This essay is adapted from “America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams” (Encounter, 288 pages, $30.99).

The True Origins of
‘America First’

What were America’s founders and their followers trying to foster and preserve by their conduct among nations? What were they trying to put first? Why did the Progressives turn away from these concerns? What did they put first? How dismissive were they of reality? What have been Progressivism’s effects on how America has fared among nations? How have changes in the world and in America itself made it impossible to continue on the Progressive’s course? How would John Quincy Adams and those following his principles manage America’s present international situation?  

By what principles might today’s statesmen put America First?

In America, as everywhere else, a people’s choices and priorities reflect who they are. From the earliest settlements, Americans have thought themselves fortunate that they or their ancestors had distanced themselves from the rest of European civilization—and not just geographically. America was their final destination. They had not come on the way to anywhere else. Few went back. They left old quarrels and did not come to start new ones. They came because they expected America to be different, a nearly empty land where they would have peace, freedom, and the bread that their hands earned. And that is why Americans’ relations with foreigners were always premised on appreciation for what made America different. Putting America First meant more than natural self-interest. It meant putting a better, demonstrably different way of life first.

The Americans

The Europeans who had come to America had not been great men—actual or would-be contenders in Europe’s partisan or national struggles. Although the Puritans were unusually concerned with spiritual perfection, most early arrivals were ordinary but adventurous Brits and Germans, old-fashioned about their Christianity and morals. They had left the Old Country to escape its troubles, as well as to run their own affairs, and had become happily accustomed to running their own lives with a minimum of trouble from without. The Puritan strain has played a considerable role in America’s foreign as well as domestic affairs. But for most Americans, the overriding objective of American foreign policy has ever been, first of all, protecting a decent, autonomous way of life for our citizens. 

Putting America First always meant defending that way of life. Until 1765, frontier life in New England and New York also meant serving in militias to fight the Indian tribes that slaughtered, enslaved, and retreated behind France’s protection. In 1812, the local militia was not enough to prevent Indians armed by Britain from massacring the inhabitants of the Chicago settlement. So long as Spain held Florida, it enabled deadly Indian raids into the southern United States. In west-central Texas, the Comanche held up the frontier for a half century. President Lyndon Johnson’s mother narrowly escaped being murdered by them as a baby. Neither the British nor the French, nor the Spaniards who controlled the exit from the Mississippi, nor the Barbary pirates who ruled the Mediterranean, were going to be nice to impotent Americans. The founders had won America’s independence by cruel war and were perfectly willing to make war for its honor and for the safety of Americans. Peace-loving Americans had no pacifist illusions.

Neither did they mean to “isolate” themselves. Americans may have been more dependent on international commerce than any other people in history, and at least as eager as any to explore the globe. Americans’ relations with peoples who differed from themselves in every way, whether ancient civilizations or modern despotisms, were easy and peaceful because Americans’ focus on their own business made them uninterested in others’ affairs. George Washington never lost an opportunity to urge his fellow citizens to view their concerns through the prism of their identities as Americans.

Currier and Ives (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

The Founders

In the first six of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay summarized the opinions about foreign affairs common in the mass media of the day—sermons and newspapers. Foremost, Americans wanted peace. In Federalist 3, Jay wrote that peace being Americans’ objective, we must neither insult nor injure foreigners. That means minding our own business. And in Federalist 4, he wrote that peace would also depend on readiness to punish foreigners’ interference in our affairs. In Federalist 6, Hamilton pointed out that since wars arise from ubiquitous, unpredictable causes and circumstances, Americans must be ever ready to fight. The founders also knew that, as other nations were surely going to fight among themselves, Americans had better be careful lest they be drawn into others’ quarrels. More than a century later, Theodore Roosevelt summed all this up in homespun terms: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

No sooner had the Constitution come into being than the quarter century of the French Revolution’s wars became the crucible in which the American people’s international character was forged. George Washington’s 1793 proclamation of neutrality in those wars, seconded by Alexander Hamilton’s Pacificus and Americanus essays, and young John Quincy Adams’ Marcellus, laid the theoretical base. Washington’s 1796 farewell address warned against the domestic temptations that entice us to set aside our geographic good fortune and common sense. “Why quit our own to stand on foreign ground?” Washington asked. “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations,” he adjured. He argued that neutrality with regard to others’ business is the other side of intense focus on our own. By contrast, confusing other nations’ interests with our own, he said, sets us against one another. 

