History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both its theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also be able to critically examine and form opinions on current and future United States foreign policy.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

  1. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles

  2. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny

  3. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I

  4. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Interwar Period and World War II

  5. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War: Confrontation and Containment

  6. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Cold War Part 2: Detente and Rapprochement

  7. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror

  8. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China

Trying to understand American foreign policy can often seem like a complex task, due to its contradictions, secrecy, and extensive reach. However, as this series will endeavour to show, under all the complexities and differing outcomes there are certain guiding principles and patterns which reveal the unique and oftentimes contradictory driving forces of American action in the world. It is the goal of this 101 series to inform the reader of these guiding principles and underlying forces which drive American foreign policy and to clearly show how they have shaped and continue to shape American action in the world at large. Given that American foreign policy shapes not just the lives of Americans, but also the political possibilities of peoples and governments across the world, an understanding of how this policy operates is both relevant and critical to people of all backgrounds.

In this sense, this first 101 article will have two primary goals: firstly, to introduce and briefly explain the predominant driving forces of American foreign policy, and secondly to begin the historical analysis of how these principles have shaped American external action. The latter will be done by examining foreign policy in the early years of the United States after the American Revolution. In collecting the predominant guiding principles, the essay will draw from recognized international relations scholars and the related literature. In order to show the connection with actual historical events in the United States' early history, the essay will similarly draw from the vast field of American history.

Couder, A. (1836). Siege of Yorktown [Oil Painting].

It is posited by numerous experts (Mead & Leone, 2002; Sjursen, 2021; O’Toole, 1998) that the two primary driving forces of American Foreign policy throughout history have been economics and morality. Conveniently, this idea fits perfectly with the two founding myths of the United States, which centre on the first two settlements: the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Jamestown. On the one hand, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded by ultra-religious Puritans in 1630, represents the moral and religious strain of the American soul. The Jamestown settlement, on the other hand, was founded as a for-profit joint venture by the Virginia Company in 1607, thus representing the capitalist element of the American soul.

Deriving from economics and morality are four defining principles of American foreign policy, with each corresponding to an American leader who championed the particular vision. Primarily espoused by George Mead in his 2002 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, these four guiding principles to American foreign policy are the pursuit of economic advantage championed by Alexander Hamilton, the duty to spread democracy and liberty to the world coined by Woodrow Wilson, isolationism as advocated by Thomas Jefferson, and the valour to defend the nation at any cost, represented by Andrew Jackson (Mead & Leone, 2002; Anderson, 2017).

Brownscombe, J. A. (1914). The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth [Painting].

The importance of these principles is that each has at one time or another guided America’s action in the world. Furthermore, they represent a useful framework to analyse and understand American foreign policy. A brief explanation of each will follow to more clearly illustrate each theme.

The Hamiltonian pursuit of economic advantage corresponds to times when American foreign policy has primarily been utilized to give the United States a financial edge in global trade, such as during the Clinton years of globalization and free trade (Mead & Leone, 2002). In periods such as these, foreign policy is used primarily as a means to extract maximal economic value and opportunity from the global economy through deeper integration into the global economic liberal order (Mead & Leone, 2002). The theoretical assumption implicit in this policy is, of course, that the United States (and its partners) will benefit from free trade. This benefit, according to classical economists stretching back to Adam Smith, is derived from the assumption that free trade boosts growth, and that the unimpeded flow of capital, goods, and technology leads to lower prices for consumers and higher profits and efficiency for businesses through access to global goods and markets (Hufbauer, 2008). To ensure freedom of trade, proponents espouse economic liberalization in the form of free trade agreements and the reduction of tariffs and other barriers to foreign investment. Examples are the formation of the WTO, NAFTA, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Hamiltonians view this foreign policy stance as a two-pronged approach which will foster international security through greater economic interdependence, while also granting domestic security through economic prosperity at home derived from free trade (Hufbauer, 2008). Known colloquially as trade diplomacy, this foreign policy tool has been used consistently in recent years by policymakers with the aim of strengthening political relations in the Middle East, cementing alliances in East Asia, and furthering other foreign policy aims such as the rooting out of drug trafficking in South America (Hufbauer, 2008). Though an authoritative verdict on the effects of free trade has yet to be reached, its acceptance and adoption as a foreign policy tool by the United States have long since been clarified.

