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Feb 15, 2004

George Washington and The Peril of Foreign Entanglements

Having been intimately associated with Objectivism for many years, I find it disconcerting that in the tributes to George Washington being circulated by both the Ayn Rand Institute and The Objectivist Center, neither mentions one of the most important legacies the first President left to the young America: His Farewell Address.

In that Farewell Address, Washington warned against the peril of foreign entanglements. He understood the necessity of certain alliances in dire emergencies, but his general view of foreign policy encapsulates a wisdom that has been forgotten by today's generation of political leaders. As we near"President's Day," I thought I'd post an excerpt from Washington's famous address:

Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. ... In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated. 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. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.
So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld; and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial, else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. ...
Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the Government to support them, conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. 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.

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Warner Todd Huston - 5/14/2006

Mr. Sciabarra.

While I am not the biggest fan of Ayn Rand, I have to say you are using Washington’s warning of foreign entanglements incorrectly. Though it is a very common misconception, Washington was absolutely NOT saying we should NEVER have anything to do with other nations.

Washington meant only to steer clear of European alliances and entanglements only for as long as it took to get the USA consolidated and strong in the face of superior European power.

In a letter to Gouverneur Morris on Dec. 22, 1795, Washington mentioned how he envisioned that the USA would be strong enough to hold its own about 20 years after the country’s birth, that, until that time, he wanted his country to be left alone and clear of European meddling so that the USA’s position would be unassailable.

So, Washington’s warning was one of the immediate future NOT one of a permanent nature.

It should also be remembered that the US was FULLY involved in trade negotiations with every European nation at the time Washington issued his farewell address, so even as he was warning about foreign entanglements, the country was already so entangled.

A clear and concise monograph on this subject can be seen in the book, “To the Farewell Address”, by Felix Gilbert. (1961 Princeton Press)

Like I mentioned, many people misuse this point about “Foreign Entanglements” and few realize its full meaning. You aren’t alone in this.

Lastly, just on a point of clarification, the Farewell Address was initially drafted by Madison, with revisions by both Washington and Hamilton.

Thanks, Warner Todd Huston