August 1, 2009

America in Retrospect

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?


Matt said...

In the increasingly interconnected world that has developed since the founding of the United States, as well as the position America has held as a major player in international events for over a century, I think the better question is whether it makes sense to try to meet JQA's and Monroe's expectations.

The US has major interests in every corner of the world, a far cry from the isolation it experienced 200 years ago when ships were the fastest way to reach and communicate with other continents. Should the country have stayed out of World War One? World War Two? The rebuilding of Europe? The chaos in the Middle East?

Sure, the country has made mistakes, from Vietnam to Iraq and plenty besides, but we can't expect perfection all the time. What has America done to benefit mankind? Ending the Holocaust and the Rwandan and Serbian genocides all come to mind, not to mention helping Eastern Europe escape the stifling grip of the Soviet Union in addition to trillions in aid to poor, sick and struggling peoples around the world.

Do you disagree? Should we return to isolated self-interest?

Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

I both agree and disagree with your comment, Matt. On the one hand, there is indeed a case to be made for the changing world arena ensuing from the ever-developing technologies and means of resources. We should also bear in mind that Adams'world did not rely on oil and other finite resources for its most fundamental operating. In many ways, America cannot afford to simply stay behind closed doors.

On the other hand, Adams'and Monroe's words remain quite relevant. You mention various historical examples of military interventions, you claimed were inevitable. Whilst these incidents represt dark episodes of human history in and of themselves, the main issue at stake is whether American interests and rights were
"invaded or seriously menaced." In which episodes did that happen? Does/should America have real "interests in every corner of the world? Is what you call "the chaos of the Middle East" the reason for intervention or its consequence? These are all questions that national security experts, as well as American citizens, need to ask themselves. My guess is that we have disappointed the expectations of our nation's founders, rather than vindicate them. But I could be wrong.

As for the last paragraph, I concur that Washington has done a lot of good in the world. Just for the sake of historical veracity, America did not end the Rwandan genocide, until perhaps it was already too late.

Self-interest in the realm of politics could be a virtue. Remember, Matt, the road to hell is paved with good intentions!

Matt said...

Many of the arguments in this sort of discussion are "chicken or egg" by design. Is American intervention the result of or cause of conflict in the Middle East? Does the US presence as a superpower prevent or incite violence and provocation? Is the United States the protector of the weak or an imperial bully?

Obviously there exists evidence to support each side in those debates and much of our views are based more in our experiences and separate understandings of history.

Nevertheless, it is clear to almost all that American isolationism in the last century would have been detrimental to global stability and prosperity. While we have made many mistakes as a nation and caused much conflict in our own self-interest, I would argue that much more good has come from American involvement, whether selfish or selfless, in world affairs when seen in totality. Though it may seem that America has "disappointed the expectations of our nation's founders," it can be equally argued that we simply live the natural extension of the founding ideals in today's flatter, more interconnected world.

Perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but is not the road to heaven?

Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

Very well articulated, Matt.

My blog post on Saturday would address many of your points.