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What Were the American Founder's Principles of Foreign Policy?

The essence of American foreign policy was probably best captured by Thomas Jefferson when he said in his 1800 inaugural address "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship toward all nations--entangling alliances toward none."

The essence of American foreign policy was probably best captured by Thomas Jefferson when he said in his 1800 inaugural address "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship toward all nations--entangling alliances toward none."

Introduction to American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy was birthed in the cultural setting of British and Christian influence and the throes of war. The overriding concern of America’s founders was the defense of their citizens.

To achieve that end, their posture toward other nations, especially the nations of Europe, can be summarized in two policies: independence and national sovereignty.


For the American founders, independence meant “free of entanglement to unnecessary commitments.” At first, “independence” meant that the American nation was no longer a child to be scolded by the parent of Great Britain.

In 1776, they declared independence, which was to sever the ties that bound them to the mother country. They concluded the Declaration of Independence by saying that “they [speaking of themselves] have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.”

So, for the early American founders, “independence” meant at least they would be able to:

  • Make war
  • Contract alliances
  • Establish commerce

Contracting Alliances

Years after they issued their “Declaration of Independence," the idea of independence also meant staying out of the alliances of Europe that continually kept the continent embroiled in war. There existed a consensus among both Federalist and Republican founding fathers that we should curtail out political commitments to Europe. George Washington had expressed his aversion to political entanglements by expressing in his Farewell Address (1796) that "The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."Jefferson probably said it best in his inaugural address: "peace, commerce, and honest friendship toward all – entangling alliances toward none.”

Although Jefferson had earlier expressed the Republican attitude that America should side with France in their struggles against the British, by the time he is president he begins to take a more neutral posture. Jefferson's war with the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, his purchase of Louisiana, and his infamous embargo reflect this posture of independence. Later, presidents followed this inclination toward independence on many occasions. From the Monroe Doctrine to more recent events such as American refusal to join the League of Nations, America has demonstrated a reluctance to get involved in the affairs of other nations unless it was on their own terms.

However, America’s independence posture has mostly been of a political nature: America’s founders did not want to get pulled into European alliance and end up in a perpetual state of war. One sign of this adverse attitude toward European political relations is the absence of ambassadors and embassies abroad. Yes, the United States did have men that functioned as ambassadors in countries such as the France, Holland, and the United Kingdom. But, ambassadorships were on an ad hoc basis and we had few embassies abroad until later in the nineteenth century.

Establishing Commerce

A second practice that the founders felt helped define their independence was in establishing commercial relations with other nations. Here, there attitude about establishing commercial relations was different from their attitude about treaties for while they tended to shun political relationships with other nations, they also took an aggressive posture in establishing economic relations with other nations. As a result, they established a multitude of consulates and few missions abroad.

Historically the U.S. consulate abroad represented US economic interests and has been where Americans went if they needed help abroad: needed a doctor or lawyer, got in trouble with the local laws, or lost their passport. Today, the Consulate is headed by a consul, sometimes referred to as a Consul General, who is a presidential appointment subject to Senate confirmation. Consulates are attached to the embassy.

Embassies followed the consulates historically as the United States became more connected politically to other nations. An embassy is the headquarters of the U.S. ambassador and his staff. The embassy is considered U.S. soil under U.S. control. The head is an embassy is an ambassador, who like the consulate-general, is appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation. There were few ambassadors abroad in the beginning of the Republic. Ben Franklin was America's first ambassador abroad to establish relations with France in hopes that they would aid the colonials in their war against the British. He was later replaced by Thomas Jefferson, with the latter remarking to the French foreign minister in 1785 that “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.” Also, John Adams was our first ambassador to the Court of St. James, which is the royal court of the United Kingdom. As our political involvement with other nations began to increase, the number of US embassies abroad with ambassadors also increased.

Still, American involvement abroad was subdued throughout most of its history. Except for America’s unusual relationship with Panama, the United States had no political treaties with other nations until World War II.


