6/23/08 - 'entangling alliances'

In today's excerpt - the phrase 'entangling alliances', and the policy of isolationism are often falsely attributed to George Washington:

"The central interpretive strain, [of George Washington's] Farewell Address as the seminal statement of American isolationism. Ironically, the phrase most associated with this interpretive tradition, 'entangling alliances with none,' is not present in the Farewell Address. (Double irony, it appears in Jefferson's first inaugural, of all places). Here are the salient words, which isolationists hurled against Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1941: 'Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are foreign to our concerns. ... 'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.'

"In truth, Washington's isolationist prescription rests atop a deeper message about American foreign policy, which deserves more recognition than it has received as the seminal statement in the realistic tradition. Here are the key words: 'There can be no greater error to expect, or calculate upon real favours from Nation to Nation. 'Tis an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.' Washington was saying that the relationship between nations was not like the relationship between individuals, which could periodically be conducted on the basis of mutual trust. Nations always had and always would behave solely on the basis of interest.

"It followed that all treaties were merely temporary arrangements destined to be discarded once those interests shifted. In the context of his own time, this was a defense of the Jay Treaty, which repudiated the Franco-American alliance and aligned America's commercial interests with British markets as well as protection of the all-powerful British fleet."


Joseph J. Ellis


His Excellency George Washington


Vintage Books a Division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2004 by Joseph J. Ellis


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