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Heritage vs. George Washington

[Guest post by James Downie]

The Heritage Foundation's Ted Bromund adds to Heritage's continuing "First Principles" series, outlining the conservative think tank's views on foreign policy:

"One common way of thinking about foreign policy is that it exists in its own world, separate from domestic policy or the first principles on which a nation is founded. According to this view, the job of the foreign policy expert is to deal dispassionately with the world as it is, making no distinction between democracies and dictatorships, and shaping policy solely by cold-hearted consideration of the national interest.
The Heritage Foundation has never accepted this way of thinking. It believes that the first principles on which the United States was founded must guide its foreign as well as its domestic policy...[W]e must be guided by our first principles when we go abroad: We must respect the beliefs that made us—especially if we are to stand up for our interests and our values in a world that cannot be relied upon to defend them for us...
Ultimately, we believe that America’s principle of powerful but limited government that expresses the will of the people is the right one, and that it will prevail unless we ourselves forsake it. That is why we believe that, at home and abroad, we must live up to this principle, and must reject the false belief that American foreign policy can exist in a world of its own, unconnected to our policies at home or the proud yet prudent expression of our values abroad."

In other words, Bromund/Heritage believes that America should involve itself in world affairs on political and/or moral grounds ("the prudent expression of our values abroad"), and claims this approach is in the spirit of the "First Principles" of the Founding Fathers. But rather than let Heritage tell us what the Founding Fathers meant (assuming they meant anything as a group, of course), let's look at, say, what George Washington said in his famous Farewell Address from 1796:

“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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”

Nowhere in the address is the word "values" mentioned, and politically or morally-based involvement is discouraged. Rather, Washington encourages only "commercial relations," particularly the expansion of foreign trade, as the central goal of American foreign policy.

Washington's address is often labeled a founding document of the "non-interventionist" school of foreign policy, the dominant approach in American politics through the early 20th century. Non-interventionism, incidentally, is generally considered a version of realism, the philosophy Bromund explicitly argues against. In fact, the first president to advocate a foreign policy built around a "prudent expression of our values abroad" was not any Founding Father, but Woodrow Wilson, and he was spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing the American people to support his "liberal internationalism." This is not to say that a foreign policy based on values is incorrect; indeed, non-interventionists have been harder and harder to find since the 1930s. But, as with most "originalist" arguments, the Founding Fathers don't provide much of a foundation at all.