Warner Todd Huston
October 1, 2011
George Washington said to avoid 'entangling alliances'... or did he?
By Warner Todd Huston

I have been interested these days to hear the left citing George Washington, the father of our country, to support their ideas against the GOP and their hope that Obama will pull out of the Middle East. Specifically they have been citing Washington's farewell address where he supposedly warned Americans against getting involved with foreign nations and getting caught up in those evil "foreign entanglements."

It is quite amusing to see lefties in love with a founding father or American history and principles for the first time in their lives, certainly, but it isn't just the left revealing a sudden respect for a founding father with citation of Washington's address. Ron Paulites and those of an isolationist bent on foreign policy have also been bandying about Washington's farewell address as some sort of "proof" that one of our "first principles" was to stay away from foreign nations.

What was Washington really saying, though? Did he warn us against "foreign entanglements"? Did he think the U.S. should steer clear of all political situations from without and simply relegate ourselves only to trade with everyone else?

We have to point out, that Washington never used the words "foreign entanglements" in his farewell address. That has been a decades-long misconstruction of his last letter to the nation. He did ask why we should "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition," but he never used the exact words "foreign entanglements."

That dispensed with, we move on to the assumed isolationism of George Washington's address. What did he mean and did he mean it to be a permanent principle from which the U.S. should never stray?

First of all we must realize that the U.S. had been up to its neck in "foreign entanglements" before it had even become a nation. With wars against the French decades earlier, then the rebellion against Britain with help from the French, pleas to the Dutch for loans, not to mention intrigues in Canada and clashes with Spanish holdings in the new world, the progenitors to the United States and then the young nation itself was already a key player on the international stage.

Further the United States had envoys in most of the major European nations long before Washington's farewell address. So, to act as if the U.S. was isolated from the rest of the world and that Washington's entirety to stay that way was some axiomatic delineation of American foreign policy is simply wrong headed. The U.S. was already so "entangled," if you will.

One of the important goals of Washington's letter was to shore up his own foreign policy decisions. Washington had angered the Jefferson/Madison wing of the federal government when he decided not to side with France against England after our revolution ended. In fact, while leaning as an anglophile, Washington tried to tread a fine line of "neutrality" between France and England. His address was meant to justify this policy choice. It was less a doctrine for the ages and more an immediate act of politics.

There was also an important bit of reality that caused Washington and Alexander Hamilton to eschew full support of France and lean toward England. We hadn't the naval power to back up any major involvement in Europe. In fact, if we had decided to jump in with France, there was no way at all we could have escaped major damage from the extensive and powerful British Navy if we sided too directly with France.

Washington's idea of neutrality was based in part on the complete inability of the U.S. to back up its foreign policy. But even in that case he did not say in his address that we should forever stay away from any foreign involvement.

Here is the key section of his address:

    It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

To warn Americans against "permanent alliances" really should go without saying. Decades later a fast friend of the United States basically said the same thing when he said there are "no eternal allies" and "no perpetual enemies" for any nation.

Washington went on to say, though, that sometimes we must form alliances. "Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture," he wrote, "we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."

Obviously he understood that always staying neutral — as Paulites and liberals maintain — is not possible.

It should also be realized that this was Washington's (and Hamilton's) vision. The farewll address was not an explication of standard practice even when it was written, but Washington's ideals. Many founders disagreed with this vision. So to act like an isolationist policy was a singular founding principle is a horrible misread of history.

In To the Farewell Address, the seminal book about the address and the era in which it was given, Felix Gilbert warned us all not to accept the flawed assumptions of just what was going on with Washington's farewell address.

In the conclusion to his essay, Gilbert wrote:

    Because the Farewell Address comprises various aspects of American political thinking, it reaches beyond any period limited in time and reveals the basic issue of the American attitude toward foreign policy: the tension between Idealism and Realism. Settled by men who looked for gain and by men who sought freedom, born into independence in a century of enlightened thinking and of power politics, America has wavered in her foreign policy between Idealism and Realism, and her great historical moments have occurred when both were combined.

In other words, today's neo-isolationist view of America's "real" foreign policy ideals is woefully incorrect. The U.S. was never isolationist as a first principle. Ron Paul is wrong and so are the liberals that have a sudden and uncharacteristic respect for a founding father.

Finally a note... I posted this on BigPeace.com already, but an interesting phenomenon occurred. Instead of discussing the piece as written, a ton of Ron Paul nuts, and other deluded types, decided that this piece was my excuse to justify military interventionism. Ridiculously, they claimed I was somehow excusing WWI, or our current Middle East policies.

Their comments just prove that too many people do not read for content any more but only want to use an article as an excuse to provoke argument over their own half-baked ideas.

The fact is, this article is discussing only one thing and that is the purpose of Washington's farewell address when it was delivered in 1796 and what it means to American first principles. I have no interest in using this piece to excuse or justify anything that happened after Washington left the scene. This article is not meant to ascertain what amount of foreign policy is optimal, only that isolationism is not an American first principle.

If WWI was wrong or our Middle East policy is misguided, those are discussions for other articles, not this one.

Finally, one idiot spammed the BP.com piece with comment after comment saying I was "using the wrong quote" for the beginning of this piece. He said that Thomas Jefferson said "entangling alliances" and that my attribution of it to Washington is wrong. This is another guy that can't read for content. I know it's wrong and that is my point for saying Washington didn't say it! But it isn't me that is pushing the phrase on Washington, it is the many others I mentioned at the top and that is why I am correcting the record.

© Warner Todd Huston

 

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Warner Todd Huston

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