Last week I discussed how the Founding Fathers might view the American debt crisis and the government shutdown. This week I thought it would be useful to consider how the founders might view foreign policy. I argued that on domestic policy they had clear principles, but unlike their ideology, those principles were never mechanistic or inflexible. For them, principles dictated that a gentleman pays his debts and does not casually increase his debts, the constitutional provision that debt is sometimes necessary notwithstanding. They feared excessive debt and abhorred nonpayment, but their principles were never completely rigid.
Whenever there is a discussion of the guidelines laid down by the founders for American foreign policy, Thomas Jefferson’s admonition to avoid foreign entanglements and alliances is seen as the founding principle. That seems reasonable to me inasmuch as George Washington expressed a similar sentiment. So while there were some who favored France over Britain during the French Revolutionary Wars, the main thrust of American foreign policy was neutrality. The question is: How does this principle guide the United States now?
A Matter of Practicality
Like all good principles, Jefferson’s call for avoiding foreign entanglements derived from practicality. The United States was weak. It depended heavily on exports, particularly on exports to Britain. Its navy could not guarantee the security of its sea-lanes, which were in British hands and were contested by the French. Siding with the French against the British would have wrecked the American economy and would have invited a second war with Britain. On the other hand, overcommitting to Britain would have essentially returned the United States to a British dependency.
Avoiding foreign entanglements was a good principle when there were no other attractive strategies. Nonetheless, it was Jefferson himself who engineered a major intrusion into European affairs with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. Initially, Jefferson did not intend to purchase the entire territory. He wanted to own New Orleans, which had traded hands between Spain and France and which was the essential port for access between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri river system. Jefferson sensed that Napoleon would sell New Orleans to finance his war in Europe, but he was surprised when Napoleon countered with an offer to sell all of France’s North American holdings for $15 million. This would change the balance of power in North America by blocking potential British ambitions, opening the Gulf route to the Atlantic to the United States and providing the cash France needed to wage wars.
At the time, this was not a major action in the raging Napoleonic Wars. However, it was not an action consistent with the principle of avoiding entanglement. The transaction held the risk of embroiling the United States in the Napoleonic Wars, depending on how the British reacted. In fact, a decade later, after Napoleon was defeated, the British did turn on the United States, first by interfering with American shipping and then, when the Americans responded, by waging war in 1812, burning Washington and trying to seize New Orleans after the war officially ended.
Jefferson undertook actions that entangled the United States in the affairs of others and in dangers he may not have anticipated — one of the major reasons for avoiding foreign entanglements in the first place. And he did this against his own principles.
The reason was simple: Given the events in Europe, a unique opportunity presented itself to seize the heartland of the North American continent. The opportunity would redefine the United States. It carried with it risks. But the rewards were so great that the risks had to be endured. Avoiding foreign entanglements was a principle. It was not an ideological absolute.
Jefferson realized that the United States already was involved in Europe’s affairs by virtue of its existence. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, France or Britain would have held Louisiana, and the United States would have faced threats east from the Atlantic and west from the rest of the continent. Under these circumstances, it would struggle to survive. Therefore, being entangled already, Jefferson acted to minimize the danger.
This is a very different view of Jefferson’s statement on avoiding foreign entanglements than has sometimes been given. As a principle, steering clear of foreign entanglements is desirable. But the decision on whether there will be an entanglement is not the United States’ alone. Geographic realities and other nations’ foreign policies can implicate a country in affairs it would rather avoid. Jefferson understood that the United States could not simply ignore the world. The world got a vote. But the principle that excessive entanglement should be avoided was for him a guiding principle. Given the uproar over his decision, both on constitutional and prudential grounds, not everyone agreed that Jefferson was faithful to his principle. Looking back, however, it was prudent.
The Illusion of Isolationism
The U.S. government has wrestled with this problem since World War I. The United States intervened in the war a few weeks after the Russian czar abdicated and after the Germans began fighting the neutral countries. The United States could not to lose access to the Atlantic, and if Russia withdrew from the war, then Germany could concentrate on its west. A victory there would have left Germany in control of both Russian resources and French industry. That would have created a threat to the United States. It tried to stay neutral, then was forced to make a decision of how much risk it could bear. The United States opted for war.
