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The 18th-Century Document That Can Save 21st-Century Foreign Policy

The 18th-Century Document That Can Save 21st-Century Foreign Policy

Monday, 17 August, 2020 - 04:30
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Foreign-policy types never tire of arguing about the great works of strategy: Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and others. Just recently, wonks clashed over whether Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” is a cliched irrelevancy or a useful guide to great-power relations.

Yet many students of strategy ignore America’s contribution to the canon: the Federalist Papers. That’s too bad, because the Federalist — a series of 85 essays written in tag-team fashion during the furious debate over ratification of the US Constitution — set down the key strategic principles that would turn a nascent nation into a democratic superpower. It is a testament to the power of those ideas that many of them remain relevant in today’s era of competition. The Federalist is still an essential guide to America’s best approach to foreign policy.

The Federalist gets comparatively little respect as a foreign-policy tract because it is best known as America’s defining work of political philosophy. Over just a few months, “Publius” — the trio of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison — brilliantly argued the brief for the Constitution devised in Philadelphia in 1787. Yet the Constitution itself was largely a foreign-policy document, for the country’s pitiable weakness in the world was a principal reason it needed a new form of government at home.

As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 25, “The territories of Britain, Spain, and of the Indian nations in our neighborhood do not border on particular States, but encircle the Union from Maine to Georgia.” Powerful European monarchs were seeking to contain, coerce and subvert a nation whose existence threatened the legitimacy of their rule. No one reading the Federalist would have believed the myth that America was once immune from foreign dangers. So in defending the new American Constitution, the Federalist also outlined an agenda for American strategy.

First, the US needed a government strong enough to compete in a cutthroat world, because “a weak government,” wrote Hamilton and Madison in Federalist 18, can “never fail to bring on fresh calamities from abroad.” America, of course, had been born in revolt against centralized authority. But the US could hardly survive, let alone thrive, if it lacked a state that could raise an army to defend its borders, build a navy to protect its commerce, or otherwise give its enemies pause. It would need an entire branch of government — the executive — designed to conduct agile, decisive statecraft. Protecting the liberties for which the revolution had been fought would require empowering the American state to a degree that many revolutionaries found disquieting — a necessary compromise, which laid the institutional groundwork for all the country’s subsequent accomplishments in foreign affairs.

Second, territorial growth was not the enemy but the friend of the American experiment. The conventional wisdom of the time was that republican government worked only in small, homogeneous communities. But as Madison argued in Federalist 10, “the smaller the compass,” the more easily one faction or another could “concert and execute their plans of oppression.”

Conversely, by “extending the sphere” — by encompassing a larger territory and a greater array of interests — the US would prevent any single group from achieving an unhealthy preponderance. America was, in fact, already extending the sphere with the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, which created a framework for bringing new states into the union. The Federalist thus provided a political logic for the breathtaking expansion that would carry America across the continent.

Third, the US should construct a balance of power at home and avoid a balance of power abroad. The theory of American government, Madison wrote, was that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” — that dividing power among the branches was the only way of preserving liberty. Yet the authors of the Federalist¬ believed that nothing should counteract American ambition in its geopolitical neighborhood. They warned that weak, divided entities would forever confront threats on their own borders, but that a strong, unified America could ensure its security by dominating its surroundings. Over the next century, this drive for hegemony in North America and the larger Western Hemisphere would be the single great constant of US foreign policy.

Finally, America could best compete with its rivals by becoming a great power of a very different sort. As Charles Edel has written, America’s early leaders were determined not to be like Europe. They believed that America, by virtue of its geography, could become a seafaring nation and a commercial superpower — more like the UK than continental Europe. They argued that America should steer clear of European wars and intrigues, and build an “empire of liberty” that would draw its strength from the power of the American example no less than the resources of a vast continent.

Like all strategic tracts, the Federalist was a flawed document. It ignored the obvious problem that territorial expansion would lead to the expansion of slavery — which would, in turn, nearly destroy America. The US would follow its guidance imperfectly in the succeeding decades, as the War of 1812 and other head-scratching blunders revealed.

Yet if any one set of writings charted the path that would take America from being a remote republican outpost to the democratic superpower we know today, it was the Federalist. And although world conditions — and America’s condition — have changed dramatically since the 1780s, the key themes of the Federalist are still pertinent.

The US is no longer a set of 13 fractious states. Yet America’s domestic unity remains the wellspring of its strength and effectiveness in foreign affairs, a truth that the country presently seems to be demonstrating more in the breach than in the observance. Similarly, the US long ago achieved dominance in North America. Yet as it confronts a rising China, it would do well to fortify that power base by pursuing deeper political cooperation and economic integration, rather than unnecessary trade wars, with its closest neighbors.

America’s identity as a very different kind of great power still matters. The US no longer uses its geographic distance from the main theaters of geopolitical rivalry to remain neutral. But that positioning does make America relatively unthreatening to most countries of Europe and East Asia, which makes them more likely to work with the US to contain their larger, more threatening neighbors such as China and Russia. The fact that the US oversees an international system rooted in relatively liberal economic and political principles — a modern-day “empire of liberty” — is equally crucial in attracting partners and allies today.

Finally, the Federalist’s ambivalence toward the balance of power remains a useful touchstone. The reason the US worries so much about the rise of China is that its population and economic heft could make it a global rival to the US. The best way to handle the Chinese challenge is to maintain an overbalance of power — a formidable coalition of democratic states — that keeps even an increasingly aggressive China overmatched.

More than 230 years after it was written, the Federalist still offers sharp insights about the sources of America’s geopolitical success. If that doesn’t merit inclusion in the pantheon of strategic masterworks, it is hard to know what would.


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