The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Foreign Relations & The New World Order

For the United States, involvement in the Second World War became unavoidable. It was a war that had to be fought to prevent the destruction of freedom at all levels and in all nations everywhere. In his warnings against involvement in the affairs of European nations, Jefferson did not describe the outcome if his cautions were not heeded. But it requires little imagination to project what that outcome would be. Once involved, once the power and resources of the United States become factored into international affairs, there can be no easy escape. Channels of trade and dependency become established. Calculations and alliances by opponents are made to compensate for this new player. A new balance is formed, and the struggle is renewed with the new participant in mind.

Assisting in this policy of involvement in foreign affairs was the advancement of technology. Jefferson's wish for "an ocean of fire between us and the old world" was made less likely by steamships and submarines, and now by airplanes and missiles that can cross oceans in hours and in minutes. Non-involvement would have required a deliberate effort and a strong resistance to the tide of events that seems to sweep nations along in its path. Only a politician who put principle above every other interest could have kept the United States on such a course.

As in local politics, so in international: when moral principles are abandoned, other principles, accompanied by appropriate sophistic justifications, take their place. Thus is established power politics, or real politik. And thus can this abandonment of moral principle be traced in the foreign policy of the United States. Analysis becomes categorical, limited to the protection of "vital national interests" by whatever means, and the principles of liberty are factored out and forgotten. But liberty was the first priority for Thomas Jefferson, and our relationship to other nations could not take precedent over that.

    "Our attachment to no nation on earth should supplant our attachment to liberty." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775.

That statement was made in a different context than our inquiry here, but it contains a principle that is nevertheless universal. And just as we would not disavow liberty for the sake of a relationship to a mother country, or even to our own country, so we would not demand another country to dispense with liberty for the sake of a relationship with us. Indeed, we as a free people ourselves would expect another people to put liberty first, and to resent any support that we might make of a despotic government that holds them under despotic oppression in order to maintain a "normal" relationship. Our approach to a foreign people, therefore, is not to support their masters, but to support them, and to deal with their masters only in their capacity as the governing body of a people who are inherently and undeniably free. As much as possible, we as true republicans, would assume that their masters were mere agents for an inherently self-governing people. This means we would never view a whole people as being evil, but at most, perhaps, misguided. We might view their leaders as being evil, for quite often that is a fact. Hence, we would take no steps that would persecute the people of a nation on account of the leaders that rule over them. Much less would we try to punish a whole people in order to compel them to overthrow their leaders in order to, say, establish a more democratic government. Besides being immoral, that would most likely be counterproductive, because steps by one nation to exert force on another tends only to unite the nation being persecuted.

Power politics, however, ignores such niceties of principle and sees everything as a balancing of interests between essentially absolute powers. Its sole concern is to protect one's own national interests. But as Jefferson wrote,

    "True wisdom does not lie in mere practice without principle." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1816.

Real politik, or power politics, are if anything mere practice without principle. This is foreign relations based on an assessment of interest, not those guided by fundamental principles. Policy is not based on inalienable rights, but on raison d'etat (reasons of state) -- an assumption that the interests of a state justify whatever means are used to pursue those interests. History has value for power politics only in the analogies that it offers, and in the lessons that can be learned from the paths taken that have achieved certain results in the past, or that failed to achieve intended results. Statecraft refers to the means for manipulating events in pursuit of national interests, which imply the fulfillment of self-interested designs. Of course, such an approach could as easily be used in pursuit of principled ends, but it invariably is not. In spite of the high level of skill employed in the process, the ends are inevitably destructive, because it is only through the pursuit of principle that a true understanding of and an accommodation to the realities of human existence can occur with results that will truly be beneficial to mankind.

    "When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society. Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

Moral principles in international relations bring us to a proper relationship with the realities of human existence. Our national interests in the long run are inseparable from those principles.

    "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.

If moral principles are not the gateway to reality and sound action, then morality has no meaning whatsoever. If they are, then morality is as proper for nations as it is for individuals.

    "The moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature accompany them into a state of society, and the aggregate of the duties exist as did between the individuals composing them while in an unassociated state, their Maker not having released them from those duties on their forming themselves into a nation." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion, 1793.

Ever since Woodrow Wilson, America has brought to international relations a moral dimension, even if inevitably misplaced and misdirected. This is what Henry Kissinger in his book, Diplomacy, calls a "reverence for international law and democracy." But modern diplomacy consists of conflict resolution and the balancing of interests. The thought that everything should be structured on a foundation of national moral principles is viewed as naive and unrealistic. Unfortunately, as practiced by the United States, it often is.

