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The limits of American power, a historical perspective

By Christopher Nichols

Just when, where, why, and how should American power be used? Current assumptions about the near omnipresence—though far from omnipotence—of US power, its influence and its reach are now shaky. Yet these same assumptions coexist alongside widely shared views that such power could and should be used. Perspectives on the application of US power are hotly contested—ranging from the advocacy of using force and providing “lethal aid” to revolutionaries in Syria, to the idea of strategic (née preemptive) bombing of nuclear facilities in Iran. Only idealistic aims—e.g. humanitarian intervention and foreign aid—in the use of power are generally acceptable. Indeed, even as the President and Secretary of Defense aver that “all options are being evaluated,” they do not “foresee boots on the ground.” These choices reflect recent developments. Such alternatives simply did not exist for most of US history. Nor, of course, did the nation always hold the power it possesses today.

For the majority of American history weakness, not strength—and certainly not “power” as we understand it now—defined how American policymakers, thinkers, activists, military leaders, and citizens tended to understand their nation’s place in the world. Protecting the state, not using scarce power or resources abroad, and holding European—especially British—encroachment as far off as possible, were the preferred military and diplomatic strategies of US leaders and citizens through the late nineteenth century and, for many, well into the twentieth century.

Three policy pillars in American foreign relations are the foundation for past as well as present considerations of whether and how to deploy US power. The premise for all three was an understanding of weakness, what we might term cautious realism coupled to a vision of isolation, which sought to stay out of power politics, foreign wars, and binding international treaties and regimes.

George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796 designed this architecture: “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Yet even before that speech, Washington had established the nation’s neutrality as a formal policy tradition with the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793) and the Neutrality Act (1794). These neutrality declarations ran contrary to the alliance with France, which had helped win the Revolutionary War. They officially distanced the US from allies and enemies alike and asserted the guiding principle that America would pursue “a conduct friendly and impartial towards the Belligerent powers.” Washington’s Farewell Address, partly written by Alexander Hamilton along with James Madison and read in Congress almost every year until quite recently, set the explicitly isolationist tone. It aimed to recognize the nation’s limited power in order to nurture the safety and progress of the state (and hence, national power one might say). These, in turn, became the basis for virtually all subsequent invocations of a “tradition” in American foreign relations. Washington built on this notion of the new nation as neutral and impartial when he put forward the classic formulation:

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…. 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 concern…. 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.

These Washingtonian principles did not turn the nation away from the world. Instead, the ideas formed the crux of foreign policy realism and argued for a cautious sense of America’s place in the world and for choosing “war or peace, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Washington took into account the inherent fragility of American power and the nation’s precarious place in the world, emphasizing America’s distant geographical position as a key to strategic separation and as a brake on involvement in Europe’s hazardous political system. These views were then established as precedent by John Adams and reaffirmed by Thomas Jefferson, who allayed the fears of many Federalists when he underscored a shared set of Washingtonian-Adamsian foreign policy principles in his own inaugural address in 1801.

Jefferson asserted this ideal as “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Jefferson held a clear belief grounded on the practicality of a type of isolation: enter no enduring alliances with the Old World and steer clear of Europe’s petty squabbles. Jefferson’s daring and farsighted purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 propelled the great mission of continental expansion and improvement, doubling the nation’s territory. And of course the Purchase limited the amount of North American land that European powers could claim or conquer. When regarded in this light, his unilateralist efforts were consistent with the idea of isolation as a guarantee toward maintaining and protecting national sovereignty—of giving the weak, fledgling nation time to develop and grow while avoiding entanglements such as those that Ben Franklin derisively termed Europe’s “romantick Continental Connections.”

A circumspect view of American power still was evident in 1823, when President James Monroe pronounced his doctrine. An ambitious articulation of American hemispheric power, the Monroe Doctrine evolved as the guiding view for later foreign policy advocates of interventionism as well as isolationism, many of whom agreed that unilateral involvement across the Americas was perfectly legitimate, but that beyond the Western Hemisphere the nation should avoid foreign wars and the corruptions of particularly Old World political intrigues. Monroe centered this argument on what he saw as an obvious fact: “With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected,” and therefore he declared that “we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

Thus, in three bold strokes, Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe laid out the essential isolationist mode of thinking about their young nation’s most advantageous relationship to the world. As we will be discussing at the Oregon State University American Military and Diplomatic History Conference today, 7 May 2013, these arguments became the benchmarks that a broad range of subsequent politicians, thinkers, and citizens later had to confront as they built their own cases for engagement abroad and justified their developing visions of internationalism. One point is clear about interpreting the meaning of their words in their own time. This dedicated triad of America’s founders articulated a commerce-first form of unilateralism and a sense of cautious realism, which at its most fundamental level sought to protect their young, weak nation by favoring isolation from almost all entangling alliances as well as conflicts abroad, particularly those involving Europe.

Americans today debate possible new interventions, withdrawals, disputes over what does and does not constitute a “red line,” and other applications of power abroad in light of enormous geopolitical changes and challenges. Let the debate consider the long history of cautious realism, the recognition of the limits to power, and the concern about the unintended consequences of foreign policy adventurism. The history cannot be blinked away. It is central to American diplomatic and military policy.

Christopher McKnight Nichols is a professor at Oregon State University and a Senior Editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. View the Melbourne launch of the Encyclopedia, or attend the American Military and Diplomatic History conference at Oregon State University on 7 May 2013.

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