Alexander Hamilton on Interventions in Revolutions


In the halls of Congress and the courts of public opinion, the battle of ideas and opinions raged between two camps: on one side, the interventionists, standing up for the ideal of liberty for all Mankind, and on the other, the noninterventionists, counseling prudence and moderation in all military affairs and undertakings. For across the ocean, seas of blood spilled across the plains of an ancient land embroiled in chaos.

In that ancient land, an oppressed people had risen up, casting off the chains of the oppressive dynasty which held them in subjugation. But their revolution had ended neither speedily nor happily. The forces of tradition and order had bounced back mightily, their iron fist seeking to stamp out the insurgency threatening their dominion. A long and bloody war had destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, and threatened the stability of the region, while inspiring legions of foreigners to join to fight in the battle between Right and Wrong.

The Americans watched, horrified. The interventionist faction noted that the common cause of liberty bound together the Americans and the revolutionaries in the crusade to bring democracy to all Mankind. They advocated that the government of the United States provide any sort of support possible: troops, supplies, weapons, finance. Meanwhile, the noninterventionists, tempered by the experience of a recent war and a politically divided nation, counseled that the United States should avoid expending blood and treasure in a region where it held no vital interests.

The year was 1793.

Revolutionary France fought the first of its wars against the monarchs of Europe, and accounts of the death tolls were received by diverse opinions in the young United States. Some, including Jefferson and Madison, recommended entering the war on the side of France; others counseled against it. Ultimately, America abstained from entering the war and remained faithful to President Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. But throughout the war, intense debate raged among the Americans.

Presently, the United States finds itself in a situation with some parallels to that of 1793. We shall turn, then, to one of the most notorious and revered of the Founding Fathers, the most outspoken defender of the Neutrality Proclamation- Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

In his essay Americanus No. 1, Hamilton outlined two questions for the nation to consider:

“I. Whether the cause of France be truly the cause of liberty, pursued with justice and humanity, and in a manner likely to crown it with honorable success.

II. Whether the degree of service we could render by participating in the conflict be likely to compensate [adequately for] the evils which would probably flow from it to ourselves.”

Hamilton chose not to ponder the first question, noting that the values of liberty, justice, and humanity were so sufficiently subject “to opinion, to imagination, [and] to feeling” that proper policy could not be built upon them. Instead he focused much of his analysis on the second question, one of greater practical – and lesser moral – value.

The United States of 1793 possessed less than a third of its current continental territory, and was far weaker than the hulking superpower it has since become. The decision to exert force to alter the outcome of a great power war overseas was therefore a proportionally more costly exercise then than it is today. Hamilton noted America’s comparative weakness and additional problems of logistics, geography, and diplomacy which the voices of democracy had ignored, and counseled restraint.

Historical comparisons are never quite as similar as they might seem. But between the debate on intervention in France and today’s debate on intervention in Syria, a general principle holds as obviously in the 21st Century as it did in the 18th: there are those in the United States who see America’s foreign policy duty to uphold our values- to be that “Shining City upon a Hill,” and “to make the world safe for democracy,”- as outweighing our duty to maintain our concrete and measurable national interests. Although there is not necessarily anything wrong with a moral approach, and in fact much good in it, our statesmen today nonetheless must, like Hamilton, consider also the amoral and practical consequences of the policies they pursue.

Hamilton’s foreign policy advice continues to be useful to this day, and all crafting policy for the Syrian War should bear it in mind:

“…Let us not corrupt ourselves by false comparisons or glosses- nor shut our eyes to the true nature of transactions which ought to grieve and warn us- nor rashly mingle our destiny in the consequences of the errors and extravagances of another nation.”

Don’t Waste Your Crises, Mr. President

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” counseled President Obama’s first Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, in early 2009.

Although many Republicans, still recovering from their losses in the 2008 Election, seized the advice as evidence of the Obama Administration’s secret intention of transforming the United States into an Orwellian nightmare, the quote itself is not unprecedented. Winston Churchill said something similar, and strategists across the ages have noted that when the status quo falls into chaos, the winners are those who seize what they can. Looking back on American history, it seems that the greatest Presidents used great conflagrations to their advantage, and the weakest Presidents bungled them. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. Their presidencies coincided with the two deadliest threats in the country’s history: the Civil War in Lincoln’s case, and the Second World War in Roosevelt’s.

Conversely, the presidents directly before these legends have been remembered as failures. James Buchanan is remembered as the man who thought he would be the last President of the United States and failed to subdue the domestic unrest which ultimately culminated in the Civil War. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover are remembered for their isolationism in the time of the rise of Fascism, and their inaction when faced with the onset of the Great Depression.

But a Commander-in-Chief need not wait for apocalyptic upheavals to get a chance to prove his leadership. The nature of politics is such that the state is beset by constant crisis, with challenges approaching at all times and from every direction, including from within.

Most people would be hard-pressed to recount the foreign policy of Dwight Eisenhower. Yet the Sputnik controversy, the Korean Armistice, the Suez Crisis, and the U2 Incident all occurred on his watch, and Ike is generally remembered as one of the best – if not the least interesting – Presidents of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps Kennedy best exhibited good crisis management: following the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, he deftly managed the Cuban Missile Crisis and is still one of the most popular Presidents in our history. Truman, Nixon, and Reagan assembled some of the best foreign policy staffs in American history, and are thus remembered for strong foreign policies.

