The American president is the individual primarily responsible for the United States’ foreign policy. While the president divvies up domestic issues with Congress and the states, the Constitution gives the president broad power to command the armed forces, make treaties, and appoint diplomats. Furthermore, in accordance with the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the president can deploy troops for up to 60 days without congressional approval.
In this author’s view, a good foreign policy is one that serves America’s interests, that is, the security of the nation and the prosperity of its people, and a good American foreign policy president is one who understanding this, acts according, rather than pursuing idealistic fantasies. America’s interests change in different times and places, so realism means different things to different presidents, and encompasses a broad range of policies. But realism does not mean an open-ended war on a strategy, terrorism, nor does it mean constant interventionism aimed at changing the domestic institutions of other countries. Of course, the United States can still serve as an exemplar for other countries.
Under these criteria, who then are the leaders who looked best after U.S. foreign policy interests? Here are my five best foreign policy presidents:
George Washington (1789-1797)
Our first president set the gold standard for pursuing the most reasonable foreign policy for the United States given the circumstances. As historian George C. Herring noted in From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776: “The United States in 1789 remained weak and vulnerable…its regular army totaled fewer than five hundred men.” Obviously, this constrained the nation’s options, although not forever, as Washington realized: “The Washington administration accepted the need for patience. But it prepared for the future by encouraging settlement of contested territory…Americans began to think in terms of an empire stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific…”
Washington resisted the pressure of both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to closely align with either France or Great Britain, the premiere powers of the time. While U.S. commercial interests dictated that it maintain good relations with Britain, its geopolitical position necessitated good relations with France, which had the ability to temper British power in the Atlantic. Therefore, when the British and French went to war in 1793, Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality, which stated that “the duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.” Later, in 1795, Washington’s administration negotiated the Jay Treaty with Britain, which granted trade privileges to the U.S. and led to the evacuation of British forts in the northwestern U.S. in return for minor concessions to the British. Although this treaty prevented war with Britain, it was nonetheless greeted with hostility by the partisans like Jefferson. Yet, it was a shining example of how realpolitik and the diplomatic give-and-take of diplomacy served U.S. interests over passionate ideology. As Herring wrote of the popular reaction to the treaty:
Foreign policy in the United States was subject to debate by a public whose understanding of the issues and mechanisms was neither sophisticated nor nuanced, that sought clear-cut and definitive solutions, and defined outcomes in terms of victory and defeat.
Such attitudes, unfortunately, persist even unto the modern era, and are found in certain attitudes toward the Iran nuclear agreement.
In his famous farewell address, Washington articulated some grand principles that stand the test of time, regardless of whether the United States pursued a more inward or outward foreign policy orientation. In particular, laying out the principles of realism, and expressing wariness of permanent alliances, he said that:
Permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated… [likewise] a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils.
Ultimately, the best foreign policy for the United States remains the same today as it was in Washington’s time: “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations [as] recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.”
John Adams (1797-1801)
Although George Washington was a tough act to follow, the United States was most vulnerable at its inception, and most in need of a steady guiding hand in foreign policy during its early years. After Washington’s retirement, this was provided by Adams.
Adams came to power after defeating Jefferson in the 1796 election, operating at a time when the U.S. was still not free from British and French machinations. In fact, according to Herring, the French may have attempted to swing the election in Jefferson’s favor. As the French failed to install a pro-French government in the United States, they instead disregarded the nation’s neutrality, and began seizing U.S. shipping, which resulted in the annulment of the 1778 Treaty of Alliance between the two nations on July 7, 1798 (which the U.S. had little intention of actually fulfilling, as it had neither the reason nor the ability to fight several European powers as France’s ally). This was a good move, as any attempt on the part of the U.S. to entangle itself in European wars at this point could have resulted in its destruction at the hands of a coalition of European powers.
Nor did Adams get involved in a declared war with France, despite the existence of great hostility, and a quasi-war. In the infamous XYZ affair, various anonymous French agents demanded bribes from American diplomats as a prerequisite for negotiations on pending issues, leading to anti-French hysteria in the U.S. Unlike some future leaders, Adams did not get carried away by this hysteria to engage in foolish and unnecessary wars, i.e. the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The gift of Adams’ touch was his ability to take a firm line against France without involving the country in a war it could ill afford at the moment; the U.S. commissioned more battleships than the entire existing U.S. fleet and armed merchant vessels, while all the while pursuing diplomacy. By 1800, he was able to reach a new understanding with France through diplomacy, without jeopardizing the new nation’s neutrality and sovereignty.
Although John Adams is often overshadowed by the other Founding Fathers, he managed to preserve the United States’ unique geopolitical position and diplomatic stance at a time when European machinations, aided by some Americans, could have torn the nation apart in its infancy.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Abraham Lincoln is mostly known for his role in leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, but all the industrial might and demographic heft of the North may not have been enough to prevent the secession of the South, had the latter gained official recognition from foreign powers. After all, it was the French recognition and aid to the United States in 1778 that greatly contributed to U.S. independence. Initially, both Britain and France leaned toward the South, for geopolitical reasons—such as weakening the United States—and commercial reasons, in particular the import of cotton.
