The Corner

The Living Farewell Address

James Downie argues that the Heritage Foundation, in calling for “the proud yet prudent expression of our [Founding] values” in our foreign policy, breaks with the foreign-policy thought of an actual Founder, George Washington. “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.”

Downie’s post gives me an excuse to write a post without doing any actual work, because it lets me quote an old article of mine that presents a different view.

[S]ome aspiration toward universal liberty has always been implicit in the American project. The first of the Federalist Papers suggests that if America succeeds it will be to the general fortune of mankind: It will be proven that “societies of men are really capable . . . of establishing good government from reflection and choice,” and are not “forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” America would be an example; today, we would say that it would exercise “soft power.” Even John Quincy Adams, in that famous remark about America’s not going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and being “the champion and vindicator only of her own” freedom, notes that it is also a “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”

[But] our general stance toward the promotion of liberty in the world must change with our circumstances. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned against “permanent alliances.” He said that we should have “as little political connection as possible” with “foreign nations.” John Quincy Adams, three decades later, provided a gloss: “I can not overlook the reflection that the counsel of Washington in that instance, like all the counsels of wisdom, was founded upon the circumstances in which our country and the world around us were situated at the time when it was given.” Adams went on to say that the circumstances of his own day dictated relative disengagement from Europe and engagement with South America.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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