Since Washington’s statecraft aimed foremost at uniting Americans, he was careful—even when waging a war in which a significant part of the population sided with the enemy—to treat all as if they were loyal citizens.

Washington never tired of urging his fellow citizens to have arm’s-length relationships with foreign nations and to back them up with a respectable army. His successor, John Adams, fathered the U.S. Navy. The lead ship thereof, the U.S.S. Constitution, is still in commission.

In 1777, John Adams took his son, 10-year-old John Quincy, on his diplomatic mission to secure military aid from France and loans from Holland. The boy grew up fast—mastering perfect French and Dutch, helping his father, and conversing with statesmen. In 1781, when Charles Francis Dana was appointed to represent the United States in Saint Petersburg, 14-year-old J. Q. Adams accompanied him as his secretary. Since Dana spoke no French—the language of Russia’s elites—J. Q. effectively transacted the embassy’s business for two years. In 1784, when John Adams became America’s representative to King George III, 17-year-old John Quincy functioned as his father’s deputy. That was before entering Harvard, and then studying law. In 1794, George Washington appointed John Quincy Adams minister to the Netherlands. Successive presidents then sent him to represent the United States in Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. In the course of these duties, he also became fluent in German, Russian, Italian, and Spanish. Since earliest youth, he had read the Latin and Greek classics.

As secretary of state (1817–1825), J. Q. Adams summed up and personified what America’s unique people would have to do to live peacefully among diverse nations. As we will see, although Adams did not invent any principles of statecraft, neither adding to nor subtracting from what Washington, Hamilton, and his father had prescribed, his dispatches, diary, and memoirs specified and applied their principles in a way that constitutes a comprehensive course of instruction for international relations in general, and for American statecraft in particular.

Adams shared, specified, and conveyed to his successors the founding generation’s fundamental interest in preserving and enhancing America’s own character. He sought occasions for reminding other nations—but especially our own—of the principles that make America what it is. Doing this encourages us to carefully consider how any decision we make in international affairs affects what is most important to ourselves as well as to others.

Adams is the font of American geopolitical thought. The reader should pay particular attention to Adams’ primordial distinction between America’s own interests—hence the “causes” for which Americans might fight—as well as to the (largely geographic) bases for evaluating the extent to which any cause or interest may be our own. The peoples on our borders and on the islands around us concern us most, followed by the oceans, then the rest of the world. Diplomatic experience had also taught Adams that, where the interests of nations coincide, negotiated agreements are scarcely necessary, and that when interests do not coincide, agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. That is why Adams practiced and taught a meticulous sort of diplomacy that aims at the mutual clarification of objectives.

John Quincy Adams considered the treaty that extended the United States’ border to the Pacific Ocean to have been his great achievement, alongside having established good relations with the governments of Britain, Russia, and so forth, in full acknowledgment of the radical differences between their regimes and ours. Adams had not invented the principle of mutual non-interference. That principle is, after all, the essence of the 1648 treaties of Westphalia. But Adams’ formulation of the Monroe Doctrine established non-interference as American foreign policy’s operational core. 

The Legacy

Perhaps nothing shows how thoroughly Adams’ ways had conquered American statesmen’s minds as does his successor Andrew Jackson’s conduct. Jackson had beaten Adams in a bitter election. No two Americans could have been more different. Nevertheless, like Adams, Jackson combined commitment to peace and harmony with near-reflexive retaliation to physical attacks on Americans and on America’s honor. Like Adams, Jackson was about enhancing America. But despite being a man of the sword, his attempts to gain additional territory from Mexico were limited to offers of purchase, just as Adams’ had been. And though President Jackson owned slaves, his refusal to admit Texas as a slave state and his forceful stand against South Carolina’s attempt to nullify federal law were as forceful as Adams’ would have been. America’s greatness had been Adams’ great objective—a greatness that could not be purchased by unjust war or by any sacrifice of its principles.

In short, John Quincy Adams had codified the founding generation’s principles in foreign affairs into a set of practices by statesmen and expectations on the part of the public. That is why even the far-lesser statesmen in the years preceding the Civil War adhered to the Adams paradigm, if—as in the case of the Mexican War (1846–48)—only ineptly and hypocritically. To wit: President Polk did not intend to start the Mexican War; he resisted pressures to take over Mexico for nation-building, and paid Mexico the price he would have paid to purchase what he conquered. Meanwhile, presidents between Jackson and Lincoln delivered peaceful adjustment of interests with the rest of mankind.