Sovereignty, which is related to independence has been defined as “that power to which there is no higher appeal.” Earlier, the French thinker, Jean Bodin said that sovereignty was “Sovereignty is the “untrammelled [unhindered] and undivided power to make laws.” For a nation-state to be sovereign, it must have to final say over the political destiny of its citizens. In democratic states, the people ultimately hold the power of the state in a collective capacity; their agents have the right to make the decision for individual members of the state. Both then and now, national sovereignty solves the dilemma of who has the final say in international disputes. Ultimately, nation-states do. All international organizations (like the United Nations) and systems of international law (such as the Geneva Conventions) are the creation of nation-states.

Who Has the Final Say?

Traditionally the right to have the final say was said to reside with God, as did Bodin. Human rulers can act as sovereigns, but only in the sense that they are God’s agents. However, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that sovereignty is the creation of men through a contract in which subjects obey their ruler (their “sovereign”) and the ruler protects the people.

But do you need someone that has a “final say”? The English jurist William Blackstone apparently thought so. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone said, “there must be in every state a supreme….authority, in which the right of sovereignty resides.” But if sovereignty resides with the nation-state, where in the nation-state does it reside? In the modern world, sovereignty has been said to reside in one of three areas

  • In an absolute ruler—like that of Louis XIV
  • In a government institution—like that of the British Parliament. As of the eighteenth century, one of the two most prominent constitutional principles in the United Kingdom is parliamentary sovereignty. In the United Kingdom today, there is no rival to Parliament.
  • In the people in their collective capacity—Like that in the United States. The U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We the People.” In the creation of the U.S. Constitution, the people selected their delegates, sent them to a convention to draft the Constitution. That constitution was then submitted to all the sovereign states for adoption, to be voted on by the people. So, the power of government resides with the people and the Constitution is the expression of their sovereignty.
The concept of sovereignty has been an important foundation for modern states, but where specifically does sovereignty reside? In the United Kingdom, sovereignty resides with Parliament.

The concept of sovereignty has been an important foundation for modern states, but where specifically does sovereignty reside? In the United Kingdom, sovereignty resides with Parliament.

Limits of Sovereignty

A power like sovereignty sounds ominous. It certainly is a finalizing power, it is also a principle of limitation. According to international relations scholar Jeremy Rabkin, “Sovereignty is, fundamentally, about the authority to establish what law is binding—or will be backed by coercion—in a particular territory. It is not a guarantee of total control over everything that happens. Sovereignty cannot ensure that laws achieve their intended results. It cannot change the weather. It cannot change, by itself, what people in other nations will buy or sell or think, or what governments in other territories will do. But a sovereign state can decide for itself how to govern—that is, it retains the legal authority to determine what standards and laws will be enforced in its own territory, and what it will do with the national resources it can mobilize (Jeremy Rabkin, The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence [Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2004], 23)." So, sovereignty is limited in what is can accomplish. The aims of sovereignty are to maintain order in a limited region. Sovereignty reflects a limiting principle: maintain order within a defined territory—it is not committed to grandiose visions such as “serving humanity” “eliminating poverty” or the “salvation of the masses.” As Rabkin reminds us, sovereignty does not control everything and does not determine everything. It just provides a final say to some things.

American progressives like Woodrow Wilson believed that American government experts should abandon some of its constitutional principles like that of national independence.

American progressives like Woodrow Wilson believed that American government experts should abandon some of its constitutional principles like that of national independence.

The Modern Opposition to Independence and National Sovereignty

A number of international conditions have served to stress the principles of independence and national sovereignty in modern times. Some have suggested that treaties are a stress to American independence as originally intended. However, this is unlikely since the constitutional framers gave to the president and to Congress the power to make treaties. Treaties are subordinate to the United States Constitution which is the “supreme law of the land.” It is hard to believe that the men that gave America the Constitution would have included an instrument that would, de facto, undermine it.

Others have suggested that international organizations like the United Nations are also an enemy of the founder’s principles. Again, this is unlikely. None of these organizations are considered “states.” The United Nations lacks the three powers that any state would need to be sovereign: the power to tax, the power to make law, and the power to protect those under their trust. The UN receives dues from member states; it has no power to tax. It has no power to make law; the UN passes “resolutions,” not laws. Finally, the UN cannot protect the citizens of states as it has no independent military force. What it does possess, it does so on loan from nation states.

Of course, instruments such as treaties and international organizations like the UN could be used to undermine foreign policy principles, but these are not insidious in-and-of-themselves.