Haynes, J. D. (1918). General Pershing and the President during Wilson’s visit to the American troops in Humes, France. [Photograph].

The Wilsonian duty to spread democracy and liberty is a philosophy that several readers will acknowledge with a wry smile: as pointed out by Perry Anderson and others, in fact, Wilsonian idealism has more than once been used as a false pretence for American intervention in the world (Anderson, 2017). At its core, Wilsonian diplomacy was founded on a blend of American exceptionalism, religiosity, and capitalism. This is best explained by Wilson himself who, speaking to a conference of salesmen in 1910, invited to "lift your eyes to the horizon of business... and with the inspiration of the thought that you are Americans and meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America" (Wilson & Link, 1982). Such sentiments from Wilson accurately represented his foreign policy approach, which sought to simultaneously spread American capitalism and values across the world (Anderson, 2017). In a modern sense, this foreign policy approach is one of the pillars of the global liberal order currently governing much of the globe, and which assumes the universality of American or Western institutions of liberal democracy and capitalism, as well as the theoretical principles of liberty, human rights, and freedom (Anderson, 2017).

In practice, the Wilsonian philosophy of spreading democracy and liberty has had a tendency to be weaponized and adjusted to fit certain narratives and foreign policy objectives (Anderson, 2017). As will be illustrated in the future articles of the series, such examples generally fall under the umbrella of humanitarian interventions, such as in Libya in 2011 and Cuba during the Spanish-American war. The Iraq war provides another instance, though Wilsonian trappings were primarily used as a justification after the fact (Anderson, 2017; Daalder, 2016). Today, the idealism personified by this vision is one which remains strong in foreign policy circles around the globe. Perry Anderson, among others, argues that Wilsonian Idealism has in fact been the dominant strain of American foreign policy since the beginning of the 20th century (2017).

Catlin, G. (1846–1848). Mounted War Party Scouring a Thicket [Painting].

The third principle, Jeffersonian isolationism, has historically played a smaller role in the history of American foreign policy, and is defined by the reluctance of the American leadership to involve themselves in the affairs and wars of foreign nations (Mead & Leone, 2002). This was the case before both World Wars, and in the early years of the republic, when American leadership sought at all costs to remain neutral as long as possible (Dailey & Watson, 2018). Such reasoning is founded on the belief that the primary role of the American government is to promote domestic well-being, and that international conflict bodes poorly for domestic affairs (Mead & Leone, 2002). It follows, in Jeffersonian logic, that international engagement diverts economic and political capital from domestic matters, while also jeopardizing the free hand of the American government through pooled sovereignty in international organizations. For this reason, Jeffersonians are generally seen as nationalist doves, given their skeptical appraisal of both foreign adventures and international institutions (Ibid.). Though an essential principle in the early years of the United States, the Jeffersonian strain of foreign policy thought has been noticeably absent since the end of the second world war, as America has taken on a leading role in the international scene (Anderson, 2017).

The final principle, Jacksonian vigour, refers to the more combative and populist elements of American foreign policy leadership. This generally refers to nationalist hawks, or those who, like Jeffersonians, are skeptical of international integration, but (on the contrary to Jeffersonians) are quick to call for war (Mead & Leone, 2002). On the whole, the Jacksonian strain is one which, like Jeffersonians, is generally disengaged from foreign policy, only rising to prominence in the face of perceived existential threats (Mead & Leone, 2002). Examples of this character can be seen during the post-9/11 years, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, when the American position towards the war capitulated from Jeffersonian isolation to Jacksonian protection of the homeland overnight (Clarke & Ricketts, 2017). In these times, the Jacksonian element can be viewed clearly as a sort of aggressive nationalism which takes no prisoners in its defence of American honour and safety. This means that in times of conflict and perceived existential threat, Jacksonians have no qualms with the liberal use of force on anyone perceived as an enemy. The Jacksonian influence on American foreign policy is of great interest to domestic readers, given that it is one which sustains itself upon both the real and perceived threat posed to the United States by outside actors. The manufacturing of existential threats and their dissemination to the American public, therefore, acts as a critical stimulus in manufacturing consent for international action against perceived aggressors (Herman & Chomsky, 2002), and preys on the Jacksonian element of the American soul.