Abraham Lincoln’s first major speech expressed his quintessentially American approach to international affairs: “All the armies in the world led by a Bonaparte, disposing of the earth’s treasure, our own excepted, could not take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.” Only Americans, he said, can truly hurt America. And they can do that only by putting their own passions and interests against America itself. That is why, as discord led to secession, Lincoln adjured the South not to start the war. Both Northerners and Southerners, he said, must think of themselves as Americans, first. 

Because Lincoln kept in mind Washington’s commitment to treating fellow Americans as citizens, he aimed his conduct of the Civil War at reconciliation from start to finish. All manner of war aroused Lincoln’s deepest fears. “Peace among ourselves and with all nations” was the star by which he steered.

Following that star and the American people’s sentiments, William Seward, secretary of state and Lincoln’s closest adviser, helped return America to a path of peaceful, righteous greatness. Having eulogized John Quincy Adams, Seward showed what the Monroe Doctrine can mean by helping drive French imperialism out of Mexico. Like Jefferson and Adams, Seward built up America by purchasing a big chunk of territory (Alaska). He grew it also by recruiting immigrants who could contribute talent and effort. His frank, generous diplomacy with China laid bases of friendship that more than a century’s vicissitudes have never wholly erased.


As Seward and the statesmen of the following half century tried to practice the founders’ statecraft, they had to deal with the new temptations that stemmed from America’s growing power. Principle, not national weakness, had led George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, the American lion, to practice “good faith and justice” to all nations. Nevertheless, the temptation to throw America’s weight around had not presented itself to them. Starting about 1880, it did. 

The temptations of big-country status first presented themselves in the Western Hemisphere. In the 1880s, the U.S. government’s attempt to mediate a border dispute between Guatemala and Mexico produced only trouble with Mexico. Peru and Chile sought U.S. influence against one another. What were the limits of U.S. concern with foreign lands?

Geography always meant that it would be dangerous for Hawaii to come into a hostile power’s possession. By the late 19th century, American sugar planters had come to dominate there and wanted to be annexed. But Hawaii had a native government that prized independence. Justice was on one side, interest on the other. Meanwhile, either or both France and Britain considered digging a canal across Nicaragua or Colombia as they had at Suez. Surely, this would impact America’s security. But what right had Americans to prevent such a thing?

As these things were happening, Germany was building coaling stations on South Pacific islands where similar U.S. facilities were located. How could Americans secure themselves against being denied transpacific coaling?

To roughly sum it up, U.S. foreign policy in the two decades between the 1877 withdrawal of Union troops from the South and the imperialist fever that briefly infected America at the turn of the century resulted from the countervailing influences of radical Republican James G. Blaine and conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland—the first more active and intrusive than the second. As presidents and secretaries of state alternated, U.S. policy swayed gently from one side to the other of the Adams paradigm, never exceeding its bounds. In the South Pacific, Americans reached an “understanding” with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Quietly but surely, America let the world know that any canal across the Americas could only be part of the U.S. coastline. Inevitably, Hawaii was becoming part of the United States. Americans reciprocated Japan’s friendship. American missionaries flowed to China, as U.S. policy tried to limit European powers’ exploitation of it. U.S. policy for Latin America focused on J. Q. Adams’ original concern: limiting European influence.

In short, as the century was closing, America reaped peace from a foreign policy of peaceful benevolence.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


Few could imagine that peace would turn into war from an excess of benevolence. But that is what happened.

The European virus of imperialism struck America’s upper classes, whose hearts and minds had already been infected with Progressivism. That social–moral disease had been present among the Northerners and Southerners who had integrated their contrasting sentiments regarding slavery into their own narratives about human progress. Those conflations of politics, morality, and pseudoscientific millennialism, that self-identification with the “greater good,” explain to a large extent the willingness of both sides to fight in a way that killed some two percent of the entire population. Progressivism and the sense of duty to spread some kind of progress made 19th-century European imperialism different from that of previous centuries. The imperialism that so thoroughly infected some Americans was the altruistic kind depicted in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.”

