General George Washington resigns his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to the Congress, 23 December 1783
With news emerging today of President Obama’s expected pick to replace former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a reflection on the Obama’s Administration’s policy shortcomings of late is appropriate. While some say that Hagel was doomed from the beginning, his stepping down seems to confirm mounting suspicions that American foreign policy is adrift. Furthermore, with a reinvigorated Republican Party preparing to challenge Democrats on a number of issues, the President may find himself facing increasingly steeper obstacles to the implementation of his foreign policy agenda over the final two years of his presidency.
Regardless of which party comes to dominate the foreign policy agenda over the next two years, all involved in the process would do well to heed one of the prescient speeches ever given by an American official: George Washington’s farewell address.
Oft cited for its discouragement of permanent alliances, Washington’s address is widely misunderstood and often mischaracterized as isolationist. Yet to attach this pejorative is to engage in a highly selective reading of the address and dismiss advice sorely needed in our nation’s capital at the moment.
Washington makes the case not for some variant of isolationism, but rather for dispassionate foreign policy that eschews both enduring friendships and enmities. He cautions that, “the nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”
Going further, Washington states: “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.” The granting of undue exclusive favors—in political, commercial, or other forms—may ultimately lead to a lack of reciprocity and disappointment at best and damage to the national interest at worst.
In combining detached political relationships with disinterested economic ties, Washington saw the attainment of “harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations,” as a necessity born out of American “policy, humanity, and interest.”
While a world in which the United States entertains harmonious, disinterested relations with all nations would be a decidedly more pleasant one to live in than the one in which we currently reside, it is also one we are unlikely to ever find ourselves in. That said, any steps that bring us closer to such a state of affairs have undeniable benefits.
By all accounts, it’s quite obvious that American foreign policy of the recent past would not receive Washington’s stamp of approval, were he still around to offer his opinion. A significant reason for this are the numerous “passionate” relationships the U.S. is involved in with other countries that undeniably harm its interests. In particular, Washington would no doubt be quick to condemn the “special relationship” that the U.S. has established with Israel on the one hand, and the U.S.’ refusal to engage with Iran on the other.
With regards to Israel, the reality of the situation is that unflagging American support for Israel’s continued colonization of a large portion of the Levant not only prevents peace within Israel itself, but also strains the U.S.’ relationships with regional allies and serves to further exacerbate conflicts with both state and non-state enemies. In light of the most recent conflict in Gaza and what may amount to the worst violence in Jerusalem since the 1929 Wailing Wall riots, the extent of the unique, seemingly one-sided US-Israel friendship should be called into question.
On Iran, it is clear that the rancor that has so often characterized American-Iranian relations over the last 35 years is now excessive and detrimental to American interests in the Middle East and Central Asia. The revolution has wound down in Iran, the ascension of a moderate president has been permitted by the ayatollahs, and Iranians don’t seek to create conflict with the West, but rather to engage in a relationship that would be economically advantageous to them.
Iran is poised to assist the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, both in supporting teetering democracies and in repelling the onslaughts of radical Sunni groups. It also holds considerably greater influence in Syria and Lebanon than the United States, supplying arms and other support to both Assad and Hezbollah. It would behoove the United States to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, thus removing a major stumbling block to mutually beneficial cooperation with the Persian nation. Reducing tension also holds the added long-term benefit of comforting Israel in a period when the US should downgrade its relationship with that country.
America must be held a slave no longer to its emotions, a tall order given the unprecedented polarization of American politics and the post-9/11 paranoia now endemic to the country’s foreign policy. By no means is this a call to focus exclusively on the U.S.’ relationship with the two countries that I focus on in this article. Rather, this is a call for the U.S. to scrutinize its relationships with countries in every region of the world, and either dial down the friendliness in cases like that of Israel, and perhaps act more amiably in cases like that of Iran. In realigning these relationships to fit a more , dispassionate foreign policy agenda, the United States would do well to follow not only the advice posited in Washington’s immortal farewell address, but also the wise words of one of Great Britain’s great foreign policy voices. As former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston once said, states have neither friends nor enemies, only interests.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.
Image Attribution: “General George Washington Resigning his Commission” by Architect of the Capitol, licensed under Public Domain