Carter, on the other hand, is remembered as a better person than President precisely because of his crisis management – he bungled the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which was not necessarily a matter which threatened our territorial security the way previous crises had, but nonetheless posed a threat to our overseas interests and national prestige. Lyndon Johnson, another great man, dramatically increased America’s presence in Vietnam, yet failed to solve anything, and for that has been reviled among moralists and strategists alike. Perhaps most notorious has been George W. Bush; it is likely that his management of the War on Terror will leave him remembered as a warmonger and a generally incompetent leader.

We come, now, to the question of President Obama. How will he be remembered? If he continues to pursue a foreign policy akin to his first term, he will likely be remembered in the same harsh light covering Johnson, Carter and Bush.

The international system is entering a period of great change. The ongoing financial crisis is its economic manifestation, but the crisis itself goes beyond economics: class, technology, and the role of government all affect and are affected by the current developments. Meanwhile, new bases of power rise around a world which is politically more complex now than it has been since the late 1960s.

New challenges are on the horizon, and those who handle such situations well will go down as great statesmen. History remembers those who fare poorly as politicians. To his credit, President Obama did not emulate his predecessor’s adventurism, and by scaling back the Afghan and Iraqi wars has freed the American military from its former tied-down state. And the Bin Laden raid was, undoubtedly, the high point of his foreign policy.

But almost all of his administration’s major initiatives, from the Reset Button with Russia to the Asian “Pivot” to the New Beginning with the Muslim world, have been either poorly-informed ideas or only partly-successful policies. And the President’s crisis management, it seems, has been no better. As the Arab Spring toppled dictator after dictator, some of whom were American allies, inconclusive and contradictory statements emerged from the White House. The same pattern is visible now as the Syrian war drags on and an American intervention appears to loom closer. And although the President handled the recent North Korean crisis reasonably well, the unwise Libyan intervention has spawned countless unforeseen consequences, while Russia’s recent granting of asylum to Edward Snowden on the grounds of international law appears to be a diplomatic crisis in the making. It is unclear whether the President will handle the unknown crises awaiting him in the last years of his second term as a politician or a statesman.

The IR Implications of the South Carolina Graduation Speech

There has been a slight stir in the headlines in the wake of a South Carolina High School graduation incident. Defying his school district’s newly-instituted policy of replacing the traditional prayer at graduation with a moment of silence, valedictorian Roy Costner IV tore his graduation speech to shreds and recited the Lord’s Prayer, proceeding to detail his passion for his religion and justify his opposition to the school district’s ruling.

The incident, perhaps worthy of immortalization by Hollywood (or at least the cast of Saturday Night Live), is indicative of one of the most salient features of American domestic politics in the Information Age: the so-called “Culture War” which pits the knights of tradition against the crusaders of progress. More practically, this ideological conflict is part of the latest in the all-American debate over national identity. At the moment, the most vocal factions seem to be those on the Far Left and the Far Right: the traditionalists versus the progressives, the religious versus the secular, the Tea Party versus the Occupy Movement, Fox News versus MSNBC, etc. Though it is tempting for individuals who identify with these factions to characterize the state of affairs to be an apocalyptic battle of Right and Wrong over the “Soul of America” (and indeed both movements have heritages deeply critical to the general American heritage) it is likely that historians in the future- perhaps a mere couple of decades from now- will describe them as general movements in a pluralist mosaic of interest groups and identities whose interactions drive the general historical development of the Republic.

Given that these movements are integral to the fractious fabric of contemporary American society, it would be prudent for the student of American foreign policy to understand them, if they would understand the relation of American domestic politics to American foreign policy. The movement which the South Carolina graduation speech case represents, generally, is the populist, conservative, religious, and traditionalist faction of American society which, in the present day, tends to vote Republican, support family values and small government, and support strong-armed (though not necessarily neoconservative) foreign policy measures.

The graduation speech case is a demonstration of the power of this faction in certain geographic areas of the United States. After the requests and complaints of church-and-state groups caused the Pickens County School Board to replace graduation prayers with moments of silence, the deeply religious valedictorian at Liberty High School chose to protest the policy by quite literally bringing prayer back into the ceremony. Many in the crowd cheered as he did so; and the school pursued no disciplinary action against him. Though there has been much secular criticism of the valedictorian’s action, equal numbers of the faithful congratulate and support him. Regardless of the moral or legal implications or consequences of the event, and whatever the moral judgment ought to be upon the student or the school district, the incident clearly shows that religious factions in South Carolina- and indeed, in the United States in general- are strong and numerous enough to wield great domestic political power. Given that elected politicians in the United States must respond to their constituents, this power must exert some effect upon American foreign policy.

In his excellent piece The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy, Walter Russell Mead explores how populist movements have affected foreign policy throughout American history. While he ultimately concludes that systemic constraints and strategic priorities have been more considerably important than domestic demands, Mead explores certain tendencies which populist movements- the Jacksonians, the Populist Party, etc.- have exerted upon foreign policy. Expansionism and protectionism (and isolationism) have been among these, and they have typically accompanied critical structural changes in American politics.

In the modern iteration, it is common to see the present generation of populist conservatives advocate strong, moralistic foreign policy and a general skepticism towards international institutions. Indeed, their great hero, Ronald Reagan, seemed to exemplify this approach to foreign policy, and many followed the neoconservative Bush regime into supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (though, again, those involved more war fever, and it is dangerous to characterize conservatives in general as neoconservative.) The policy-making power of this faction, however, is checked by the existence of that large faction which tends to be more pluralistic, secular, and supportive of international institutions, which often votes along Democrat lines. This faction shall be examined in a later post; for now it will suffice to say that however powerful it is, it exists alongside that faction which is generally supportive of Roy Costner IV in that bipolar balance which has defined American politics, and affected American foreign policy, since the nation was born.