Just about nobody in America fought the 1898-1903 Spanish-American War to end up managing an empire. The war’s efficient cause was the American people’s desire, fueled by the press, to stop Spain’s maltreatment of the rebellious Cuban people. The most powerful argument for stopping it, the argument that President McKinley cited, was none other than the question raised by Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan: what if that good man had come by as the mugging was happening? Is it right to stand by as evil is being perpetrated? As we shall see, American statesmen in 1898 had no intention of transcending the founders’ foreign policy. But, because war has its own logic, transcend it they did.

In 1900, as Senator Albert Beveridge (R-Ind.) was arguing for fighting harder to subdue resistance to U.S. rule in the Philippines, he said: “The Declaration of Independence does not forbid us to do our part in the regeneration of the world. If it did, the Declaration would be wrong.” Though that statement appealed to many, it would have had no traction two years earlier, as Americans were debating intervention in Cuba. Nobody wanted to rule it, never mind to regenerate it. 

By the following year, Andrew Carnegie’s quip about “having substantially civilized and sent to heaven” some 8,000 Filipinos struck President McKinley deeply. Within another two years, the crest of empire’s glories had passed over the U.S. population. Thereafter, some of the 1890s’ most vocal imperialists, notably Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R–Mass.), had refocused soberly and forcefully on peace, national power, and balancing ends with means.

Power, Peace, and Policy

President Theodore Roosevelt relished the United States’ power and shared the founders’ commitment to peace as well as their understanding that peace is to be earned by focusing on America’s own business. He personified the fact that great power wielded strictly on America’s own behalf and measured to its purpose is likeliest to secure peace.

Roosevelt had always despised most imperialists for being concerned with foreign nations as if these were their own. Rudyard Kipling had written “The White Man’s Burden” as if to sober TR about imperialism. Empire, said Kipling, means to “send your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need” and “to seek another’s profit and work another’s gain.” It means ending up with “the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.” America’s experience in the Philippines was confirming these warnings; thus, TR’s steadfast love for America First, and his experience dealing with other nations at the highest levels, led him back to the founders’ fundamentals.

As a patriot and a scholar of naval history, TR had always advocated for the biggest, most modern navy possible and was dismayed to see Progressives, including many imperialists, advocate for foreign commitments while holding back money for the U.S. Navy. Solvency—squaring ends and means—is common sense, he said. Like Washington and the Adamses, TR saw no contradiction between armed force and peaceful intentions. He proved the diplomatic truth of this with his orders to the Great White Fleet that circled the globe: to be battle ready and practice gunnery at all times, but to conduct themselves as eager tourists and grateful guests in a grand traveling show of friendship. Enlistment in the Navy soared 

TR’s conflict with President Woodrow Wilson was typical of mutually exclusive paradigms of statecraft. TR supported the efforts of Progressives, such as his own secretary of war (and then of state), Elihu Root, to arrange for the arbitration of international disputes and treaties to reduce the horrors of war. But, as a disciple of John Quincy Adams, TR always warned that such arrangements could not possibly bind nations against their own wishes. For this reason, he said, no one ought to count on such agreements to have any effect on matters involving what governments consider their vital interests. Wilson spoke as if he believed that treaties could do just that, even as the Great War that they were supposed to have forestalled was raging.

Wilson said and believed that America exists for no other purpose than to serve mankind. TR thought this was nonsense because no nation can decide for any other what serves it; he considered it a lie because it denied that the founders had committed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to serve only Americans, and because the American people never voted to change that primary commitment. For Wilson, humanity’s good was primary and America’s secondary. For TR, it was the other way around. Because Wilson’s inversion of priorities was divorced from reality, he was able to talk about grand objectives without explaining, even to himself, what those priorities entailed by way of actions, costs, and consequences. TR insisted that seriousness means doing precisely that accounting. For Wilson, foreign policy was about reshaping the world. For TR, it was about shielding the republic.

Precisely why did Wilson and his followers step off the solid ground of America First? They talked a lot about humanity. But no genie of humanity had ever whispered in their ears. No, they had deserted the priorities of ordinary Americans, not for those of other nations, but for their very own priorities, which they thought more noble—just as they thought themselves more noble than ordinary Americans. Because Wilson led America into the Great War on behalf of his private abstractions, and because his admirer Franklin Delano Roosevelt led America into an even greater war on similar bases, the American people have known little peace ever since.