Yet, neither country recognized the Confederacy in the end. Lincoln’s primary achievement for American foreign policy was the setting of a precedent by which foreign powers ceased their intervention in the domestic affairs of the United States, as well as in the general neighborhood of the U.S. While the French tried to manipulate popular opinion during Washington’s presidency in favor of the French Revolution, and the British attempted to curry favor in New England (and possibly foster a secessionist movement there) during the War of 1812, the influence of these two foreign powers was limited during the Civil War.
As this author noted in a prior article, “During the Civil War, Charles Francis Adams Sr., son and grandson of U.S. presidents with extensive diplomatic experience, served as ambassador to Britain and was instrumental in dissuading the British from recognizing the South.” British public opinion, which was resoundly anti-slavery, made it difficult for the British government to support the South, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued at the start of 1863. Moreover, the British were able to source cotton from alternative sources, such as India and Egypt. As Conrad Black argued in Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies that Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership:
The British had at all times to weigh the fact that if they pushed the Union too heard, they would be flung out of Canada and probably the West Indies….Britain had no ability to defend Canada from the ever-growing Union Army, now nearly 500,000 men.
France proved to be both more pesky, but also less of an immediate threat than the British. Rather than intervening to support the South, it instead established a puppet state in Mexico in 1864, which was a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and a threat to U.S. interests. Both Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant secured money and weapons for the Mexicans to fight the French, who eventually withdrew from that country in 1867.
Lincoln secured the country’s continued existence through diplomacy during a time when it was at the greatest risk of disintegration and foreign manipulation.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
By the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, the United States had grown into a great power, and thus had a need to maintain a sphere of influence and some offshore bases. In the hyper-competitive world of the early 20th century, failure to guard the sea and land approaches to one’s nation was paramount to allowing a potentially hostile power to aim forces at vital territory. It was not unreasonable at this time for the United States to demand access to Panama in order to build a canal for the purpose of speeding up east-west shipping.
As the world’s largest economy, and a continental power, the U.S. could not be ignored by other powers. The theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, then in vogue, held that U.S. “security could be threatened by a hostile power or alliance of powers that gained effective political control of the key power centers of Eurasia.” Roosevelt, influenced by this line of thinking, advocated for a strong navy. This Great White Fleet was sent on a journey around the world between 1907-1909 to demonstrate American power.
Moreover, as Henry Kissinger noted in his book Diplomacy, “In Roosevelt’s conception, America would have been one nation among many—more powerful than most and part of an elite group of great powers—but still subject to the historic ground rules of equilibrium.” Roosevelt’s understanding of balance of power politics led to his mediation of a peace treaty following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, one that left neither country too strong or weak, as U.S. interests now necessitated such a configuration in East Asia.
Rather than any one particular policy (and many of Roosevelt’s interventions in the Americas were costly and unnecessary), Roosevelt’s great contribution was his dynamism which facilitated his realization that the United States was now a great power, and needed to act as such, while also exercising restraint, and not partaking in open-ended commitments to change the world (Wilsonianism).
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Whatever his flaws and mishaps in the domestic sphere, Richard M. Nixon was one of the most brilliant foreign policy minds of the 20th century. Not that Nixon was a nice guy: his carpet bombings caused a great deal of death and misery in Cambodia, and he supported the Pakistani crackdown against East Pakistan (Bangladesh), when neither served any national interest, and were immoral to boot.
Nixon advocated the concept of a balance of power among nations as the best way of preserving international peace and a country’s national interests. Perhaps foreseeing that hubris would make the U.S. weaker, not stronger, he was not a big fan of unipolarity; current U.S. unilateralism, advocated both by liberal internationalists and neoconservatives has engendered pushback against U.S. initiatives in the 2010s by nearly all other great powers.
According to Henry Kissinger, “For Nixon, the world was divided between friends and antagonists; between arenas for cooperation and those in which interests clashed.” Nixon said in an interview with Time magazine in 1972:
We must remember the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been balance of power. It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises.
In reality, this translated into Nixon’s famous opening to China in 1972. Not only was that a step toward creating a multipolar world order, it served U.S. strategic interests at the time by weakening the pro-Soviet Communist camp by shifting the orientation of a third pillar of the world order toward the U.S. and away from the Soviet Union. Other than ideology, there was no reason for the U.S. to not deepen ties with Communist China in the 1970s.
Nixon also formulated a doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, which was designed to “navigate between overextension and abdication” in world affairs, a dilemma facing all contemporary U.S. presidents. In particular, the doctrine declared that in cases of non-nuclear aggression, the United States would “look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for defense.” Notwithstanding the failure of Vietnamization, which was just a particular instance of the idea’s application, the Nixon Doctrine is a useful concept that would allow certain nations today to take more responsibility for their own defense.
Readers, would you agree with these five picks? Why, or why not? We welcome your thoughts.
Akhilesh (Akhi) Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and is a contributing editor at The Diplomat.
Editor’s Note: Since its founding in 2002, The American Conservative has advocated for a truly conservative foreign policy: one that rejects neoconservatism not in favor of “isolationism,” but in the great American traditions of realism, prudence, and restraint. Join us tomorrow as we convene leading scholars, policy experts, and journalists to discuss the outlook for realism and restraint in the Trump era. Register for our conference, “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era: Can Realism and Restraint Prevail?” here.