The Founding of American International Relations: Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson

Written by: Joshua Lax.

The archetypal perspectives from which America draws the foundation of its international relations have existed since the time of the constitution.  These perspectives have advanced and receded based on their applicability to the existing economic, political, and social conditions within, and outside of, America.

There are three distinct perspectives advanced by three ‘founding’ figures from the time of the revolution.  These perspectives are: Isolationism, Realism, and Liberal-Idealism.  Isolationism, the view professed by George Washington, America’s first president and revolutionary general, held that American interests are best served by remaining aloof and independent from the world.  Alternatively, realism promotes the notion that international relations can be explained simply through power and power relations.  This viewpoint is the perspective through which Alexander Hamilton perceives world affairs.  The final perspective, Liberal-Idealism, takes an alternative view of world affairs and argues that cooperation, rather than raw power, is key to influencing international relations.  Thomas Jefferson opts for this perspective.  These three perspectives are evident in the entirety of America’s relationship with the rest of the world.  Once establishing grounding for each, one can look to various examples in American history where these perspectives come into play.  Each of these three perspectives have been articulated and fought over time and again throughout American history.  At times one perspective may reign as the overriding view of the people, however, the people’s views are not static, but rather fluid and capable of changing and adapting to the ebbs and flows of the current social and economic conditions.

While isolationism promotes ‘aloofness’ and independence, realism and idealism both provide radically different alternatives.  The notions of realism and idealism can be traced back to the opposing views of Hobbes and Locke on the state of nature.  Realism, much like the Hobbesian view, denotes that people, and in this case nations, are inherently fearful of each other and only through force and power can one establish independence and freedom on the world stage.  Alternatively, idealism, similar to the Lockean perspective, argues that people and nations are inherently ‘social’ and that peace and stability are best achieved through international cooperation and consideration.

The first of these perspectives is that of isolationism.  George Washington professed the view that isolationism is crucial to America’s success in the world.  He, along with other isolationists, proposed America could benefit itself, as well as the rest of the world, by remaining aloof from it.  America would not ‘muddy’ its hands in the affairs of the world, specifically in Europe.  Moreover, it would establish itself as a ‘shining city on a hill’ and as a guiding light for other nations.  As Washington so blatantly stated “I trust that we shall have too just a sense of our own interest to originate any cause… and I ardently wish we may not be forced into it by the conduct of other nations.[1]”  This statement illustrates his fear of the outside world adversely affecting America, as well as his everlasting faith in the American system.

For Washington, the core of his isolationist ‘fervor’ is exemplified through the ‘Proclamation of Neutrality (1793)’.  In it he declares America as an impartial witness to the ongoing European conflicts.  In his words, “…the policy of it is not to embroil ourselves with any nation whatsoever: but to avoid their disputes and politics; and if they will harass one another, to avail ourselves of the neutral conduct we have adopted.[2]”  This comment from Washington exemplifies his policy of neutrality and isolation.  Opining that by remaining aloof from the world, America could benefit while at the same time act as an impartial mediator.  This mode of international relations has been dubbed ‘the strategy of enlightened procrastination’[3].   Remaining neutral till the last possible moments grant a nation an inherent advantage.  A primary example of this ‘procrastination’ is demonstrated in ‘Jay’s Treaty’, which is discussed later in this paper.  Isolationism in America is founded in opposition to the European ‘internationalist’ model.

In a series of letters to Henry Laurens, Washington clearly articulates his views on independence and isolationism.  In a letter sent in April of 1778 he argues for independence on American terms.  “…nothing short of independence can possibly do… the injuries received from Britain can never be forgotten, and a peace upon other terms would be the source of perpetual feuds and animosity.[4]  He understands that peace on terms other than America’s would end in disaster.  In November of 1778 Washington writes another letter to Laurens arguing the necessity of isolationism.  “…men are very apt to run into extremes, hatred to England may carry some into an excess of confidence in France… it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest.[5]”  Here Washington is arguing for isolationism on realist grounds.  While Washington argues for isolationism on the grounds that nations are bound solely by self-interest, Hamilton would argue that once it is identified that all nations act in self-interest one must precede on the world stage with that knowledge in mind.