Nowhere today, it seems, is there a nation that champions international democracy in the Jeffersonian tradition. Nowhere is there a recognition that the foundation of social life on this planet is the moral principles encompassed by the inherent and inalienable rights of man, and not by the balancing of conflicting interests which ignore those principles. Ultimately, however, it is only through such principles that we can arrive at right policy.

    "Principle will, in... most... cases open the way for us to correct conclusion." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

Although Jefferson did not say what would happen if we abandoned the policy of non-involvement, he did describe what would be the result for a nation that chose the real politik path and assumes that the interest of a state justify whatever means it uses to pursue them, in other words, that "force is right."

    "[When] the principle that force is right [becomes] the principle of the nation itself, they [will] not permit an honest minister, were accident to bring such an one into power, to relax their system of [lawlessness.]" --Thomas Jefferson to C. Rodney, 1810.
The abandonment of principle undermines the moral stature of a nation. And a nation that abandons morality has no future.

    After the Second World War

No sooner was the hot war with the Axis powers over than the Cold War with the Soviet empire began. The involvement in international affairs that began with the First World War and intensified with the Second, reached its peak in the Cold War. Then more than ever, involvement in the affairs of undemocratic foreign nations meant the total abandonment of all principle in United States external relations. In an effort to head off the inroads of communism in other lands, America gave her support to any and every despot on the face of the earth that would stand against the despotism of communism. When Jefferson wrote,

    "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.

he could not have more accurately described what did indeed happen, unless he had had the foresight to add "and dictators" to "kings." The principle of Collective Security required the security of any anti-communist despotism. And by our support militarily, and with foreign aid, entrenched despots were guaranteed by the United States that they would remain in power and that their people would remain under oppression. The very land that had given to the world the hope of liberty now supplied the fuel for the engines of oppression. Lost was the vision that Jefferson expressed in these words:

    "A just and solid republican government maintained here will be a standing monument and example for the aim and imitation of the people of other countries; and I join... in the hope and belief that they will see from our example that a free government is of all others the most energetic; that the inquiry which has been excited among the mass of mankind by our revolution and its consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Dickinson, 1801.

It was not thought possible to trust the people of a foreign nation who are struggling for freedom to find their way to democracy. Such a period of transition would risk a level of unacceptable instability. They, in their backwardness and ignorance, might choose communism! A continuation of despotism, however, would produce greater stability. Thus on their behalf did we, in Jefferson's words,

    "prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Mazzei, 1796.

This eventually led to the disastrous policy in South Vietnam, but that must be treated as a separate topic. Part of the support of despotism included the promotion of a charade of Democracy, with an insistence on "free elections" and guarantees of "human rights," but abandoning the true principles of a republic in which the people themselves are the guarantors of their own rights. But no foreign power has the right to force a different form of government on another people.

    "Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.

Attempts to force such a government ignore the development of the people which must precede such a government. And by ignoring such development, the only likelihood is some form of military despotism, which was invariably the case.

    American Foreign Policy in the Future

To the surprise of the whole Western world, Communism collapsed, mainly of its own incapacity. Those in power at the time were quick to take credit for it, of course. And the Cold War did attest to the energy of the essentially free governments in the West as well as the inability of Communism to keep up. Having for years violated principle itself in this struggle and brought itself close to financial ruin, the United States now puzzles over its role in world affairs. Should it intervene in every theater of slaughter around the globe? Should it beat up on the few remaining Communist dictatorships (North Korea, Cuba)? Or should it do business with the remaining, though slowly disintegrating, Communist powers that offer commercial rewards (China, Vietnam)? Having operated on the basis of power politics for so many years, plotting a course now becomes one of contradictory relationships, governed by expediency and, in some cases (as in Cuba), pique. Americans long to return to the principles of their Founding Fathers, but this is difficult to do without admitting that the present course was guided by real politik expediency and that a return to the principles of the Founders would require a reversal of much of our foreign policy. Perhaps our condition is not as bad as that of France and England, which Jefferson had in mind when he wrote:

    "[Even] nations so honorably distinguished by their advances in science and civilization [can] suddenly cast away the esteem they had merited from the world and, revolting from the empire of morality, assume a character in history which all the tears of their posterity will never wash from its pages." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1808.

But the question nevertheless arises, What can America do now, not to undo the past, but to rightly face the future?

