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What Would John Quincy Do?

The geopolitical worldview of our sixth president holds lessons for our present predicament.

America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams, by Angelo M. Codevilla, (Encounter Books: May 2022), 288 pages.

John Quincy Adams, claims the acclaimed pro-restraint scholar Angelo Codevilla in his posthumous new book America’s Rise and Fall among Nations (2022), is “the fount of American geopolitical thought.” Founts tend to spring intermittently and vary in intensity, but in Codevilla’s rather Manichean account of American history, all foreign policy from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt affirmed the rugged realism famously championed by our sixth president. 

That realism, argues Codevilla, imbued every one of the Founders’ worldviews, and was summed up in Washington’s vision for the Republic’s foreign policy as laid out in his Farewell Address: “observe good faith and justice toward all nations, cultivate peace and harmony with all.” This vision was outright rejected, Codevilla continues, by Progressives like Woodrow Wilson, who conflated America’s interests with the entire world’s. That alternative dominated for a century afterwards, all the way to Trump’s shock election in 2016. In his last few writings before dying tragically in a car accident, Codevilla claimed Trump had tried but ultimately fell short of fully restoring Quincy Adams’s realist paradigm. “U.S. foreign policy as practiced over the last hundred years,” he claims towards the book’s end—admittedly including Trump’s term in office—“is unsustainable.”

John Quincy Adams served a sole term as commander in chief from 1825 to 1829, but he brought to the land’s highest office a breadth of diplomatic experience no other presidential candidate has come close to amassing. Through the Republic’s early decades, he served as U.S. minister—the era’s equivalent of ambassador—to the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia, and the U.K., and then as President Monroe’s secretary of State from 1817 to 1825, helping articulate the doctrine opposing European colonialism in the Western hemisphere that would bear his name. That circuitous career was interspersed with stints as a senator and House member for Massachusetts, all whilst immortalizing his realist worldview in countless diaries and letters addressed to fellow statesmen and politicians. 

Codevilla sums up Adams’ worldview as “fully minding our own business while leaving other people to mind theirs,” or “to seek peace by practicing peace while being ready to make war to keep powerful foreigners away.” It also goes by a catchy slogan in his book, America First, “the most concise description possible,” Codevilla writes, “of the studied complex of objectives, reasoning, and actions by which America’s founders related to other nations.” That complex guided later statesmen throughout the 19th century, from Hamilton and Clay’s vision of economic development to Lincoln’s call for “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” in his second Inaugural.

What Codevilla identifies, in fact, in the Founders’ strategic thought is precedent for Trump’s instincts, hence the America First slogan. His book attempts to rationalize the 45th president’s intent to focus the country’s posture on our interests whilst avoiding the use of values as a basis to meddle in quagmires beyond our borders. “The past century’s foreign policy of semi-forceful global meliorism has been based on pretence,” notes Codevilla. “It is time to get back to reality, to America First.” The author is right to find in the founding generation the same intuition to steer clear of the world’s problems that informed Trump’s speeches, if not his actions. 

The Founders vigorously affirmed the Declaration of Independence’s universal principles, but with the same vigor denied that it was America’s responsibility to apply those principles beyond its borders. A “separate and equal station among the powers of the earth” was the Declaration’s description of America’s rightful place. In a speech to the House in 1821, Quincy Adams warned that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She’s the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all, but the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Quincy Adams, writes Codevilla, “codified the founding generation’s principles into a set of practices and expectations.”

Meanwhile, progressive foreign policy, per Codevilla, “negated our founding premises.” Vying to lead the reshaping of the old continent from the rubble of World War I, Woodrow Wilson “said and believed that America exists for no other purpose than to serve mankind” and “touted it as the champion of the rights of all peoples.” Somewhere along the spectrum to Wilson’s broad-gauge universalism lies the similarly high-minded foreign policies of recent administrations who have propounded a direct correlation between America’s security and the health of its alliances, not least that of George Bush, who claimed in his second Inaugural that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

As it turned its focus away from America’s narrow interests and towards the wellbeing of the entire world, “progressive foreign policy built a set of involvements, left a trail of resentments, and engendered a reputation for offensiveness combined with vulnerability that preclude peace.” In Codevilla’s view, as America’s power has hovered near hegemony since World War II’s end, its security has suffered. There are domestic consequences for this misguided universalism, too. The erection of a diplomatic bureaucracy enmeshed into the larger administrative state has de-anchored our foreign policy from its rightful grounding in popular consent, whilst creating opportunities for elite corruption. “Talk of higher obligations to mankind or to ideals,” he writes, “veiled the fact that, from then on, the elites would follow their own wide-ranging fancies rather than the people’s home-focused will.” The establishment justifies this by “arguing that American sacrifices serve purposes beyond the American people’s understanding.” 

In Codevilla’s view, the establishment has run our foreign policy into a dead-end. “Half a century of skirmishes has left Americans less respected abroad, more divided at home, and rightly wary of getting into more wars, but ill equipped morally and politically as well as militarily, for any other kind of relations with the rest of the world.” The author is perhaps at his most acid criticism when picking apart the “ruling class,” a phrase he famously popularized in a 2010 cover essay for the American Spectator, soon after expanded into a book-length broadside prefaced by Rush Limbaugh. 

Codevilla’s indictment of our elite’s foreign policy quickly morphs into a dissection of that elite’s domestic malfeasance. “US foreign policy since the 1950s,” he writes, “has been principally about reshaping the world in the image of America’s ruling class, as that class aggrandized itself at home.” The U.S. establishment, he writes, “is an overfed, cancerous, and inward-looking organism using ever inferior human material and doubling down on failures.” That same establishment, whilst entangling the country into endless conflicts with no visible geostrategic stake for it, has anathematized the silent majority into alienation. “Today’s warming civil conflict,” writes Codevilla, “is religious and social even more than it is political—and the contending sides are intermingled.”

Russia is perhaps the lone issue where Codevilla’s book, nearly finished before his death last September, and hence lacking knowledge of the invasion of Ukraine, has not aged well since its writing. The author accurately diagnoses Russia’s post-imperial syndrome when he writes that “the Russian bear is licking the Soviet era’s deep wounds as it growls behind fearsome defences.” Yet his assessment of the threat from Vladimir Putin’s aggressive revisionism is misguidedly complacent. “Adams would reject the idea that Europe needs the US to protect it from Putin’s Russia,” he remarks rather uncontroversially. Yet the reason he provides is less uncontroversial: “because conquering and occupying Ukraine is beyond Russia’s physical as well as political capacity.” 

Although that capacity is being tested as of this writing and the outcome of the war remains uncertain, Codevilla had clearly underestimated Putin’s ability or willingness to wage war beyond the Russian people’s appetite for it. Adams, he writes, “would not regard Russia either as a grave geopolitical challenge to the US or as a particularly difficult diplomatic problem.” If the war has shown us anything, it is that Russia indeed poses a difficult problem. America’s ability to solve that problem, however, is the central question. “Ukraine is the greatest practical limitation on Russia’s ambitions,” he writes. “Its independence is very much a US interest, but it is beyond our capacity to secure.”

When Codevilla died aged 78, the New York Times ran a eulogy that, among other things, credited him with large influence in Republican foreign policy circles, and claimed that “his writings anticipated Trumpism.” Indeed, his bestseller The Ruling Class (2010) called for a populist revolt against the GOP establishment, thinking it the key to ending the establishment’s hold on American life. With this latest book, the now-late Codevilla has grounded that call in his firm grasp of diplomatic history, whilst shedding light into the complex thought of our sixth president. 

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.