Small ‘r’ Republican America: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”

One of the fun things about Don Arthur’s posts is following the links. I followed a link to Peter Boettke and a few links later came upon this (pdf) fine statement of the early and (for so long) enduring American commitment to modesty in international affairs. I guess isolationism doesn’t suit a country the size of the US today. But these words of John Quincy Adams sure seem prophetic of recent times.

America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the wellwisher of freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own”¦She well knows that by once enlisting under banners other than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force

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17 years ago

To which could be added any number of statements from the leaders of that era. I personally think George Washington’s farewell address to congress contained the best foreign policy advice I have ever seen, be it for a superpower or middle power or Australia.

Observe good faith and justice toward 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?

The nation which indulges toward 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.

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, humor, or caprice?

There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard….

Unfortunately no-one ever seemed to follow it.

Jason Soon
17 years ago

That’s all very well and good. Unfortunately in this age we don’t need to search for monsters, they come looking for us.

David Rubie
David Rubie
17 years ago

What Jason meant to say was that we don’t go searching for monsters, we deliberately create them in search of instability. The middle east isn’t some kind of isolated vacuum, meddling foreign powers have much to blame for the mess we are now embroiled in. cf. Iran-Contra, Iran vs. Iraq, Isreal vs. Everybody ad nauseum.

17 years ago

It is pretty amazing how far the situation has strayed from what would be sensible ideals. Is it the ideals though, or the actions of a very stupid and irrespeonsible administration?

Maybe it was just a little optimistic to think that America could live out its ‘detached and distant situation’ free of ‘material injury from external annoyance’ so that in its ‘neutrality [it] may at any time resolve upon, be scrupulously respected.’

But this actually has a resonance with what most Americans I know see foreign policy as – leave us be and we won’t get involved, but if you attack us we will make sure you learn in no uncertain terms that we are prosperous enough to remain neutral and detached from your problems (ie we can build the biggest guns).

But the license Americans gave their government with this has been abused – their government lied, plain and simple. GW’s lofty sentiment remains, but accountability failed.

Rightly or wrongly, other countries are now wondering if any country can apply the accountability required of a country with that much power. And now questioning how the US can question the accountability of others… Great ideals, but only as good as the men and women who lead.

Graham Bell
Graham Bell
17 years ago

Nicholas Gruen:
It is a tragedy for the whole world that the bunch of crooks who turned the great republic into the world’s worst kleptocracy ignored these two pieces of wisdom.

Now that the Americans have finally started to recover their liberty, let’s hope that the wisdom of their great leaders will be heeded again.

Detachment and Isolation are poles apart though.

Jason Soon:
Monsters may indeed come unbidden. The idea is to let everyone know that if monsters do turn up, they will get a crushing welcome they will never forget or from which they will never recover. Next to Hurricane Katrina and the Attempted Theft of Cheap Oil, the worst example of G. W. Bush and his fellow accomplices’ failure to plan was September Eleventh – in both prevention and response.