What Would the Founding Fathers Think of Modern America’s Foreign Policy?

The world today is far more complex than it was 200 years ago, but the speeches and writings of the Founding Fathers point to a common general principle.


More than 200 years ago, the United States were founded by disgruntled colonial men wearing ruffled shirts and tri-corner hats. Their writings on government structure and democracy have endured, but what about their views on global affairs? 

The Founding Fathers’ general approach to foreign policy began with Thomas Paine’s 'Common Sense'. In his famous 1776 pamphlet, Paine made the case that political connections with the outside world—especially with Britain, the dominant power at the time—should essentially be limited to commerce:

“As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do, while, by her dependence on Britain, she is made the makeweight in the scale of British politics.”


Oil painting of 18th century Enlightenment philosopher and author Thomas Paine by Auguste Millière (1880); Common Sense, a pamphlet by Thomas Paine (1776).

The Founding Fathers had subscribed to Paine’s view during the Revolutionary War, but eventually found that an alliance with France was necessary in the short term. Then, in 1793, George Washington effectively broke the alliance with his Proclamation of Neutrality.

Washington doubled down on his support of American independence in his Farewell Address of 1796, believing there to be an inherent danger in becoming overly entangled with other countries, namely the risk of becoming too lenient on allies, and too harsh on their enemies:

“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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
...
“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.” 

The early nation’s views on foreign policy were solidified in 1821 when John Quincy Adams, then the secretary of state, delivered an address on U.S. foreign policy that outlined why the country wouldn’t get involved in the Greek War of Independence:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”

Speaking at the Cato Institute in 2016, William Ruger, Vice President for Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Foundation, delved into the views of Washington, Adams, and others, remarking: "States don't have permanent friends, they have permanent interests, and the Founders were hyper-realist when it came to that."

Three Decades of American Primacy

The U.S. has been the world’s most powerful nation since the end of the Cold War. Some refer to this position as “American primacy,” which political scientist Joseph Nye defined as its “disproportionate (and measurable) share of all three kinds of power resources: military, economic, and soft.” While this power has allowed the U.S. to create an advantageous world order, America's interventions abroad have come at massive human and economic cost.

Ruger spoke to Big Think about the consequences of U.S. foreign intervention:

william-ruger-how-america-destabilized-the-middle-east

“Primacy has often led the United States to create situations where there’s greater instability, more problems, lots of unintended consequences that have spilled over to other places. And Iraq is a perfect example of that. ISIS would not exist in Iraq had it not been for the United States opening Pandora’s box by our regime-change efforts.”

As the U.S. enters its third decade of primacy since the end of the Cold War, it’s worth returning to the thoughts of the Founding Fathers, and how they conceptualized America’s role in the global community. What would they have thought about invading, say, Iraq? In Adams' words, is it a monster the U.S. should have gotten mixed up with?

The cost of the war in Iraq. Source: Mother Jones.

The Founding Fathers’ Views Today

It goes without saying that the world today is far more complex than it was 200 years ago. Technology and industrialization have connected the world in entirely unpredictable ways, and the power of the U.S. has multiplied to an unimaginable extent. There’s also a case to be made that with America’s great power comes the responsibility to right the many wrongs in the world.

However, the massive costs of U.S. foreign policy over the past couple of decades have caused some to call for realistic restraint, which argues for the U.S. to fully consider the consequences of intervention before entangling itself in the problems of other countries, as Ruger explains:

“Over the last 15 to 25 years, our foreign policy simply isn’t working. It is not making us safer. And that’s why we need to reconsider what we’re doing. We need to rethink our grand strategy. We need to rethink how we’re using diplomacy and economic levers of statecraft. We need to rethink our budgets and the types of platforms we’re building and the types of missions we want to send our troops on.

This is vitally important so that we can rightsize the military for the challenges ahead. And I don’t think we’re doing that, which is why we need to bring new voices into the conversation. The other thing I think that we should ask for is: we would like our executives to practice humility. That means that they need to understand what they don’t know, and to have that be part of the decision-making process.

Still, a more realistic and restrained foreign policy doesn’t mean the U.S. should engage in full-blown isolationism and abandon the rest of the world, Ruger says:

The United States needs to be engaged abroad in terms of trading with other countries, providing positive-sum outcomes between peoples, diplomacy, cultural engagement, people to people engagement. We can be engaged in the world and open to the world without thinking that the United States needs to be everywhere and without the United States having to lead and be militarily deployed to every part of the globe.

We can never know exactly what the Founding Fathers would think about modern U.S. foreign policy. However, we can tell from their speeches and writings that they all seemed to agree on a general principle: be extremely wary of becoming overly entangled with the never-ending problems of the outside world.

 

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.