Looking forward, this situation outlined by Washington becomes reality at the beginnings of World War One.  America waited three long years before selecting a side and entering the war.  It is after WWI, in the 1930s, that American isolationism reaches its peak in popularity.  Public opinion polls conducted in the late thirties show that 95% of American citizens were opposed to participating in a future European war and about 70% were opposed to becoming a member of the League of Nations and/or joining with other nations to stop aggression[6].  Once again, the American public saw an internal struggle for power in Europe and decidedly argued against involvement.  In short, Washington was seeking “unity at home and independence abroad.[7]

The second perspective from which America bases its international relations professes a ‘realist’ perspective of world affairs.  To reiterate, realism views international relations through the lens of power.  Alexander Hamilton, as well as his comrades, John Jay and James Madison, promotes this position in the famous Federalist Papers and when speaking to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Hamilton provided a comprehensive articulation of his view of American foreign policy.  “It has been said that respectability in the eyes of foreign Nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of republican government was domestic tranquility and happiness.  This was an ideal distinction.  No Government could give us tranquility and happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.[8]   He is essentially arguing that the optimal mode of governance is one that ‘aims’ to provide its citizenry with ‘domestic tranquility and happiness” and furthermore, that this is not attainable to a government or nation that does not possess adequate ‘power’ to “make [them] respectable abroad.” This perspective is exemplified throughout American history, specifically through ‘Jay’s Treaty’ and in part by the Monroe Doctrine

Jay’s Treaty, principally engineered by John Jay, America’s first Chief Justice, succeeded in establishing peace between America and Britain while maintaining American neutrality[9].  Although at first glance the Treaty appears very one sided in favour of Britain, upon analysis, many historians have concluded that the treaty was a “shrewd bargain for the United States[10]. In effect, the treaty is a ‘gamble’ on the British, as opposed to the French, as the future dominant European power[11].  This is categorized under the realist view because it recognized America’s ‘dependence’ on English trade and attempted to secure it for America’s future.  It moves away from Washington’s perspective, as America no longer remains ‘truly’ neutral in world affairs.  However, in effect it advances the isolationist perspective.  Through peace with Britain, America enables itself to stay isolated on ‘its side of the ocean’, without the looming fear of war with Britain.  Additionally, Washington’s notion of ‘enlightened procrastination’ is evident here.  At a time when war with England meant sure defeat for America, the treaty allowed America to delay until a time when it is more economically and politically capable of fighting one[12].  Effectively, through realism, America is maintaining its position of isolationism.  The two seemingly disconnected perspectives of realism and isolationism are tied by a common thread, the desire for freedom.  It was believed that a treaty with England would aid in securing that freedom. The American public, however, did not see it in this light.  Throughout America once details of the agreement leaked there was a public outcry.  The populace felt that any concession to Britain, no matter how it could benefit them, was a betrayal of the independence won and the values fought for in the revolution[13].

The Monroe Doctrine straddles the perspectives of both isolationism and realism, in the sense that it secures isolation through realist means, similar to Jay’s Treaty.  There are three main concepts put forward in the Monroe Doctrine.  First, that Europe and the Americas are separate spheres of influence.  The second and third argue for non-colonization and non-intervention by Europe[14].  Effectively, this doctrine promoted the notion that the New World was separate from `old and autocratic` Europe and that Europe had neither the power nor the authority to affect change here.  Additionally, the comments on colonization and intervention solidify this stance and provide protection for the countries of the Americas.  At face value, the Monroe doctrine is a perfect example of realism.  The United States seeks to assert itself as the hegemon of the Americas to produce advantages for itself, i.e. security of trade with its South American neighbors, however, upon closer analysis, one could argue that America’s end goal of this doctrine is simply to keep Europe out of the Americas so it could remain isolated.  Thus enabling it to develop on its own path and on its own accord.  This example demonstrates how two of the perspectives can be combined to produce pragmatic results.  A pure isolationist stance, which would have been `no comment`, presumably would have achieved far less for America than the realist mode that was chosen.