From Hope to Pretense

Minds obsessed with abstractions ignore concerns with concrete matters. To defend against truth, lies call forth more lies. But lies discredit liars.

Wilson had wanted to take America into the Great War for reasons that the American people did not share. That is why he engaged in undeclared co-belligerency with Britain: to invite German reactions that would serve as excuses for open war. But why did Americans fight Germans in 1917? Wilson fed hopes of the perpetual peace that he promised would follow naturally from Germany’s utter defeat. He branded as traitors anyone who questioned that. He then told Americans that his League of Nations would make it unnecessary ever to fight again, and that it would require fighting to destroy any and all challenges to world peace. When voters rejected that as the proverbial three-dollar bill and concluded that Wilson’s war had been a deadly fraud, Wilson and his followers blamed Americans for “isolationism”!

Meanwhile, Wilson’s followers of both parties continued to pursue gauzy goals, only formally following the public’s determination never again to be fooled into bloodshed for anything but for America itself. What could have been the point, for example, of the bipartisan praise heaped on the Washington Treaties of 1921 that guaranteed China’s territorial integrity while reducing the U.S. Navy’s size and promising not to fortify U.S. bases in the Far East? What effect on America’s maintenance of its own peace might any reasonable person have expected to result from FDR’s secretary of state, the Wilson-worshiping Cordell Hull’s 1937 circular to the world’s powers impotently preaching good behavior? 

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In sum, Wilson’s Democrat and Republican followers did just enough to put the U.S. in the middle of wars in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, they starved the U.S. armed forces. Statesmen from George Washington to TR would have warned that they were blundering into the middle of a second world war even more incompetently than Wilson had blundered into the first. What, they would have asked, are you doing to limit our exposure and to strengthen our capacity to keep our peace?

When the shooting started, FDR did what Wilson had done: he substituted hate for the enemy and promises of a new world for concrete plans to serve and secure America. Charles de Gaulle, who visited FDR in 1944, noted that the president’s “broad brush strokes” showed estrangement from the war’s practical issues, an estrangement guarded by the demand for unconditional surrender.

Cold War Eclipse

FDR’s inattention to international issues was due at least in part to his attention to his domestic political coalition’s varying demands. Not the least part of that coalition dreamed of exercising a progressive world co-dominion with Stalin’s communist regime under the United Nations’ formalities. Other progressives, whose ranks grew as America’s power spread over the globe throughout the war, came to think of themselves as humanity’s teachers, vanguard, etc. 

After World War II, the now swollen U.S. foreign policy establishment split into roughly three groups. One group confused America’s interest strictly with “defeating communism.” Another confused it with “getting along” with this most progressive of forces. But the establishment’s biggest part confused it simply with “exercising global leadership.” All together, they overlooked concrete concerns with America itself.

The FDR Administration radically expanded the number of official and unofficial persons involved in formulating and executing foreign policy. The president’s own reluctance to deal with details, along with the complexities of world war, meant that the government’s decisions were becoming the geometric result of countervailing establishment pressures, more or less arbitrated by the president. After the war, the number of persons involved grew into yet another arm of the administrative state that decides internally, non-responsibly. No longer focused by and on the president’s understanding of America First, U.S. foreign policy fused with the fancies and interests of individuals and groups.

During the Cold War’s 40 years, America’s foreign policy evolved with the changes in this establishment. Unanimously and completely, it rejected the intellectual/moral compass by which statesmen from Washington to TR had steered. As the establishment matured into solipsism, it loosed the remainder of what had bound it to reality. Members of the establishment practiced a foreign policy aimed less at affirming America than at denying reality.

International Leadership and War

In the postwar world, being an American was an enviable lot. The war left America the world’s only undamaged, bountiful producer of all good things. Because all manner of foreigners were seeking some help from Americans, U.S. civil and military officials and businessmen could be forgiven for taking too seriously the flattery and offers that came their way apparently to take a hand in their affairs. It was seductive to believe that the foreigners were following America, rather than asking Americans to fuel vehicles that only the locals could steer. American progressives imagined the golden chance had arrived to realize the dreams that had animated their movement since the 1880s, the chance to really do what Wilson had hinted and FDR had promised. Thus they set about what they imagined to be re-creating the world in their own image.

