The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Foreign Relations & International Involvement

Until America's entrance into the First World War, this nation adhered fairly strictly to Jefferson's position on non-involvement in international affairs, as discussed in the first essay of this series on Foreign Relations & Jeffersonian Principles. The United States expanded its dominion through the wild, virtually uninhabited lands of the West, and had some disputes with Great Britain, Mexico, Canada and Spain, but these were of a different order of magnitude from the attempts of the European nations to conquer and subdue one another. For most of 150 years since its birth, uninvolvement served America well.

In contrast to a policy of non-involvement is the theory of power politics. The latter is embraced by those who are not true republicans, who believe that government is basically an autocratic domination of the masses by a ruling elite, and that these elites naturally have designs on increasing their powers and subjugating other peoples. Under this concept of statecraft, being head of state is essentially a channel for personal ambition. These men and women are chiefs of their tribes, not representatives of a sovereign people. They are accustomed to reigning until deposed, whether by death or by overthrow. This overthrow may mask itself as part of a democratic process, but as explained in the essays on the Parliamentary System (see references at end), because of the nature of the political parties and the manner in which politicians therein are elected and perform their duties, such governments are not designed to give maximum voice to the people, but rather act as elected ruling power blocks. Or, so it is in those countries where they are not merely a ruling elite that hold dictatorial power supported by parliaments that are nothing more than rubber stamps. As Jefferson noted,

    "Either force or corruption has been the principle of every modern government." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1796.

And little has changed since Jefferson's time amongst those who would be rulers. Most people in the world today live under some form of parliamentary government. Such governments are either ruled by parties selected through the electoral process, or by a single party that exercises dictatorial rule. The latter especially are astonished at the American system in which the people are fully capable of periodically throwing their leaders out of office on what appears to be nothing more than whim. They fail to appreciate the principles of free government in its greatest exercise.

    "We can surely boast of having set the world a beautiful example of a government reformed by reason alone without bloodshed. But the world is too far oppressed to profit by the example " --Thomas Jefferson to E. Rutledge, 1788.

With minds steeped in autocracy, those living under party rule or party dictatorship fail to appreciate the true role of elections. But as Jefferson pointed out, mere elections do not establish free governments.

    "An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.

The result of this prevalence of autocracy in the governments of the world is that international relationships are inherently unstable, because by their very nature, most nations, through their leaders, will always have designs on one another. And with respect to the European powers during most of their history, that assessment has been invariably correct. Previous to the 20th century, such powers sought to maintain peace through one of two possible means: a balance of powers, or imperial domination. In the 20th Century, under the influence of Woodrow Wilson, there arose the concept of Collective Security, which is merely a variation of the balance of powers in which the nations of a region band together to oppose any state that will aggress upon a member of the consortium. Redress is then initiated by the other nations in concert in order to stop the advances of the rogue nation. The very existence of the consortium is expected to prevent nations from even thinking about aggression. Implied in all these arrangements, however, is an acceptance of aggressive intentions of one nation on another as a part of the natural order of things and as something to be protected against. There is no recognition that the best interests of a nation have a moral foundation or that the warlike nature of governments can be changed if their form of government is changed. Such a realpolitik approach, while taking pride in looking at the world as it is, fails to realize that it has become a part of the corruption by dealing with corrupt power on its own terms and by letting such power determine the shape of international relations. But as Jefferson wrote,

    "We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805.

This adherence to a diplomatic philosophy designed around the acceptance of aggression as the nature of a modern state results from the character of these states and their miscalculation, or non-calculation, of the best interests of their own people. These states do not have the democratic traditions that would provide them with a more peaceful nature, and this compels them into a diplomatic system to compensate for the deficiency. Thus Jefferson preferred to avoid them and their influence altogether.

    "I hope we may still keep clear of [the broils of Europe], and that time may be given us to find some means of shielding ourselves in future from foreign influence, political, commercial, or in whatever other form it may be attempted. I can scarcely withhold myself from joining in the wish of Silas Deane that there were an ocean of fire between us and the old world." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Gerry, 1797.

