This week President Trump bluntly declared that, should a foreign government offer information about his 2020 opponent, “I think I’d take it.” The President’s attempt to walk back this comment underscored his view that taking a “look at” information from abroad is acceptable.
These declarations likely would’ve left the Founders aghast. Alexander Hamilton considered “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” among the “most deadly adversaries of republican government.”
In “Federalist 68,” he advocated for the electoral college because of his concern that foreign powers would attempt to “rais[e] a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.” And this fear didn’t fade with the Constitution’s enactment.
The American republic was weak at its onset. Perhaps its most vulnerable point was the area where foreign and domestic politics converged. Engaging the outside world through foreign trade and diplomacy was crucial to gaining strength, yet fraught because of the potential for adversaries to meddle.
So, American leaders developed a foreign-policy ethic centered on keeping other countries out of American politics, one that focused on unilateralism and eschewed alliances. That foreign policy ethos fell away after WWII, but President Trump aims to resurrect it. Ironically, however, even as he agitates for a return to unilateralism, he has clearly forgotten why that policy seemed so appealing in the first place.
Worried about foreign influence, and trying to protect history’s first large-scale democracy from a world filled with adversarial actors and governments, American policymakers aimed to steer a neutral course in foreign policy. This was evident as early as the Model Treaty of 1776, a template agreement designed to set the goals of future foreign relations treaties and agreements, premised on bilateral, reciprocal trade relations and no direct military assistance in foreign conflicts.
Giving this aim its most famous expression, George Washington explained in his 1796 Farewell Address, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” The word “foreign” appears a whopping 15 times in this address, which contains numerous references to potential international problems. Indeed, one of Washington’s worries about the development of parties was the concern that they might develop ties to foreign powers.
Five years later, Thomas Jefferson similarly argued for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
Nor were these simply 18th-century concerns. In light of the country’s geopolitical weakness, American policymakers, thinkers, activists and military leaders labored well into the 20th century to shield the country’s autonomy by refusing to expend its scarce power abroad and steeling itself to fend off European, and especially British, encroachment.
Isolationism and unilateralism largely governed American foreign-relations thought and practice until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet, often left out of the story told about this U.S. foreign policy tradition is the crucial domestic corollary: fears about foreign attempts to interfere in domestic American politics.
This wasn’t just a theoretical concern. When Washington delivered his Farewell Address, the nation had just concluded a highly partisan and divisive series of debates in 1795-1796 over the Jay Treaty with England, which the Federalists favored and Jeffersonians opposed — a split that gave rise to the first American party system. The Jeffersonians wanted to maintain the U.S. alliance with France, which helped win the Revolutionary War, while the reigning Federalists thought it essential to agree to the treaty with Britain.
On both sides, the central fear was about far more than the Jay Treaty, itself. The partisans worried about the far reaching implications at home if the United States aligned itself with one European power or the other. For the Jeffersonians, it was a fear of close “romantick continental connections” (in Benjamin Franklin’s terms) and the impact that sustained foreign influence might have on American politicians, politics and society. Jeffersonians warned that the United States might backslide if aligned too closely with Britain, driving internal transformations such as a turn toward aristocracy, a permanent military alliance and perhaps even the elevation of a British agent to the presidency.
The Federalists, too, were alarmed. They were alarmed over the Jeffersonians’ ties to — or, at least, affinity for — France. Washington argued that “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Discord over foreign relations needed to be policed assiduously. As domestic partisanship increased so, too, might the pressures to peddle influence and information from and with foreign nations.
It was this animating concern which drove Washington to cement the foundation for American neutrality in his Farewell Address. He offered one firm guiding principle: “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
In the speech (partly written by Hamilton and James Madison and read yearly in Congress until recently), Washington set an explicitly isolationist tone, but it wasn’t rooted in the vision of a walled-and-bounded nation that is often mistakenly attributed to those in the 20th century tarred with the epithet “isolationist.” Rather, Washington’s preferred policy stemmed from an appreciation of the limits of U.S. power in light of the nation’s commercial, cultural and intellectual interests in the world. In short, Washington’s address aimed to nurture the safety of the state during its early development by eschewing contacts and connections with foreign agents — who could assume far too great of an influence in American politics.
This fear spanned the political spectrum, as Americans worried such meddling might lead to political corruption and intrigue. They tempered those fears with a foreign-policy commitment to limiting these types of entanglements as much as possible, so that the fledgling nation could pursue growth and development on its own terms. That fear was so sharp that it shaped concerns over the era’s emerging partisan battles.
The Founders almost incessantly fretted about the rise of factions (parties) and the damage they were doing to the nascent nation. Parties and partisans hurt the United States because they were susceptible to foreign influence and might be induced to introduce foreign interests into domestic debates. Just this week the Federal Elections Commission Chair drew on these founding ideas in underscoring the prohibition against soliciting or accepting foreign information in connection with U.S. elections.
An American president or politician who suggests that he or she will “listen to” and accept foreign aid and information against domestic political opponents represents a rejection of the core foundational political principles that guided the development of the United States for generations. And this is dangerous. Hamilton was right. Much has changed since late 18th century, but the injunction against foreign influence and meddling should endure.