Gongol.com Archives: October 2023

Brian Gongol

October 29, 2023

News Entangling alliances with some

George Washington's valedictory advice, "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world", was famously echoed and amplified by Thomas Jefferson in the words, "[P]eace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none" in his own first inaugural. These are often the first words summoned by modern opponents of international engagement. ■ It comes as some misfortune that those early Presidents were so gifted in their words, because their sense of poetry obscures an essential bit of framing. The international agreements reached in their time were worth avoiding because they were so foundationally unstable: When most every treaty is effectively an interpersonal deal among monarchs, then feelings prevail rather than rules. ■ When Jefferson became President, the European world was under the control of men like Napoleon, Tsar Paul I (who was just days from assassination), George III, and Francis II (the last Holy Roman Emperor). Avoiding "entangling alliances" was probably the prudent move at the time. ■ But the Founders were plainly enthused about rules, systems, and balance: The entire Constitution is an act in establishing predictable mechanisms to channel and convert self-interest into peaceful coexistence. Thus, it's no stretch to imagine them embracing what we now call the "rules-based international order" and subscribing to it with enthusiasm wherever they could. ■ That isn't evident from their writings, but nor would have been their response to digital computing or nuclear weapons. Directionally, though, they were headed towards what we would now consider an "internationalist" viewpoint: One to promote trade, peace, and the universality of rights, with a skeptical view of anything that would reward a might-makes-right approach to resolving conflict. ■ We shouldn't be too ready to assume that the words used when the United States was a small, unimposing outpost in the world would be the same advice we would get today. Jets, ICBMs, and the Internet have shrunk the oceans to almost nothing in effective terms -- and, just as significantly, what we know as the free world is governed almost entirely by the sorts of democratic republican systems that the Founders were trying to secure when they demanded independence. No one should imagine that their advice wouldn't have evolved with along with the prevailing facts.