George Washington's Enduring Realism

George Washington's Enduring Realism

On foreign policy, in particular, Washington cautioned against adopting “through passion what reason would reject.”

Should we interpret Washington’s emphasis on neutrality in the war between Britain and France as a rejection of assistance to revolutionary French forces seeking freedom and democracy, or rather as an unavoidable consequence of an American weakness overcome long ago? There is some support for the latter view, even in the Farewell Address, where Washington states that “the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance . . . when we may choose peace or war as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Yet this perspective ignores both Washington’s clear pragmatism in urging Americans to “cultivate peace and harmony with all” as well as his call to avoid “passionate attachment” to others that could cloud their collective judgment. Moreover, at a fundamental level, Washington clearly calculated that the potential costs of open support for France’s revolutionary regime outweighed its possible benefits. That is the essence of realism.

In assessing Washington’s foreign-policy message, Avlon concentrates on his effort to maintain neutrality as well as his statement that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace,” each of which has had lasting impact on American foreign-policy thinking. In tracing the farewell’s subsequent influence on U.S. foreign policy, Avlon focuses more on the former of these points—and on twentieth-century departures from neutrality as America’s growing power and parallel expansion of national interests drove U.S. participation in World War I and World War II, as well as global competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman’s blunt rejection of Washington’s advice in pursuing the Marshall Plan—“that was then, and this is now”—is manifestly a pivotal moment, as is President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s deliberate embrace of Washington in preparing his own farewell, including its well-known warning about the power of the “military-industrial complex.”

Avlon’s glide past the Nixon era is unfortunate. Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy incorporated an adaptation of some of Washington’s principles (wittingly or otherwise) to the Cold War era and demonstrated that the farewell remained an appropriate guide to policy. The key to this lies partly in Washington’s sense of the dangers in “passionate attachment.” Consider, for example, the Nixon administration’s evident recognition that U.S. interests were not identical to its ally’s in Vietnam (the essential basis for Nixon’s withdrawal). More profound was the obverse: namely, Washington’s warning against “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations,” which he saw as no less destructive.

“Antipathy in one nation against another,” Washington wrote, “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.” The former general explicitly equates this problem with that of excessive sympathy, noting that either “is sufficient to lead [America] astray from its duty and its interest.” In ignoring Washington’s warning against permanent antipathies, Avlon fails to make the connection between this principle and two of Nixon’s greatest foreign-policy achievements: the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union, each of which required tempering long-standing hostility.

This is a significant and consequential oversight in Avlon’s enjoyable and generally well-argued book. In the nuclear age, Washington’s call to avoid “permanent, inveterate antipathies” is at least as important as his advice to avoid “passionate attachment.” When U.S. rivals are nuclear-armed and capable of destroying the American way of life, the United States cannot afford the “frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed and bloody contests” that Washington considered the inevitable consequence of adopting “through passion what reason would reject.”

Paul J. Saunders, associate publisher of the National Interest, is executive director of the Center for the National Interest.

This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “Washington's Warnings.”

Image: Washington Crossing the Deleware. Wikimedia Commons