There is quite a lot of debate over America’s proper role in the world at the moment.
Some believe that America should return to an earlier, simpler, and more isolationist foreign policy. Perhaps this frame of mind makes it easier to advocate for significant cuts to military spending. To advance this position, some national figures claim that the Founding Fathers embraced an isolationist, or non-interventionist, foreign policy approach. But as is often the case, things aren’t quite so simple.
The tendency to ignore America’s proper role in the world in favor of focusing solely on domestic concerns is a recent phenomenon. So, too, is the belief that America’s interests and safety are endangered by engagement abroad. In fact, the very term “isolationism” was not even coined until the 20th century.
The Founding Fathers placed tremendous emphasis on a strong foreign policy backed up by military readiness. Without exception, the first ten presidents of the United States had either conducted diplomacy abroad or had commanded troops in wartime prior to becoming President. In the early years of the republic, the national scene was dominated by debates about American diplomacy, and defense spending accounted for a majority of the national budget. Most Americans at that time were remarkably well-informed about international politics.
There can hardly be a more “American” foreign policy than that espoused by America’s Founding Fathers. It seems that the question then becomes: Where the Founders principally isolationists or non-interventionists? If we take the traditions of our early foreign policy seriously, then we have to be prepared to learn from them. And that requires some study and a look at what the Founders actually did when confronted with the realities of international affairs; it is not enough to cite quotes from speeches or point to their private aspirations for the US.
In the years 1783-1860, the US engaged in military action nearly sixty times at locations around the globe (see map). These military engagements can be divided into three categories: defense, intervention, and Law of Nations enforcement. In the coming weeks, we will look at these categories in depth. Also in future publications, we will attempt to discern the traditional principles of US foreign policy and the history of American military, economic, and diplomatic engagement during the early years of the republic.
Given the resources at their disposal, their material capabilities, and the vast array of threats and challenges confronting them at that time, the Founders’ foreign policy was remarkably successful. Indeed, their examples have much to teach us about America’s proper role in the world today.