America's Original (and Very Wise) Foreign Policy


By Mike Griffith, Staff Writer

Most Americans today are unaware that America’s original foreign policy, the foreign policy that the country’s early leaders understood and taught, was a policy of non-intervention and neutrality.  This was not "isolationism."  We enjoyed robust trade and cultural relations with most of the world.  But, we did not get involved in foreign wars, did not seek to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, and did not maintain military bases overseas.


In a brilliant essay on American foreign policy, Ralph Raico observes the following:

This noninterventionist America, devoted to solving its own problems and developing its own civilization, became the wonder of the world. The eyes and hopes of freedom-loving peoples were turned to the Great Republic of the West.

But sometimes the leaders of peoples fighting for their independence misunderstood the American point of view. This was the case with the Hungarians, who had fought a losing battle against the Habsburg monarchy and its Russian allies. Their cause was championed by many sectors of American public opinion. When the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth came to America, he was wildly cheered. He was presented to the president and Congress and hailed by the secretary of state, Daniel Webster. But they all refused to help in any concrete way. No public money, no arms, aid, or troops were forthcoming for the Hungarian cause. Kossuth grew bitter and disillusioned. He sought the help of Henry Clay, by then the grand old man of American politics. Clay explained to Kossuth why the American leaders had acted as they did: By giving official support to the Hungarian cause, we would have abandoned "our ancient policy of amity and non-intervention." Clay explained:

"By the policy to which we have adhered since the days of Washington. . . we have done more for the cause of liberty in the world than arms could effect; we have shown to other nations the way to greatness and happiness. . . . Far better is it for ourselves, for Hungary, and the cause of liberty, that, adhering to our pacific system and avoiding the distant wars of Europe, we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this western shore, as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen and falling republics in Europe."

Similarly, in 1863, when Russia crushed a Polish revolt with great brutality, the French Emperor invited us to join in a protest to the Tsar. Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, replied, defending "our policy of non-intervention — straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations":

"The American people must be content to recommend the cause of human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference."

This policy by no means entailed the "isolation" of the United States. Throughout these decades, trade and cultural exchange flourished, as American civilization progressed and we became an economic powerhouse. The only thing that was prohibited was the kind of intervention in foreign affairs that was likely to embroil us in war. ("American Foreign Policy," February 1995,

President John Quincy Adams understood our wise original foreign policy:

America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.

She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.

She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.

She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. . . .

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.  ("John Quincy Adams on U.S. Foreign Policy,"

In his famous Farewell Address, President George Washington articulated our founding foreign policy of non-intervention:

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. . . .

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world. . . . I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences. . . . (Farewell Address to the Nation, September 26, 1796)

In my opinion, we would do well to return to our original foreign policy.  This would not mean isolationism.  Nor would it mean that we would not take fierce preemptive action to prevent a pending attack.  Nor would it mean that we would not retaliate with overwhelming force if we were attacked.  Nor would it mean that we would not maintain a strong, capable national defense.  It would mean, however, that we would bring our troops home from their various overseas bases and deployments, saving ourselves hundreds of billions of dollars in the process.  It would mean that we would stop giving away billions of dollars in foreign aid.  It would mean that we would stop engaging in "nation building."  And, it would mean that we would stop being the world’s policeman.


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