Contemporary critics of the American foreign entanglements are quickly labeled isolationists who troll for Russian President, Vladimir Putin, subverting freedom, democracy, and the world order. If former United States Secretary of State (1817-1825) and the country’s President (1825-1829), John Quincy Adams, returned to Earth today he would be among them (and, highly likely, on top of the TSA’s no-fly list, too).
An attitude of non-interventionism equaling success has been distorted into a belief that being in everyone’s business is somehow a recipe for peaceful global affairs. Nearly 200 years ago, in an address to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams warned the nation about the dangers of interventionist foreign policy.
Adams delivered his address on the Independence Day of 1821. As the Americans are soon to gather in celebration of the Fourth of July, grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves about his short speech.
AND NOW, FRIENDS AND COUNTRYMEN, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?
Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. 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.
She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.
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 commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force….
She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….
[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice. (Source)
Figure 1 (Source). John Quincy Adams.
A speech like this today would label Adams an isolationist, rather than non-interventionist, and a man on Putin’s payroll, rather than a genuine patriot supporting traditional American values. Few would stand in his defense in fear of being guilty of the same “crime.”
In 2017, another (former) Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, simply dared to discuss realism in the context of contemporary American foreign policy interests; he was immediately chastised by almost-president, Senator John McCain:
“In a recent address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interests. With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope. Our values make us sympathetic to your plight, and, when it’s convenient, we might officially express that sympathy. But we make policy to serve our interests, which are not related to our values.”
“We are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values. We have grown vastly wealthier and more powerful under those rules. More of humanity than ever before lives in freedom and out of poverty because of those rules…. To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize. Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three. Were they not, we would be one great power among the others of history. We would acquire wealth and power for a time, before receding into the disputed past. But we are a more exceptional country than that.”
Perversion of thought in which right American values became wrong and wrong values became right has been long in the making. It evolved through decades into its current form of justifications of moral obligations in sending American service persons to lose their lives in wars farther away from Washington, D.C. than the center of Earth. In Humanitarian Intervention, Personification of Evil, Geography of Conflict I wrote:
“In the United States, conquests are frequently labeled as humanitarian interventions whose sole purpose is to unilaterally help various people across the world. This has become an official mantra, despite the long-term outcomes of such actions. Within the context of the humanitarian interventions narrative, a framework of personalizing foreign evil holds great significance. American people have to be convinced that actions are indeed helping the people in distant lands get rid of evil dictators, and to feel that sacrifice is worth the promised outcome.”
At the same time, the concept and reality of foreign wars have been greatly marginalized and devaluated in eyes (and lives) of many Americans. In Adverse Effect of the Adjective “Cold,” the Mental Valium for Geopolitical Anxiety I observed that
“…The residents of the United States are in a perpetual state of war with something. Terrorism, drugs, cancer, childhood obesity, illiteracy, poverty, diabetes, racism, social media, and insurance scams are just some battlefronts on the long list of everlasting wars and crusades. Only the word “hero” surpasses “war” in frequency of nonchalant public attributes. Nearly everyone seems to be some kind of a hero today.
[Nonchalant: having an air of easy unconcern or indifference.]
Devaluation of the meaning of the term war has been so drastic that even the warnings about a devastating global conflict are taken lightly. The seriousness of a geopolitical standoff in Eurasia, with indicators pointing in the direction of a possible real war—for those who bother to pay attention—is downgraded into the casual attachment of the adjective “cold” to the “next” war. Its purpose is to calm the public into the comforting belief that the next Cold War will be similar to the previous one; i.e., global business continues as usual without a direct military confrontation between the superpowers. The adjective “Cold” is a form of mental valium. It tends to minimize potential anxiousness about real conflict.”
Imagine people walking towards a fork in a road having to decide which street to take, John Quincy Adams or John McCain. Adams Street leads uphill and McCain downhill. Convenience of going downhill would always appear more attractive over exhausting climb on Adams Street. What no one is telling to them, however, is that at the end of McCain Street is quick sand preventing any movement forward except for those seeking to drown in it.
This is where people of the United States stand now, between convenience and responsibility to make difficult decisions in steering the country on the right path. A return from quick sand and the subsequent conquering the Adams Street will be twice as difficult a journey than would have been the outcome of taking Adams Street in the first place.