'Entangling Alliances': Are They OK Yet?

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

I was having an Internet discussion that caused me to utter the sort-of Founder quote, “Free trade with all, entangling alliances with none.” Someone questioned me about it, which caused me to take a deeper look. I’m glad I did.

This was a policy that appeared in Washington’s Farewell Address, created with the help of Hamilton and Madison. Not in so many words, though; apparently Jefferson later adopted the policy and came closer to stating it that way in his Inaugural.

It was a bit strange that he did though, since Washington et. al. created the policy to stave off U.S. alliance with the French, which the anti-Federalists were hot to accomplish. Perhaps he could see the general wisdom of the plan, by the time he was elected.

The Wikipedia article takes great pains to note that Washington didn’t really mean it, though:

Despite its enduring influence on U.S. foreign-policy discussions, Washington said privately that the view on which his pronouncements were based would probably be irrelevant in 20 years due to a changing geopolitical situation.”

That just struck me as odd. I looked at the reference that supports that contention, an article by a 19th Century minor politician, Roland G. Usher.

One can just imagine some professor, perhaps on a stipend from some multinational corporation seeking extension and justification of neocon political policies, digging around and shouting “Eureka” when he found this piece. Needless to say, Wikipedia, now apparently captured by the Ministry of Propaganda, had to leaven their discussion of early American nonintervention with this “important” contribution apparently disputing it.

The article itself is actually quite well written. The only problem with it, really, is that far from proving what it attempted to prove--that Washington himself was willing to toss nonintervention in a few years, in the very Farewell address that promotes it--it instead reinforces nonintervention. The conclusion Usher derives simply does not follow.

The point he tries to make is that Washington looked forward to the time when the nation was not in such dire straits economically, politically and financially, and could stop having to tip-toe around the bullies of the time, England and France. True enough as far as that goes; it’s right there in the address. But from all the evidence presented, that was NOT a go-ahead to start dicking around in foreign countries. There is no hint of, “Thank heaven at that time we can invade some neighbors like Canada and Mexico, or sign up to be England’s water boy,” in the address. Here is the proof:

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.”

In other words, even after 20 years are up and things are easier, we will still be using a neutral policy. We just won’t have such a hard time making it stick.

The Wikipedia article had this Jefferson quote about Hamilton: The Anglophile Hamilton, Jefferson mused, was "panic-struck if we refuse our breach to every kick which Great Britain may choose to give it." Twenty years in the future, according to Washington’s address, we’d no longer have to put up with the boot that England was applying at the time--not to mention that the English would cease of their own accord, trying it.

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