More than 220 years have passed since President Washington authored the letter that we know as his Farewell Address, but the advice contained in it remains as valuable and relevant as ever. The address is probably best known today for its endorsement of neutrality in foreign conflicts and its warning against both passionate attachments to and permanent antipathies for other countries. Those recommendations are important, but the most important part of the letter is Washington’s emphasis on justice as the guiding light of America’s relations with other nations. This was what informed everything else he wrote on the subject. It is also the part of Washington’s advice that tends to be ignored most of the time in practice.

Washington urged Americans to “[o]bserve good faith and justice towards all nations, and cultivate peace and harmony with all.” When we recall how many states the U.S. has fought or attacked over the last thirty years, can any of us honestly say that we have done our best to observe justice towards or cultivate peace with all? The U.S. has not only failed to remain neutral in conflicts that have nothing to do with us, but our government has started or joined wars on several occasions in just the last twenty years against countries whose people had done nothing to us.

Near the end of the letter, he explains that neutrality in the wars of others is what justice requires:

The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations [bold mine-DL].

Instead of constantly looking for reasons to take sides in the quarrels of others, a wiser and more just foreign policy would steer us away from taking part in their wars and would direct us to maintaining good relations with as many other nations as possible.

Washington further stressed that justice should always be the guide of our conduct with other nations:

It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?

If our policies were guided by justice and benevolence, it seems reasonable that we would generally avoid interfering in the affairs of others. We would never seek to stoke ongoing conflicts, and we certainly wouldn’t initiate hostilities against those who gave us no just cause. We wouldn’t renege on agreements made in good faith. A foreign policy guided by justice could never include the waging of preventive war, which is inherently unjust, and it would allow for the use of force only for the strictest self-defense or the defense of another that was being unjustly attacked. On no account would we participate in the creation of humanitarian disasters of the sort that our government has helped create in Yemen. Above all, the U.S. would aim to treat all other nations as we would expect to be treated. Unfortunately, our foreign policy today is not guided that way, but it could be if enough of us wanted it.