Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
Over the past century, as America has become more involved in world affairs, many are wondering what the Founders would have said about such a trend. Federalist #11 gives us a glimpse of how the Founders approached questions of international politics. What we see is that the Founders were neither isolationists nor internationalists. Their approach was to put America’s security and interests first, and to preserve American sovereignty and self-determination, but to adopt an active role in the world in order to achieve that end.
The 11th essay is part of a series (running from Federalist 2 through 14) on preserving the Union. The 11th essay argues that preserving the Union will make the country stronger in its commerce with foreign nations. Alexander Hamilton, writing as Publius, explains that European nations are jealous of America, because America will eventually be strong enough to prevent Europe from colonizing the Western Hemisphere. (We see the roots of the Monroe Doctrine already in this essay.) The nations of Europe “look forward, to what this country is capable of becoming, with painful solicitude.” Publius predicts that the European countries will try to weaken and undermine the fledgling country. If the country is not unified, these attempts will be more effective.
But by remaining unified, Publius argues, America can gain the upper hand over Europe. By gaining strength, America can make its own policy as a fully independent nation rather than follow the dictates of Europe. With its combined strength, America could enact regulations preventing countries from trading in its markets, thus leading them to adopt a friendlier stance towards American merchants.
Furthermore, a unified America could build a dominant navy. This navy would protect America from attack, but more importantly, it would also allow America to receive equal and fair terms of trade, throwing its naval support “into the scale of either of two contending parties” in Europe. America could use its navy to ensure independence, demanding equal treatment as a nation equal in standing to those of Europe. Hamilton writes that “The rights of neutrality will only be respected, when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”
A weak nation becomes the servant of stronger countries, and unity is the key to building American strength. Hamilton goes so far as to say that America “might make herself the admiration and envy of the world” by adopting the right policies. Alternatively, if union is abandoned, other countries would be able “to prescribe the conditions of our political existence.”
Hamilton looks to the future, envisioning the eventual position of America as a strong country which serves as an example of liberty to the world. He goes so far as to write that we should “aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs.” Through Union America will “be able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.”
But in contrast to nations which use their strength for self-aggrandizement, America can use its standing in the world to protect the sovereignty and independence of nations from European interference. The Founders were not isolationists, yet they did believe that their principles put strong limits on what they could do in international affairs. Their principles required that military power be used to defend American sovereignty, but defending sovereignty requires respecting the sovereignty of other countries.
In this essay, we see that Hamilton and his readers were not opposed to American involvement in world affairs. But they did not think that the purpose of foreign policy was not to go on a crusade for liberty around the world. Rather, they sought to be involved in world affairs in order to secure their independence.
Counter intuitively, the Founders believed that the only way to be independent of the entangling affairs of other nations was to be active in the world. Only by asserting itself on the world stage could America become strong enough to dictate its own affairs in the pursuit of its interests. If America isolated itself, the Founders believed, it would be placing itself in a position of weakness and disadvantage.
The wisdom of the Framers is especially relevant today, when Americans are concerned about becoming the “world policeman” yet wish to avoid isolating themselves from the rest of the world. The Founders’ principles of security and respect for the sovereignty of other nations provide a middle ground between isolationism and internationalism.
Dr. Joe Postell is Assistant Director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation heritage.org