The third perspective advanced at founding is that of the ‘liberal-idealist’.  Personified best by Thomas Jefferson, the epitomic ‘liberal-idealist’ statesman, this school of thought seeks to promote America as a collaborative player on the world stage.  Willing to ‘check’ its national and/or personal interest and work together with other state actors for the mutual benefit of all.  In his own words, “It shows on [Britain’s] part a spirit of justice and friendly accommodation which it is our duty and our interest to cultivate with all nations[15]“.  From this excerpt one can see that Jefferson believed that cultivating this ‘friendly’ relationship amongst all nations would benefit America in the long term.  On the other hand, the realist perspective is more skeptical of the world, believing that other nations only engage in international affairs to benefit themselves. Concisely, realism assumes selfish motives while idealism assumes selfless motives among nations.  The most prominent proponent of the ‘internationalist’ model in the 20th century is Woodrow Wilson.  His views are ‘branded’ as Wilsonian Internationalism.  Wilson’s perspective on international relations can been seen in his ‘Fourteen Points”.  Points one through five identify basic sovereign rights of nations, rooted in basic notions of liberty and freedom for all nations.  These include open covenants of peace, freedom of the seas, removal of economic barriers, limiting of armaments, and finally, an impartial adjustment of colonial claims.  Alternatively, points six through thirteen identify specific ‘problem’ areas of the world and provide realistic remedies, as opposed to the broad rights of nations outlined in the five points.  For example, point eight discusses the contentious issue of the Alsace-Lorraine between France and Prussia.  It asks that the French territory should be ‘freed’ and the invaded portions restored.   The last point, and what some regard as the most contentious point of Wilson’s list, is the fourteenth point.  “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.[16]”  This point evolved into the League of Nations, which, although garnering strong international support, failed to sway the American public’s prevalent view, with the populace decidedly siding with Isolationism over Internationalism.  Wilson exemplifies best what is to come in American politics.  He was a ‘progressive’ man from a ‘progressive’ era and the public, and to some extent the world, was simply not ready.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, commonly known as the ‘Pact of Paris’, is an instance where American foreign policy extends to both isolationism and idealism.  In response to the realities of war seen during the First World War, America, as well as other nations, desired to prevent it from reoccurring.  The pact prevented the use of war to advance national interests and it specifically forbade wars of aggression, meaning countries ought not use their military to attain nationalist goals.  However, the pact does not ban military acts of self-defense, thus not inhibiting a country’s natural right to self-preservation.  America is utilizing ‘idealist’ means, international cooperation, as a method of pursuing its isolationist desires.  A core dilemma America felt while developing this pact was fear.  America was skeptical of entering into a pact, which may, in the future, demand its assistance.  It was scared the pact would be viewed on the world stage as a bilateral treaty between France and America, and that in a time of crisis, America would be expected to intervene.  To avoid this dilemma the countries decided to invite all nations of the world to join in a ban on aggressive war and did not put in place a condition of mutual defense.  The pact was held in high esteem in the chambers of congress and was ratified in the Senate by a vote of 85 to 1[17].  The Kellogg-Briand Pact served America’s national interest, promoting peaceable relations amongst signatory nations.  It enabled America to establish a form of international peace, while retaining its isolationist tendencies, specifically by the fact that this treaty did not force mutual defense.  In the end, the pact was insufficient in preventing another world war.  It became obvious that the pact was incapable of being enforced and insufficient in reprimanding those who broke it.  It is obvious at this point in time that the pact failed to prevent World War Two notwithstanding the facts that Germany and Japan were both signatories.

There are two primary issues with isolationism that can be easily identified.  First, the isolationist notions of unilateralism and ad hoc pacifism are incompatible and will come into conflict[18].  To a unilateralist, there are specific procedures for dealing with any given action taken against the country, almost to the point of automated response.  However, ad hoc pacifism relies on its ability to be dynamic and change with each given situation.  The opposing positions of a strict set of rules and an ever changing and dynamic system are guaranteed to come into conflict.  The second argument is that there are two factors overlooked by the isolationists.  First, that many Americans would be sympathetic towards the war-torn nations of Europe.  Second, based on America’s relative economic and military strength on the world stage, its acts, whether of omission or commission, have the potential to affect the outcome of wars[19].  For example, the United Nations (U.N.) establishes sanctions against a nation. America, by acting unilaterally and with no regard for the U.N.’s decision has the potential to single-handedly undermine the policy.  Alternatively, by acting unilaterally, as opposed to bi or multi-laterally, in support of the policy it would render America’s action less effective than it could potentially have been.

In the end the isolationists were never fully able to reconcile these dilemmas and as a result, lost the broad support of the American public.  The Unilateralists realized ‘true’ independence in foreign affairs required the strength and willingness to risk war in defense of rights and principles.  Conversely, the pacifists saw that America could only avoid war by cooperating with other nations[20].  International relations on the world stage had evolved to a point, which rendered isolationism an ineffective policy, and it is its ineffectiveness led to its demise.