However, there are other organizations, like the International Criminal Court (ICC), which appear to directly undermine the sovereignty of states. An organization like the ICC undermines national sovereignty because the ultimate protection of American citizens is not in the hands of the United States government, but is rather in the hands of European judicial bureaucrats. The ICC originated with an International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague to indict and punish war criminals in former Yugoslavia (1993). It was the first war crimes tribunal since the war crimes tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo that followed World War II. In 1998, 100 nations met in Rome to approve a permanent ICC. Under U.S. President Clinton the United States initially signed (but did not ratify) the treaty. When George W. Bush became president, the US extricated itself from ICC commitments. Israel and the Sudan did the same.

If the United States were a part of the ICC, charges against criminals would be initiated by an international prosecutor and not by the states themselves as is done before the World Court (the International Court of Justice). This prosecutor would have the power to bring charges against the citizens of nation-states independently of that state. The implications are far-reaching because if a nation-state does not have the sovereign claim over the legal destiny of its agents, it would appear that the ICC has assumed that role, especially for those citizens involved in military engagements abroad.

There have been other benign conditions, mostly in the guise of criticisms, that have stabbed at America’s foreign policy principles of independence and sovereignty. For example, throughout the twentieth century and into this one, the United States has been accused of being an isolationist country. The claim of isolationism is that the United States only cares about itself and does not care about international problems. “Isolationism” is often used when other factions or states want to drag the United States, with its hefty arsenal and endowed economic resources, into their conflicts. So, usually the claim of isolationism is merely pejorative. But second, it’s probably false to say that America has been an isolationist nation. Back to the original discussion, the United States has often projected itself into the international arena—the Barbary Pirates, the Monroe Doctrine (and later Roosevelt’s Corollary), the Spanish American War, American unilateral blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent embargo—if it felt that its international interests were at stake. From the very beginning, it is hard to accept that the United States has been an isolationist state.

Unilateralism V. Multilateralism

In the twentieth century, progressives such as former President Woodrow Wilson We have been told that we should prefer multilateralism to unilateralism when dealing with our problems abroad. Wilson's vision was that we should work through international organizations rather than individually when it came to solving our problems internationally. However, those that take an oath to support the Constitution cannot base the rightness of their international actions on the concerted will of other states. If a nation acts in league with another nation, it should only do so because it is in its interest to do so and not because it feels that it has a moral obligation to do so. Unilateralism maintains that America does not need self-styled “international chaperones” (as Jeremy Rabkin likes to call them) of the likes of Germany and France to act in the world.

Independence V. Interdependence

A view that is similar to that of multilateralism is the idea that American foreign policy should be based more on a posture of "interdependence" as opposed to "independence." The idea of interdependence is that as people grow, people discover that they really do need each other and so they begin to develop a mutual dependency on each other. So the path to maturity is to move from dependence to independence and finally to interdependence. This “path to maturity” should be marked by the United States joining international organizations in order to create transnational alliances whether they be global and political (like the United Nations) or whether they be regional and economic (like the North American Free Trade Agreement).

American commitments abroad stepped up in Europe after World War II when the United States filled a obvious vacuum created by the devastation left by the Axis nemeis. The United States stepped in and assisted with the restoration of Europe with the Marshall Plan, the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and with the resistance to the Soviet Union and to the Iron Curtain states through efforts such as the Truman Doctrine.

The problem with interdependence as a posture for nation-states is that elected officials place too much risk on their not being able to uphold their oath to support the Constitution. The United States has done more to help both themselves and many other nations of the world, in part, because they have maintained an independent posture. The view of independence is that we don't make treaties because we need each other: this most certainly is one based in weakness and mutual slavery. A posture of independence sends the message that, while we do not need to establish a relationship with another independent power, we do so because it is in our mutual interest. This is a philosophy of freedom which is consonant with America's values of freedom and liberty.

While historical events and the deliberate efforts of some have worked to impair the founder's foreign policy principles of independence and sovereignty, those principles have remained robust in spite of the tarnishing they have received from time to time throughout history.

© 2017 William R Bowen Jr


Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on December 20, 2017:

The Founding Fathers created the United States as a sovereign nation. That in itself is directly and obviously relevant to the conduct of American foreign policy, both because it is what enables us to have a foreign policy in the first place, and because it emphasizes the value the Founders placed on sovereignty.