Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What Would Washington Do Revisited?

Culture 11, a new web periodical devoted to politics, culture, the arts and current events, has published a short essay where I propose, if we are going to talk about a post-Bush Administration "reset" in U.S. foreign policy, why don't we just go back not to 2000 or 1992 but right back to the first president himself.

This is not about trying to shoehorn U.S. foreign policy into some 18th century construction, mind you, but about taking some of the core Washingtonian principles and approaches and thinking about our approach in the 21st century.

Comments welcomed either here or at their site.

GW: “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity and interest.”

I think it should be noted that under Washington harmony and liberal intercourse did not apply to the American Indians, and our policy toward Europe was essentially one of expediency. But I would agree that Washington's Farewell Address has much to commend it in ordinary foreign relations. The problem is that there have been times when our relations have not been ordinary.

In the twentieth century, we fought World War I and then went home. We fought World War II and did not go home. I don't think the ideals set forth by Washington would have guided us to the correct postwar policy. (Some would argue from Washington that we would have abstained from both world wars in the first place. I don't agree.) What makes him more plausible today is the extent to which conditions have changed since 1991.

The problem with Washington is that he spoke to a nation and a world in which a limited level of technical capability defined what nations could do. We live today on a planet in which modern life is shrinking distance, changing the climate, and making us all more interdependent and vulnerable to uncivilized conduct whether by states or by private groups. I don't exempt the United States from responsibility if it badly navigates this world; but conditions are moving in a direction that will make the sort of distance that Washington could take for granted harder and harder to maintain.

What we really need are not just principles to keep sovereign states civil but agreements to resolve common problems.
Sorry, in my second paragraph "would have abstained" should read "should have abstained".
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