They produced a caricature, in large part because they were not trying to replicate America—unrealistic as even that would have been. Rather, they were trying to bring into reality their own imagination. In what had been Europe’s African, Asian, and Middle Eastern colonies, this resulted in a set of corrupt, oppressive, anti-American regimes that we now know as the Third World. In the developed world, American statesmen fostered economic arrangements that—behind high tariff walls and enjoying low tariff access to America and in league with U.S. multinational corporations—went on to substantially de-industrialize America.

No one should be surprised that, wherever and whenever the U.S. progressive ruling class used America’s money and influence, it thereby advanced the fortunes of persons they believed to be of the same intellectual, moral, and political stamp as themselves. Because they succeeded in this, the relationship between rulers and ruled in much of today’s Western world—as in America itself—is one of mutual contempt.

Keeping foreign lands out of Soviet hands was merely the international background of and the domestic justification for the U.S. establishment’s deep involvement in other nations’ affairs. Its members acted as they did because it gave them no small professional satisfaction and personal gain.

The progressive ruling class’ seriousness about transformative global leadership came intertwined with and at the expense of growing unseriousness about military matters. This has its recent roots in the FDR Administration’s recycling of Woodrow Wilson’s fraud that the victory by a league of peace-loving nations would banish war forever. Hard to comprehend nowadays, but not so long ago America’s ruling class really did believe this, and went on believing it, even in the U.N. Hence, reality be damned, they started to deny the reality of the real wars that came their way. 

They also believed that the invention of nuclear weapons had made it impossible for nations—especially the United States. and the Soviet Union—to fight real wars. But since military threats big and small could not be imagined away, progressive American academics and officials tried to make sense of what they were doing by working and reworking progressivism’s false premises into any number of theories about deterrence and limited war. Between about 1959 and 1975, these theories came to dominate America’s (but only America’s) highest venues.

The intellectual and practical development of this flight from reality matured in how the U.S. government fought military campaigns in Korea and Vietnam. No doubt, keeping communist enemies at bay was part of the reason—and the entire rationale—for the U.S. government sacrificing over a hundred thousand American lives in these so-called “small wars,” in the same way that the so-called War on Terror was wholly justified in terms of safeguarding Americans from terrorists but had little to do with terrorism. Rather, these commitments and the way the government carried them out had less to do with their ostensible purposes than with progressive ideology’s negations of reality and with the corporate interests of the establishment’s several factions. In 1961, Henry Kissinger had written that the United States should engage in the sort of wars that “a great nation can afford to lose.” America lost the wars. But many made their fortunes in them.

From the first, detachment from reality and the common good characterized the manner in which the establishment has dealt with nuclear weaponry. Abstruse language has not totally obscured the dread fact that the U.S. government, officially and for real, has consistently refused to place any barriers to Russian and Chinese nuclear-tipped missiles striking American soil. The government’s expensive refusal to safeguard the country against such missiles, even from North Korea, has stripped naked its incompetence. 

The War on Terror, against no one in particular and with no concrete objective, became a vehicle by which persons in power advanced personal, corporate, and partisan interests. Advantage over domestic competitors was high among these. Quickly, they applied the label “terrorist” to their domestic competitors, and increasingly turned that war’s extraordinary powers against other Americans. No more thorough negation of the Washington/Adams approach to war can be imagined.

In short, the American people, having experienced foreign policy as an endless drain of blood, treasure, and honor detached from and even opposed to the common good, have withdrawn support, even respect, for their government’s role among nations.

Tariq Mahmood/AFP via Getty Images

America’s Real Circumstances

The American people and international circumstances of today could hardly have been imagined only a few decades ago. They have come about in no small part due to how America’s progressive ruling class has thought and ruled. Surely, the pitiful results should prevent this ruling class from continuing as it has. 

During the 20th century’s second half, U.S. statesmen made excuses for and deflected criticism of their meddling in other nations’ affairs, and of making wars that they refused to try to win, by citing the need to prudently protect against the deadly Soviet monster. By 1991, when that monster had died of its congenital diseases, they had already gone a long way toward earning for America the reputation of an overweight, intrusive, unserious, and incompetent paper tiger. The end of the long Cold War emergency should have led them to reset foreign policy onto solid, timeless grounds. Instead, freed from the last vestiges of responsibility, they gave free rein to their progressive tendencies which, over the past 30 years, have neutered the United States of America among nations.