Isolationists in World War II argued against involvement in Europe (they were far more open to blocking the Japanese in China). But the argument rested on the assumption that Germany would be blocked by the Soviets and the French. The alliance with the Soviets and, more important, the collapse of France and the invasion of the Soviet Union, left a very different calculation. In its most extreme form, a Soviet defeat and a new Berlin-friendly government in Britain could have left the Germans vastly more powerful than the United States. And with the French, British and German fleets combined, such an alliance could have also threatened U.S. control of the Atlantic at a time when the Japanese controlled the western Pacific.
A similar problem presented itself during the Cold War. In this case, the United States did not trust the European balance of power to contain the Soviet Union. That balance of power had failed twice, leading to alliances that brought the United States into the affairs of others. The United States calculated that early entanglements were less risky than later entanglements. This calculation seemed to violate the Jeffersonian principle, but in fact, as with Louisiana, it was prudent action within the framework of the Jeffersonian principle.
NATO appeared to some to be a violation of the founders’ view of a prudent foreign policy. I think this misinterprets the meaning of Jefferson’s and Washington’s statements. Avoiding entanglements and alliances is a principle worth considering, but not to the point of allowing it to threaten the national interest. Jefferson undertook the complex and dangerous purchase of Louisiana because he thought it carried less risk than allowing the territory to remain in European hands.
His successors stumbled into war partly over the purchase, but Jefferson was prepared to make prudent judgments. In the same way, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, realizing that avoiding foreign entanglements was impossible, tried to reduce future risk.
Louisiana, the two world wars and the Cold War shared one thing: the risks were great enough to warrant entanglement. All three could have ended in disaster for the United States. The idea that the oceans would protect the United States was illusory. If one European power dominated all of Europe, its ability to build fleets would be extraordinary. Perhaps the United States could have matched it; perhaps not. The dangers outweighed the benefits of blindly adhering to a principle.
A General Role
There is not an existential threat to the United States today. The major threat is militant Islamism, but as frightening as it is, it cannot destroy the United States. It can kill large numbers of Americans. Here the Jeffersonian principle becomes more important. There are those who say that if the United States had not supported Israel in the West Bank or India in Kashmir, then militant Islamism would have never been a threat. In other words, if we now, if not in the past, avoided foreign entanglements, then there would be no threat to the United States, and Jefferson’s principles would now require disentanglement.
In my opinion the Islamist threat does not arise from any particular relationship the United States has had, nor does it arise from the celebration of the Islamic principles that Islamists hold. Rather, it arises from the general role of the United States as the leading Western country. The idea that the United States could avoid hostility by changing its policies fails to understand that like the dangers in 1800, the threat arises independent of U.S. action.
But militant Islamism does not threaten the United States existentially. Therefore, the issue is how to apply the Jeffersonian principle in this context. In my opinion, the careful application of his principle, considering all the risks and rewards, would tell us the following: It is impossible to completely defeat militant Islamists militarily, but it is possible to mitigate the threat they pose. The process of mitigation carries with it its own risks, particularly as the United States carries out operations that don’t destroy militant Islamists but do weaken the geopolitical architecture of the Muslim world — which is against the interests of the United States. Caution should be exercised that the entanglement doesn’t carry risks greater than the reward.
Jefferson was always looking at the main threat. Securing sea-lanes and securing the interior river systems was of overwhelming importance. Other things could be ignored. But the real challenge of the United States is defining the emerging threat and dealing with it decisively. How much misery could have been avoided if Hitler had been destroyed in 1936? Who knew how much misery Hitler would cause in 1936? These thoughts are clear only in hindsight.
Still, the principle is the same. Jefferson wanted to avoid foreign entanglements except in cases where there was substantial benefit to American national interests. He was prepared to apply his principle differently then. The notion of avoiding foreign entanglements must therefore be seen as a principle that, like all well-developed principles, is far more complex than it appears. Foreign entanglements must be avoided when the ends are trivial or unattainable. But when we can get Louisiana, the principle of avoidance dictates involvement.
As in domestic matters, ideology is easy. Principles are difficult. They can be stated succinctly, but they must be applied with all due sophistication.
“U.S. Foreign Policy from the Founders' Perspective is republished with permission of Stratfor.”