vastness of the American economy causes it to intrude everywhere, and American interests and foreign resentment constantly create threats and challenges.
The desire of the president, the left and the right to limit our engagement is understandable. The founders wanted their prosperity without paying the price of foreign entanglements, but prosperity depended on careful management of foreign relations. Today the vulnerabilities of the United States are much more subtle and complex, but the principle remains the same. You cannot be economically entangled in the world without also being politically and militarily entangled. What you can do is what Washington and Jefferson did: have a clear sense of the national interest and justice and avoid all entanglements but those that are necessary against this measure. Unfortunately, the national interest and justice are not always easily defined, and it is harder still to reach a consensus on what is to be done.
The idea of withdrawing from the world is appealing to any reasonable person. But Washington and Jefferson couldn’t do it even though they extolled it. It is unlikely that it can be achieved today. The best we can do is to be ruthless in deciding what entanglements are valuable and what will drain us.