In the Gulf War of 1990-1991, they showed once again how incompetence can negate power and options. Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait had not disadvantaged America. Saddam made neither more nor less difference to America after his conquest than he had before. But the George H. W. Bush Administration struck at him on behalf of Saudi Arabia and of its own notion of a “new world order.” Then, according to those priorities and earlier progressive doctrines, it decided (as Machiavelli used to say) neither to caress nor to extinguish Saddam, but merely to diminish him—a huge mistake. 

This combination of recklessness and fecklessness unleashed three decades of Muslim terrorism against America, to which the U.S. ruling class reacted with inconceivably counterproductive measures. Instead of holding foreign leaders accountable with their lives for incitement and troubles that came from their jurisdictions, they sent American troops to try to bring democracy to their peoples. Instead of reducing contact with Muslim countries and mobilizing the American people to guard against the Muslims already among us, they imported a million immigrants from the Muslim world; imposed demoralizing, useless security measures on the entire U.S. population; and accused their fellow Americans of racism. Who’d have thought that some Americans would do such things to other Americans? 

During the past three decades, the international environment has become ever more hostile to America. In Russia, communism’s collapse had been followed by a wave of pro-Western, pro-American sentiment. But U.S. statesmen’s impotent preaching combined with incompetent involvement with the former Communist Party bosses that were privatizing the country into their own pockets quickly made Russians anti-American for the first time in history. 

In 1990, China had loomed small. Its economy was worth $367 billion while America’s was about $6 trillion. Neither was China a military threat. By 2020, China was a major power. Its economy was worth some $15 trillion to America’s roughly $25 trillion. But China had become the world’s premier manufacturing power, so much so that America depended on it for basic goods. By going into business with major U.S. companies, China had become a major power within America itself. Its military had de facto control of East Asia. Its semi-official anti-U.S. alliance with Russia bid for all manner of alliances, convergences, etc., against America around the globe. As China scared and seduced South Korea, Japan found it increasingly difficult to regard America as its insurance against being encompassed within China’s greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere. In sum, most of the security Americans had earned in the Pacific War of 1941-1945 was gone.

By 2020, Europe had long since ceased to be America’s ally. Anti-Americanism had been growing among Europe’s ruling classes since the 1960s. That continued growth, along with the Muslim world’s post-1990 virulence against America, combined with increasing Muslim migration into Europe, had made Old Europe into a political deadweight for America, if not into politically hostile territory. Yes, relations between its ruling classes and America’s continued to be close. But, increasingly, as the ruling classes on both sides of the Atlantic were beset by challenges from their own people—as neither set of elites could nor would marshal popular support for their transatlantic partners—they related to each other on ever-narrower bases.

In the new century, as America’s progressive statesmen lost war after endless war, as the reservoir of respect for America dried up, it seems that no petty dictator has passed up the chance to inflict harm or humiliation on Americans. This recalls Montesquieu’s description of the Romans in the Western Empire’s last years: “There was no people or group so small that it could not do them harm.”

The biggest changes occurred within America itself. In short, the U.S. ruling classes ceased to respect the American people who, in turn, have ceased to respect their rulers. More fundamentally, both rulers and ruled have become very different from the Americans who bestrode the globe in the mid-20th century.

All measures of personal and social power show the American people’s diminished capacities. Today’s Americans read, count, and comprehend less well than their parents, and much less well than their grandparents. Their knowledge of basic science and history is inferior. That is because today’s Americans spend less time studying. A majority of young adults report having cheated on exams and papers. Fewer score at the highest levels of standardized tests. And as objective performance declines, the level of grades continues to rise, especially at prestigious universities. American elites describe themselves as a meritocracy. But for decades, under a variety of pretexts—especially non-discrimination—America’s elites have raised up successors who excel principally at pleasing their superiors. Round after round, the negative selection of elites degraded America.

Nearly all the Americans who fought in World War II had grown to adulthood with two married parents. But today, the most basic measure of social irresponsibility—data on births outside of families, combined with data on divorces—shows that only a minority of Americans grow to adulthood with two married parents. Nor does a majority of today’s Americans grow up as part of any church or synagogue. Americans who grow without allegiance to family or God don’t learn allegiance to the country in school. Often, schools teach the contrary. Political allegiances are most likely to be to ideas and groups juxtaposed to those of other Americans. Increasingly, Americans experience their government as partisan and capricious. The experience of three generations has taught them that their government plays global chess with their sacrifices. It loses, moves on, and does it again.