America, the land of freedom, had a different vision: one that avoided the miseries that the European nations heaped upon themselves by their wars of conquest and domination.

    "Do what is right, leaving the people of Europe to act their follies and crimes among themselves, while we pursue in good faith the paths of peace and prosperity." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1823.

Unfortunately, Jefferson's advice was abandoned in the 20th century, and once America became deeply involved in the affairs of Europe, there appeared no turning back.

    World War I: The Turning Point

Until the First World War, the United States practiced to a high degree the Jeffersonian policy of non-involvement. We had our skirmishes and problems, both internal and external, but these mainly avoided conflict with the great powers of Europe. And diverted but not destroyed by the devastation of a Civil War, we nevertheless enjoyed the prosperity that such non-involvement produced.

With American involvement in World War I, however, all this changed. Moreover, the results of this intervention were especially disastrous for the future peace of the world, creating oppression and instability in post-war Germany that eventually erupted into the even greater disaster of World War II and dragged the United States into an all-encompassing international involvement from which it appears there is almost certainly now no turning back. Something good might still come out of this disaster, however. If America is now the leader of the Free World, we might yet make our involvement a blessing for the rest of mankind provided we adhere to (or, perhaps, return to) the immutable principles of liberty and self-government upon which this nation was founded, and allow those principles to be our lodestar in our relations with all other nations.

The war that began in 1914 was just one more igniting of the European powder keg. Europe consisted of a precarious balance of powers in which America initially had no part. As a result of a system of alliances in which nations were divided into opposing camps and agreed to support one another if an alliance member were attacked, the stage was set for the beginning of a massive war upon the slightest provocation. Once such a war began, it took on a momentum of its own because its cause was founded, not in right or reason, but in the very existence of opposition, and opposition has no goal other than destruction. Because of the advances in technology, the war that did come was especially ugly and brutal.

Before America's entrance in 1917, the war had reached a stalemate. Germany was holding out, and the allies were weakening. In hopes of cutting off Britain's supplies and bringing her to her knees, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare. And because the United States was one of the chief suppliers of Britain, this meant American ships were sunk, bringing the United States into the war.

With America in the war, the stalemate became a rout, and the Central Powers were crushed. At the peace conference, Germany was at the mercy of the Allies, who demanded retribution and fully exploited their victory. Once the war was over, France and England virtually brushed Wilson and his ideals aside and proceeded to exact a plunder of Germany by compelling them to pay reparations on an unprecedented scale, saying, as Churchill wrote, that "they would squeeze Germany 'till the pips squeaked.'" U.S. bankers then moved in and loaned the money to Germany for these reparations at outrageous interest rates. The very face of democracy was besmirched by forcing upon Germany the "Weimar Republic" whose job it was to acquiesce in this national rape. Churchill blames the American prejudice against monarchy for preventing a German constitutional monarchy which might have made the impositions of the allies more palatable. No thought was given to the possibility that maybe the impositions were outrageous or that a people were being made to suffer for the deeds of their autocratic rulers. America had assisted one side in a battle of jackals, and then stepped aside as the victors devoured the vanquished.

Had America never entered the war, had she remained truly neutral, perhaps only furnishing the implements of war, and in the belligerent's own bottoms, the stalemate of 1917 would eventually have been resolved between equally exhausted foes. But with the infusion of fresh American troops, the balance was tipped, and Germany was crushed. The first serious entry of America into European affairs, against the counsel of Jefferson, resulted in a "Glorious Victory." It also resulted in the unbearable humiliation of Germany and the crushing domestic aftermath. Although there is never any justification for evil, we can hardly wonder at the rise of Adolph Hitler, seen by the German nation as a leader who would lift them out of humiliation and shame to the greatness which they thought was their birthright. Thus were they seduced into the paths of the greatest evil any nation has ever trod. And thus did they walk this path that was to their minds the only escape from the desperate humiliation ladled upon them with the help of American intervention. Evil was balanced by an even greater evil.

