Minding Our Own Business: American Foreign Policy Has Moved Away from the Prudent Non-Interventionism of the Founders to the Present Policy of Global Police Action and Empire Building. (Isolationism)

By Bonta, Steve | The New American, March 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

Minding Our Own Business: American Foreign Policy Has Moved Away from the Prudent Non-Interventionism of the Founders to the Present Policy of Global Police Action and Empire Building. (Isolationism)


Bonta, Steve, The New American


If you allow a political catchword to go on and grow, you will awaken some day to find it standing over you, the arbiter of your destiny, against which you are powerless, as men are powerless against delusions.

William Graham Sumner

Since September 11th, the manufacturers of public opinion have written epitaphs for isolationism. "Farewell to isolationism," ran one typical entry in a recent Newsweek article entitled "The Death of a Founding Myth." "The terrorist attacks permanently altered America's self-identity. We must now embrace the global community we ourselves built." Robert Kagan, the Washington Post's "world columnist," wrote on January 29th that "Sept. 11th must spur us to launch a new era of American internationalism. Let's not squander this opportunity."

On the contemporary political scene, nothing provokes more quivering indignation than the heresy of "isolationism." To be accused of "isolationism" is to be exiled, with "conspiracy theorists," "racists" and "homophobes," to the outer darkness of official irrelevancy. It wasn't always so. There was a time when the sentiment now derided as "isolationist" had leverage in American politics. Elected leaders and citizens alike once understood the imprudence of meddling in foreign quarrels. But America has moved away from the Founders' prudent non-interventionism to our modern-day policy of open-ended, worldwide militarism, a policy that is transforming the United States from a republic to an empire and earning the ill will of peoples who once admired our freedom and prosperity.

Soon after the founding of the United States, during the administration of President Washington, the temptation to go adventuring overseas in defense of the mythical "national interest" was already in evidence. America had signed treaties of commerce and of alliance with France in 1778, but, with the political upheavals during the French Revolution that culminated in the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, America no longer felt bound by the terms of the treaties. Revolutionary France, who had been America's ally during the Revolutionary War, found herself in the 1790s embroiled in war with Austria, Prussia, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. During this period, France sent to the United States as ambassador one Citizen Genet, a seasoned subversive who began trying to drag America into the European conflict on the side of the French. Genet began violating American neutrality by commissioning American ships to attack British vessels, and by enlisting American citizens.

Neutrality of the Founders

Troubled by Genet's actions, President Washington issued on April 22, 1793, his Proclamation of Neutrality enjoining "conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers," to be followed both by the state and by private citizens.

In 1796, Washington clarified and offered justification for the principles of neutrality and non-interventionism in his Farewell Address:

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct, and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?

In other words, Washington foresaw the allure of foreign interventionism, but believed that the power of example, rather than the force of arms, would win more friends and allies in the long run.

Washington continued:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence ... 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.... 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....

It is our true policy to steer clear of any permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world....

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. …

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