These three perspectives, either independently or together, account for the entire spectrum of American international relations thought.  Washington’s isolationism demonstrated throughout his presidency was effective at a time when America needed to focus on its initial elements of development, as it was still in its infancy, and the world was a far less connected and globalized place.  Seen throughout his writings, and specifically in his ‘Farewell Address’, Washington shows his passionate faith in the American system and his belief that involvement in world affairs could only harm what Americans had fought so hard to obtain.  Hamiltonian ‘realism’ advanced and progressed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.  As it became increasingly more difficult to remain isolated, realism poses the best alternative.  America should act on the world stage only when in doing so America could realize benefit.  Seen within Hamilton’s writing, like Washington’s, is a fortified belief in American exceptionalism.  To Hamilton, America and the American System were perfect examples of a republican state and republican governance.  Hamilton feared that involving America on the world stage in situations that did not directly benefit it, could cause potential harm.  The most ‘progressive’ perspective advanced by a founder is the Jeffersonian ‘idealism’.  Seen throughout his writing, Jefferson had an undying faith in the people and nations of the world that together, through cooperation, the world could be made better place.  The Jeffersonian tradition is exemplified best by Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson’s mode of international relations is dubbed ‘Wilsonian Internationalism’; however, its guiding principles are close to, if not exactly, what I have called Jeffersonian ‘idealism’.  These principles have continued to become ever more prevalent in the American political forum.  As the world grows closer together and nations rely exceedingly more on each other the path of isolationism appears to be a dead end.  On closer analysis however, one could argue that isolationism as a ‘means’ is impossible in today’s day and age, however, as an ‘end’ it is still viable.  Whether through Hamilton’s ‘realism’ or Jefferson’s ‘idealism’, in the end America seems to want to be left alone.  This leads one to question why does America, the Hegemonic superpower of the world, wish to be left alone?

America is scared.  From the time of revolution America has feared the influence of others and the consequent negative impacts that may be realized.  It is almost paradoxical that the most powerful nation in the world fears others.  It is this fear that, at the time of independence, led America to develop a ‘pluralist’ form of governance.  That being a pragmatic approach to government where separate powers must come together to enact legislation.  This ‘pluralist’ mode is evident throughout America’s international relations history.  It is the pragmatic balance of isolationism, realism, and idealism that has been the source of all of America’s involvement in world affairs.  The forced ‘cooperation’ between opposing views has acted as a safeguard for America.  It limits, if not totally eliminating, the possibility of America ‘running’ to one extreme or another, the greatest fear amongst the founders.  Once again, in Washington’s own words to congress, “men are very apt to run into extremes[21].  Once the pragmatism needed to sustain this system is realized, the stage is set for the second half of the twenty-first century.  As America becomes increasingly more involved in the affairs of the world, the cautious warnings of the founders ought not be forgotten.


This is my opinion.  What’s yours?

[1] Washington’s Letter to David Humphrey’s – Mar. 23, 1793
[2]  Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2002) pg. 135
[3]  Ibid – 135
[4]  Saul K. Padover, The Washington Papers (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1955) pg. 168
[5]  Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2002) pg. 132-133
[6]  Joshua S. Goldstein and Sandra Whitworth, International Relations (Toronto, ON: Pearson Education Canada, 2005) pg. 81-82
[7]  Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2002) pg. 129
[8]  Jacob E. Cooke, Alexander Hamilton: A Profile (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1969) pg. 107
[9] Milstone Events: Jays Treaty, 2010, (accessed 03 10, 2010).
[10]  Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2002) pg. 136-137
[11] Ibid – 136
[12]  Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2002) pg. 137
[13] Ibid – 137
[14]  The Avalon Project: Monroe Doctrine 1823, (accessed 03 09, 2010).
[15]  Philip S. Foner, The Basic Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, NY: Willey Book Company, 1944) pg. 342
[16] Michael Duffy, Primary Documents: Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points, 08 22, 2009, (accessed 03 10, 2010).
[17]  Kellogg-Briand Pact 1928, (accessed 03 09, 2010).
[18]  Manfred Jonas, Isolationism in America 1935-1941 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966) pg. 170
[19] Ibid – 170
[20]  Manfred Jonas, Isolationism in America 1935-1941 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966) pg. 171
[21] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2002) pg. 132-133

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