Analysis of Washington’s Foreign Policy Principles
In 1796 after Washington decided not to seek reelection for the United States presidency, he delivered a valedictory address to his ‘Friends and Citizens’. In the address, Washington articulated the principles he hoped would guide the United States as he retired. By examining Washington’s Farewell Address (co-authored by Alexander Hamilton), it can be argued that Washington advocated for the United States foreign policy principles to be rooted in moderation, peace, and avoidance of foreign alliances in order for the United States to protect its core domestic interests. Washington’s counsel on neutrality was rooted in the desire to protect the United States' independence and the belief that the US stood to gain more as a neutral party in its foreign engagements. In his farewell address, George Washington counseled against isolationism and excessive engagements abroad, he instead urged Americans to pursue a cautionary foreign policy based on moderation and neutrality: retaining their independence while still pursuing international engagements without favor and without joining permanent alliances.
This paper argues that the foreign policy principles articulated in Washington’s valedictory address were largely driven by domestic concerns ranging from Washington’s desire to protect the United States’ independence, Washington’s views on the importance of individual liberty and the benefits the United States stood to gain from neutrality in international engagements.
Independence and Sovereignty
As the French Revolution unfolded in 1992, when Washington had contemplated retirement, the disputes between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian camps - who held diverging views on how the United States should act with respect to the French situation - persuaded Washington to stand for another term in order to preserve the unity of the fragile union. The struggle between the idealistic pro-French wing and the realist Hamiltonian wing prompted Washington to proclaim America’s neutrality laying the foundation for what would become a cornerstone of his farewell address. Washington was wary of the perils of foreign influence over American politics as the newly minted infant nation was still recovering from the American Revolutionary War.
The outbreak of the general European war in February and March 1993, further intensified Washington’s resolve for neutrality leading to his proclamation that saw America choosing to remain above the fray and animosities of European politics and instead opting to value peace above other goals. During this time Washington had also been irked by what he saw as French meddling in U.S. politics. The French, through Edmond-Charles Genêt their envoy to America were pressuring Americans to lend their support in the war, and one of their key goals was to leverage the 1778 commercial treaty to secure provisions for their besieged nation from the United States which would be transported to France in American ships. Genêt’s overtures infuriated Washington to a point that he demanded that the envoy be recalled back to France, but Washington did not let Genêt’s actions on behalf of the French impact his stand on neutrality. When John Jays, the federalist pro-British Chief Justice of the United States embarked on a mission to London that led to the signing of the Jay’s Treaty between the Americans and Britons, Washington sent James Monroe the pro-Republican Senator from Virginia on a mission to France to allay perceptions that the United States was breaking on its neutrality principles.
Having recently attained independence, and with the memories of the lengthy American Revolution war still fresh in the minds of Americans, Washington was keen to pursue policies that ensure the protection of American liberties which were enshrined in the American constitution and in the hearts of Americans. As observed in the address Washington states that “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts”. In the Circular Address of 1783 - more than a decade before he delivered his farewell address - Washington noted that human liberty was the basis of the pillars that supported America’s national character and independence.
Washington viewed Foreign entanglements as a factor that would have negative implications on the liberties of Americans. Taking sides in the war might have meant having to provide military support to allies and potentially bringing the battles to American territory. In the farewell address, Washington cautioned against expanding the military. Playing a more outsized role abroad would have inadvertently led the United States to expand its military and this was in contravention of Washington’s view on the military and liberty. As observed in the farewell address “overgrown military establishments”, are inauspicious to liberty”, and as such, they are “to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.”
Advantages of Neutrality
In the valedictory address, Washington counsels the United States that “... even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences” Washington’s counsel for a neutrally commercial US foreign policy was rooted in the belief that the United States stood to gain more. For Washington, true national interests warranted avoiding war and promoting prosperity through peaceful commerce. The neutral United States stood to benefit from serving as a possible neutral base of transatlantic operations against enemy colonies and commerce as the European war unfolded. The United States also stood to gain from the European wrangles because it would become the largest remaining neutral supplier of provisions and naval stores, commodities.
Neutrality would also accord the United States stability and time to pay off her debts. During the revolution, the cash-strapped Continental Congress had accepted loans from Europe, and by 1790 the debt was approximately $11.7 million owed to foreigners -mostly to Dutch bankers and the French government - and about $42 million owed to domestic creditors. The Federal Government had also assumed the loans of its constituent states after independence and repaying all the loans was one of the major challenges of post-independence America.
The need for the US to preserve its newly established national credit in order to be able to repay its debts and protect its growing economy could be achieved if the United States maintained cordial relations with all.
After looking at the factors behind the foreign policy principles articulated by Washington’s valedictory address, it can be reasonably argued that what has generally been construed as a policy of 'isolation' should instead be interpreted as a policy of vigilant guarding of domestic concerns.
In looking at the motives behind the foreign policy principles articulated by Washington’s Farewell Address one factor to consider is how much of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison’s views influenced the speech. Given that most passages in the address were drafted by Alexander Hamilton, how much of Washington’s sentiments and ideas made it to the final draft? As he contemplated retirement in 1792, Washington had also commissioned Madison, his aide who held similar views to Washington on the importance of neutrality and peace to draft a valedictory address, and some of its paragraphs were incorporated into Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address. The debate over whose principles feature more prominently in the speech lingers over the analysis to understand the motives behind the text. Due to space limitations, this paper does not adequately look into how Alexander Hamilton and James Madison’s world views might have influenced the principles in articulating Washington’s address, but it is important to acknowledge that the address was not entirely drawn from Washington’s world view.
Ultimately, looking at Washington’s Farewell Address it can be argued that Washington’s foreign policy principles of neutrality and peace as articulated in his address were driven by his concern over national interest which he viewed as being critical for the United States: sovereignty and liberty. Washington warned the nation to avoid permanent alliances with foreign nations and to rely instead on temporary alliances for emergencies.