Mcbarron, Jr., H. C. (1975). Riflemen at Saratoga [Painting].

In the rocky years after the American Revolution, United States foreign policy favoured neutrality in the relations with European powers. This stance is best illustrated by George Washington’s famous farewell address in 1797, in which he advised that “the great rule of conduct for [the United States] in regard to foreign nations is to have with them as little political [as distinct from commercial] connection as possible” (Washington, 1813: 2). In the eyes of the founding fathers, this course was logical, given that the United States was still ironing out the kinks of nationhood, and taking sides in European conflicts or entering into entangling treaties. would only complicate matters and inhibit the new country’s development (Bowman, 1956).

In this vein, during the Washington presidency and shortly after, the official government stance on foreign policy was firmly neutral (Olsen, 2017). Notwithstanding, behind the general consensus on neutrality lurked two opposing motivations, one espoused by the Federalist Party led by Alexander Hamilton, and the other represented by the Democratic Party led by Thomas Jefferson. Both parties, in fact, agreed on the neutrality of the United States but held conflicting views on how America should take advantage of its free hand. On one side, Jefferson and his supporters favoured an isolationist stance, which looked westward for opportunity in the form of land and the economic opportunities which came with it. These proponents of westward expansion viewed the West as a massive untapped resource, one which should be developed and settled (Watson, 2018). On the other hand, Hamilton and the Federalists looked Eastward, favouring greater integration into the Atlantic trading system with Europe, especially Great Britain, as a means to increase the young republic's economic prospects (Brands, H.W., 2014). These conflicting views stemmed from Hamilton’s power base being in the elite commercial ports of the Northeast that depended on European trade, while Jefferson’s base was founded on the rural population of the Southern United States, which tied their fortunes to westward expansion and the promise of land (Watson, 2018). Such contrasting views still persist nowadays: it is generally the cosmopolitan coastal elites who favour globalization and integration into international trade, while those in the heartland generally prefer tariffs and protectionist measures to prioritise domestic industry (Lindsay, 2016).

Hintermesiter, H. (1948). George Washington Surveyor [Painting].

Further divisions between the two factions regarded the relations with the European powers. During the turbulent years of the 1790s, which saw the French Revolution and subsequent war between Great Britain and France, the Federalists of the Northeast favoured the British, while the Republicans favoured the French. The differences in allegiance again came down primarily to class and location (Watson, 2018). The Democrats, represented by Jefferson, saw in the French Revolution the purest ideals of liberty, which sought to make every man equal. Such a vision appealed greatly to the farmers and planters of the South and West who constituted the majority of the Democratic party (Watson, 2018). The Federalists, on the other hand, with their wealth and stake in the existing social order, viewed the increasingly radical revolutionaries as a threat to the order and stability of the United States (Neuman, 2000). When war broke out between Great Britain and France, these allegiances crystallized and exacerbated the already tense political divisions. Despite their particular allegiances, neither side actively advocated for entrance into the war, realizing that it would lead to economic disaster and a potential invasion (Watson, 2018). By analyzing this period of conflict between the Federalists and the Democrats, it is possible to notice how the foreign policy decisions of the government are not a uniform consensus of one outlook or the other but are more accurately described as a blend, given the variety of actors and the interplay of ideas. In this case, the two dominant trends were limited to the struggle between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian outlooks, with the Jacksonian and Wilsonian elements almost non-existent in the historical context.

Eventually, Jefferson would win the presidency in a hotly disputed election in 1801, while Hamilton would be killed in a duel in 1804. Jefferson’s victory, self-labeled as the ‘revolution of 1800” (Jefferson & Oberg, 2018, 14) was the beginning of the end for the Federalist party, and a victory for the Democratic party. Despite the outcomes at the time, and as discussed previously, both of these corresponding foreign policy narratives embodied by Hamilton and Jefferson over 200 years ago, remain imbued in the American consciousness to this day.

Russell, C. M. (1905). Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia [Painting].