Taking our cue from Jefferson, we should begin with a respect for the sovereignty of other nations.

    "We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own government is founded, that every one may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases and change these forms at its own will, and that it may transact its business with foreign nations through whatever organ it thinks proper, whether king, convention, assembly, committee, president, or anything else it may choose. The will of the nation is the only thing essential to be regarded." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Morris, 1793.

Having carried on a long and difficult struggle with Communism, it may be near impossible for us to stop meddling in the affairs of other nations, but that is the counsel of Jefferson.

    "Unmeddling with the affairs of other nations, we presume not to prescribe or censure their course." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Stael, 1807.

Does that mean we would stand by and allow another nation to be overrun by despots, to founder in its struggle to be free? Apparently so, if it is solely an internal matter.

    "The right of nations to self-government being my polar star, my partialities are steered by it without asking whether it is a Bonaparte or an Alexander [Emperor of Russia] toward whom the helm is directed." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Correa, 1815.

But might that not mean that a Bonaparte, for example, may later become a threat to the peace of the world? Apparently it might, and apparently when that happens, that is the time for the world to deal with it. Not that we would condone the invasion of one nation by another.

    "The occasion is [not] to be slighted... of declaring our protest against the atrocious violations of the rights of nations by the interference of any one in the internal affairs of another." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1823.

In fact, we might well assist one nation being assaulted by another.

    "Countries... have a right to be free, and we a right to aid them, as a strong man has a right to assist a weak one assailed by a robber or murderer." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1816.

Perhaps we have accepted too readily the role of the world's policeman to take such a modest position. Perhaps we are too obsessed with our own power to stand by and watch as other nations work out their own problems.

More likely, we are concerned with the demands and accommodations of international business. Why, for example, would a free nation come to the aid of the Emir of Kuwait to protect his kingdom against invasion by an equally dictatorial power? Jefferson looked upon all such questions from the perspective of republican principles, not of power politics and the security of our despotic friends. All acknowledge that the United States fought to restore the Emir of Kuwait to his throne for the sake of oil. Nearly 150 of America's young people died for oil, not for our founding principles. When the State Department envoy told Saddam Husein that the United States had no position in his dispute with Kuwait, perhaps she was speaking from the same kind of disinterested view that Jefferson might have taken.

    The Perils of Involvement

What, then, has been the result of our involvement in the broils of other nations? Has it led to the happiness of the American people? Is the nation more secure?

The result has been enormous expenditures on armaments while the infrastructure of the nation falls apart. Involvement has meant astronomical national debt, not to speak of the loss of life by America's young people, which has no price. It has meant a nation torn apart over a war in Southeast Asia. It has meant alliances with despots, and support of near-feudal Middle East kingdoms. It has meant attacks on innocent Americans by terrorists incensed over our interference in their countries and support of their enemies. It has meant that America herself has lost her sense of mission, her commitment to the principles of liberty on which this nation was founded. It has meant we no longer even speak of liberty, because that implies the possession of certain inalienable rights, but instead now speak of "freedom" because that can be applied to people who now live under friendly despots but who are "free" of unfriendly despots. And why has this state of affairs come about? Because we the people have been inattentive to our duty to remain on guard.

    "We are to guard against ourselves; not against ourselves as we are, but as we may be; for who can imagine what we may become under circumstances not now imaginable?" --Thomas Jefferson to J. Morse, 1822.

It is incumbent upon ourselves to keep in mind the principles of our nation and to insist that our public officials be directed by those principles, knowing that we cannot rely on government always to adhere to the principles of liberty.

    "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Carrington, 1788.

But we need not despair. We only need to set our sights on the true course and insist on it from our public officials.

    "The happiness of governments like ours wherein the people are truly the mainspring is that they are never to be despaired of. When an evil becomes so glaring as to strike them generally, they arouse themselves, and it is redressed. He only is then the popular man and can get into office who shows the best dispositions to reform the evil. This truth was obvious on several occasions during the [Revolutionary] war, and this character in our government saved us. Calamity [is] our best physician." --Thomas Jefferson to R. Price, 1785.

Our duty is to recognize our principles, to know and understand the meaning of liberty, and to insist on its implementation in public policy in our own country and throughout the world.

    "May [our Declaration of Independence] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government... All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to R. Weightman, 1826.

The principles of our Declaration of Independence can light the way to our own security and will direct our path towards proper relations with other nations. We need only adhere to those principles ourselves.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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