What Hillary and Trump Should Learn from Ike and George Washington
Today’s world is as violent and chaotic as it has been at any point in the past four decades. For the United States to effectively navigate chaos and retain our security and economic vitality, the foreign policy of the next administration must be well above average. Unfortunately, it is now a real possibility that regardless of who wins in November, America’s policies abroad will be counterproductive and possibly detrimental to our own interests.
Hillary Clinton’s stated positions on foreign policy and her track record as a Democratic senator and secretary of state indicate that as president, she would repeat many of the most egregious mistakes made by the previous two administrations, and she might employ some that are worse—such as Michele Flournoy.
On the other side, Republican Donald Trump’s speeches and statements on foreign policy have been inconsistent and rash, so it is unclear where he stands. His character, however, suggests that irrespective of what his policies actually are, as president he would be reckless in their application.
Regardless of who wins the presidency, the nation would benefit if the new administration were to adopt the foreign policies and concepts employed by the most effective of their predecessors. The foreign policies articulated and applied by two of America’s former commanders-in-chief are especially worthy of emulation today: George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Both were former generals and statesmen, both served when the global environment was especially violent and dangerous, and the fate of our nation hung in the balance—and yet America prospered under both of their presidencies. America’s forty-fifth president would do well to adopt the best of their ideas tailored for today.
Though the Revolutionary War had been over for six years when Washington became President, the British continued to undermine the fledgling United States, both by inciting Native Americans to use violence against the government and in using its navy to disrupt U.S. trade. When France declared war on several European nations in 1793, Washington had to conduct deft foreign policy to safeguard American freedom without getting caught up in a costly European war.
Yet despite the fact Great Britain had been a mortal enemy for years during the war and remained a festering nuisance, President Washington advocated that his successors should observe “good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. . . . 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 towards all should be cultivated.” He recognized that hubris and prejudice could cloud sound judgment.
Washington was an expert at the conduct of war. He nevertheless regarded war as the worst tool of foreign policy of attaining beneficial outcomes for the United States. Instead, he argued that “the Great Rule” in conducting American foreign policy is to maintain commercial partnerships without becoming involved in the politics of foreign lands, while also encouraging open debate and discourse regarding foreign policy, humanity, and national interests.
In this current environment, leaders and would-be leaders in America seek to bolster their bona fides by showing how tough they are with their ability to use force abroad.
President Eisenhower, in stark contrast, was eager to avoid war, particularly with a major power. As the military commander of the victorious Allied forces in Europe during World War II, he had seen the horrific destructive results of war. As president, he did not shy away from using harsh language to articulate American foreign policy. But in his relations with the Soviet Union and China, he chose to demonstrate his bona fides differently.
Instead of using or threatening to use force if Moscow or Beijing didn’t bend to his will, the Eisenhower, from a position of clear military and economic strength, used the language and actions of peace, demonstrated respect, and looked for win-win solutions.
In a 1953 speech Eisenhower articulated his administration’s foreign policy principles. First, he said, “No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be an enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.” Second, no other country’s “security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations.” And third, “any nation's right to a form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable.”
Eisenhower believed the peace America proposed “can be fortified, not by weapons of war but by wheat and by cotton, by milk and by wool, by meat and by timber and by rice. These are words that translate into every language on earth. These are needs that challenge this world in arms.”
Finally, he concluded, “the purpose of the United States, in stating these proposals, is simple and clear. These proposals spring, without ulterior purpose or political passion, from our calm conviction that the hunger for peace is in the hearts of all peoples—those of Russia and of China no less than of our own country. They conform to our firm faith that God created men to enjoy, not destroy, the fruits of the earth and of their own toil.”
Two of America’s strongest, most successful presidents—both of which commanded the nation’s army in combat—conducted foreign policy that was designed to ensure American security, expand economic opportunity and foster a peaceful global environment.