That America's participation in the First World War was to "make the world safe for democracy," gives the whole operation the character of the absurd. War does not make the world safe for democracy; democracy makes the world safe for itself. The European governments were not democracies in the sense that the United States was, and joining with them in their battles to preserve their powers only brings to mind Jefferson's statement:

    "I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance, or joining in the confederacy of Kings to war against the principles of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Gerry, 1799.

Wilson had promised to keep the United States out of the conflict, and was elected on that promise -- which clearly illustrates what was the will of the American people. Wilson's error was in thinking that democratic principle could be the foundation of international order between nations and rulers who themselves were not founded on democratic principle. His vision for a world community could only be fulfilled by democratic states, not by colonial powers with only the frailest cloak of democracy over their autocratic bones. By entering "that field of slaughter" in a foolishly academic hope of promoting democracy, Wilson merely lent support to one side of two warring enemies of the principles of liberty. The result was even greater slaughter to come.

    Prologue to the Inevitable War

Winston Churchill, in The Gathering Storm, called the Second World War, "The Unnecessary War." From his perspective of power politics, it need not have happened if only the world powers had kept Germany in check. The mistake was when "the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm." Such a shallow, superficial view of the dynamics of international politics assumes that war and peace is a matter of "good" people, like the English-speaking peoples, preventing "evil" people, like the Germans, from possessing the armaments of war. Such a prescription for peace assumes it is possible only by a suppression of "bad" imperial powers by the "good" imperial powers. After humiliating Germany, according to Churchill, if only the Allies had continued the repression with a strict enforcement of the disarmament clauses of the Peace Treaty, that "would have guarded indefinitely, without violence or bloodshed, the peace and safety of mankind." But "the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous," in Churchill's self-righteous view. Nowhere is his account, however, do we see any mention of democratic principle and the role that plays in maintaining peace. The Jeffersonian view was decidedly different. World peace was not a function of repression or balance of power between nations, but of principle enacted into political affairs.

    "I have ever cherished the same spirit with all nations, from a consciousness that peace, prosperity, liberty and morals have an intimate connection." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Logan, 1813.

The Churchillian perspective is one based on imperialism and repression, and contains no faith in self-government as a predecessor to world peace. It is power and the benign despotism of the British and French that would bring international security, not republicanism. Churchill inadvertently acknowledged the poverty of power politics when he wrote of World War II in The Gathering Storm, "The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted." Apparently it never occurred to Mr. Churchill that the answer to world conflict is not the suppression of peoples and the maintenance of overwhelming power in the "Righteous," but rather the spread of true democracy amongst all nations and the control of government by the people themselves, rather than by their self-appointed, despotic masters. The wish for peace is, as Churchill acknowledged, the "heart's desire of all the peoples," but rarely so that of their leaders, corrupted by power.

Woodrow Wilson approached the aftermath of World War I with a partial vision of the spread of democratic principles throughout the world. But he was unable to quell the desire for revenge on the part of the British and the French, and his vision for a League of Nations was not supported by his own country.

Wilson's failure was three-fold. (1) The world cannot be made safe for democracy by repression or by semi-despotic powers banding together. Democracy will make the world safe for itself. His inability to hold back Britain and France meant that Germany would become a pressure cooker, bound in time to explode. (2) His League of Nations was then, just as the United Nations is today, a League of Oppressive States. It could do nothing to foster democracy in other nations, but only serve as a forum for discussions by power elites. If anything, such organizations preserve the status quo, which is the equivalent of an alliance "against the principles of liberty." (3) The principle of Collective Security was not a solution, but a corrective, exercised by the "good" over the "bad." It was, indeed, a prescription for never ending small wars, as the community of moderate states met the perpetual challenges of the rogue states. And like all of Wilson's policies, it was and remains a means for keeping undemocratic governments in power. We continue to live with these failures to the end of the 20th century.

(The next essay on Foreign Relations will discuss international politics since WW II and the prospects for the infusion of Jeffersonian principles into American foreign policy.)

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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