As illustrated, the four primary rationales for American action in the world at large can be detected in the pursuit of economic advantage, the mission to spread democracy and liberty, the desire to remain safely isolated from external conflict and influence, and the will to protect the nation at any cost.

For students of international relations and foreign policy, paradigms such as the four discussed in this article provide a valuable tool for understanding the actions and motivations of a nation in the world at large. However, it is also critical to resist viewing the world in a categorical binary. When applying these four outlooks to American actors and actions in the contemporary world, it should be remembered that many represent an amalgamation of the four, with one or two being the salient driving force. By understanding this, and how these different strains of foreign policy thought have influenced historical events and actors, such as during the early days of Jefferson and Hamilton, one can take an informed and nuanced view of historical, contemporary, and future American foreign policy. Furthermore, given the vast reach and implications of American foreign policy, such an understanding will also give the reader insights into the actions and responses of various governments and international players around the world.

Bibliographical References

Anderson, P. (2017). American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (Reprint ed.). Verso.

Bowman, A. H. (1956). Jefferson, Hamilton and American Foreign Policy. Political Science Quarterly, 71(1), 18. https://doi.org/10.2307/2144997

Clarke, M., & Ricketts, A. (2017). Understanding the Return of the Jacksonian Tradition. Orbis, 61(1), 13–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orbis.2016.12.006.

Daalder, I. H. (2016, July 28). President Bush’s Speech on Global Democracy and Freedom. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/president-bushs-speech-on-global-democracy-and-freedom/

Dailey, J., & Watson, H. L. (2018). Building the American Republic, Volume 2. Amsterdam University Press.

Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Reprint ed.). Pantheon.

Hufbauer, G. (2008, June). Free Trade. The National Interest. Retrieved June 19, 2022, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/42896152

Jefferson, T., & Oberg, B. B. (2018). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 41: 11 July to 15 November 1803 (Edited by Barbara B. Oberg ed.). Princeton University Press.

Lindsay, J. (2016). The Globalization of Politics: American Foreign Policy for a New Century. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-globalization-of-politics-american-foreign-policy-for-a-new-century

McDonald, F. (1974). The Presidency of George Washington (American Presidency Series) (New edition). University Press of Kansas.

Mead, W. R., & Leone, R. C. (2002). Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (1st ed.). Routledge.

Neuman, S (2000). The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutionary Politics, Fries' and Gabriel's Rebellions, and the Fears of the Federalists. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Penn State University Press.

Olsen, T. (2017) Application of the Neutrality Act to Official Government Activities. United States Justice Department.3

O’Toole, P. (1998). Money and Morals in America: A History. Clarkson Potter.

Sjursen, D. (2021). A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism (Truth to Power). Steerforth Press / Truth to Power.

Washington, G. (1813). Washington's farewell address to the people of the United States. Hartford, Conn. Printed by Hudson and Goodwin.

Watson, H. L. (2018). Building the American Republic, Volume 1: A Narrative History to 1877 (Illustrated ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, W., & Link, A. S. (1982). The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 37. Princeton University Press.

Visual Sources

Brownscombe, J. A. (1914). The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth [Painting]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Colony#/media/File:Thanksgiving-Brownscombe.jpg

Catlin, G. (1846–1848). Mounted War Party Scouring a Thicket [Painting]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Catlin_-_Mounted_War_Party_Scouring_a_Thicket_-_1985.66.586_-_Smithsonian_American_Art_Museum.jpg

Couder, A. (1836). Siege of Yorktown [Oil Painting]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bataille_de_Yorktown_by_Auguste_Couder.jpg

Haynes, J. D. (1918). General Pershing and the President during Wilson’s visit to the American troops in Humes, France. [Photograph]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woodrow_Wilson_at_Humes,_France_(4436083906).jpg

Hintermesiter, H. (1948). George Washington Surveyor [Painting]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Washington,_surveyor_by_Henry_Hintermeister.png

Mcbarron, Jr., H. C. (1975). Riflemen at Saratoga [Painting]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Riflemen_at_Saratoga.jpg

Russell, C. M. (1905). Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia [Painting]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewis_and_clark-expedition.jpg

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Taylor Pace

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