Progressives practiced their brand of foreign policy, drawing on the American people’s reservoir of competence, initiative, and patriotism. They also drew on the reservoir of respect that Americans had built up among nations. These reservoirs have never been lower. It remains to be seen whether any foreign policy for today’s America is possible. But to be credible in today’s domestic and international reality, any such policy must be highly focused on what little today’s diminished Americans have in common. Dispensing with progressivism’s fancies, foreign policy must return to the role of fiduciary for America, as well as to the founding generation’s principles and practices. 

Old Wine in New Bottles

No task is more important, or more difficult to accomplish, than recovering respect. But attempting to recover it by abruptly jettisoning unwise commitments or by simply withdrawing from foolish positions would merely continue to squander it by ignoring any reasonable definition of policy.

Redirection of efforts or redeployment of any kind of force necessarily contains some element of retreat. But any retreat is most dangerous because it tends to confuse and discourage those who practice it while emboldening adversaries. That is why redeployments, however useful, must be part of that reasonable connection between actions taken and things desired that aim at success and deserve names like “policy” and “strategy.” “America First” is the most concise description possible of the studied complex of objectives, reasoning, and actions by which America’s founders related to other nations.

Fully and safely returning to the principles and practices that built the once-great but now-depleted reservoir of respect for America requires disposing of current problems in a manner that enhances America. That means leaving enemies either dead or sorry that they ever troubled America, and eager to avoid giving Americans cause for reengaging against them. And that means using our unrivaled economic position and naval power seriously and unforgettably to hurt enemies in areas from which we withdraw.

It means counter-fortifying against the military deployments that allowed China to dominate the eastern Pacific Rim, and it means making economic war on China to compensate for the economic war it has waged on us, until China decides to act in strategically peaceful ways. With regard to Russia, it means coming to terms of geopolitical reciprocity with it—demanding that it reverse its support of anti-American regimes in the Western Hemisphere on pain of U.S. economic warfare, while Americans cease to abet anti-Russian activities in Russia’s front yard.

Simple to conceive, the principles by which early Americans earned respect have always been hard to practice. “Shut up about other people’s business!” has always been the bedrock principle of international communication. John Jay did not make it so in Federalist 3; nor did George Washington in his farewell address; nor John Quincy Adams’ instructions with regard to South America’s and Greece’s struggles for independence; nor Theodore Roosevelt’s rebukes to imperialists. For these statesmen, minding their own business was second nature. 

These leaders recalled Americans to that principle precisely because many in their time were paying insufficient attention to it while others violated it to showcase their pretenses to virtue. In our time—progressives having made loose talk a virtue—the beginning of international seriousness must consist of restricting official comments strictly to America’s own business, speaking unadorned truth insofar as it concerns ourselves, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Alas, only serious people can do that. 

John Quincy Adams did not install peace as international relations’ primary goal or discover that mutual noninterference is the foundation of peace. That primacy and that principle happen to be the foundation of the modern (post-1648) international system. J. Q. Adams’ formulation of the Monroe Doctrine simply made that principle into a system of priorities adapted to the United States of America’s peculiar regime and geographic circumstances. Since these peculiarities have not changed, the order of those priorities remains intact: America First, then everything else in decreasing order of its influence on America.

But just as 200 years ago even statesmen of Thomas Jefferson’s and James Monroe’s caliber were attracted to the mirage of greatness through alliances, so today lesser men find it difficult to grasp John Quincy Adams’ teaching that alignment of interests among nations can only be creatures of time and circumstance. This means that although alliances are often keys to events, any people may pursue with any level of confidence only such objectives as they can achieve unilaterally. 

The men who made America great, the men on Mount Rushmore, would counsel us strongly to decide unilaterally on our international affairs, and to do so by deliberation through our elected representatives—by their votes and by ours. The importance of doing so, they would tell us, transcends the matters at hand because it reaffirms and reminds us of the most basic of all political facts: our independence—meaning our collective liberty and responsibility for being what we were and should be again: different from other peoples, fortunate for that difference, grateful for it, and committed to maintaining it.

Never has it been so important to remember and reaffirm that our autonomy depends on our unity as Americans. 


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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images