Paul Caresse and Michael Doran propose adopting four “principles” for a foreign policy supposedly modeled on that of George Washington. The authors intend for this to be an alternative to all existing foreign policy “schools,” but the “principles” that they identify could be claimed by any “school” as its own without much difficulty. Their description of the “schools” mostly relies on caricature, and their recommendations remain very vague and abstract.

The “principles” the authors have in mind are 1) primacy of natural rights and religious ideals; 2) maintaining civilian authority and military readiness; 3) wariness of faction, but adherence to constitutional rules; 4) balancing interest and justice. These are so generic and unobjectionable that there is almost no one in contemporary foreign policy debate that wouldn’t agree with them. Of course, the different “schools” understand these commitments in their own ways, and they will often draw opposing conclusions about what it means to balance interest and justice.

On the other hand, these “principles” don’t tell us very much about what kind of foreign policy Caresse and Doran believe would result from adhering to them. They refer to Washington’s “practical judgment and moderation,” which is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get us very far at all. They tell us that imitating Washington should mean avoiding “either amoral expedience or an impractical moralism,” which sounds ideal, but there is no hint as to what this means in practice. They complain that Americans should not rely on “ready-made solutions” from “off-the-shelf foreign policy doctrines,” but then offer no solutions of any kind. They begin the article with a series of questions about what the U.S. should do in response to various crises and conflicts around the world, but never return to them. It’s true that these problems do not “admit of simple answers,” but the authors choose not to provide any answers. Many of their statements give the impression that they favor a relatively more activist international role for the U.S., but it’s never clear just how activist they think the U.S. should be. Far from telling us what their idea of a “Washingtonian” foreign policy would look like, they mostly leave us guessing. We are simply supposed to take for granted that none of the existing alternatives is good enough. This is just the sort of aimless argument that gives moderation and pragmatism a bad name.