August 1, 2009
John Quincy Adams
How can America’s foreign policy be assessed? This series of weekend blog entries contends that some of the best criteria against which Washington’s international relations could be judged have already been laid by the founders’ expectations and prescriptions. This week, we examine some writings and speeches by John Quincy Adams, Alexis De Tocqueville and James Monroe.
What has America done for the benefit of mankind? As odd as the question may sound, John Q. Adams found himself compelled to come up with an answer about two centuries ago. The inquiry, at the time, pertained to America’s very rationale for independence. European powers were interested in subjugating the erstwhile American colony. It is still now relevant insofar that we observe how much the United States conformed to or deviated from President Adams’ answer.
To Adams, America since its founding has extended a “hand of honest friendship, equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.” America has also defended equal liberty, equal justice and equal rights. More crucially, America, unlike the hitherto European states, respects the independence of other nations, abstains from “interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings.” “America is the champion and vindicator only of her own,” as she does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”
President James Monroe delivered an equally unequivocal assertion regarding Washington’s intentions and policies. “It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparations for our defense.”On that very later point, De Tocqueville once noted that due to her geographic position and weak neighbors, America does not have much “foreign interests to discuss.”
The questions now are: 1) has America’s foreign policy lived up to Adams’ and Monroe’s expectations? If not, 2) did she reluctantly or willingly abandon those principles? Does Washington really lack foreign interests because of her unique geography? Finally, if we had to change course from what John Quincy Adams avowed were America’s benign policy, the original question remains unanswered: 3) what has America done for the benefit of mankind?