Adams, Kennan, and the Value of a Prudent Foreign Policy

The beginning of July brings several anniversaries of great moments in American foreign policy.

  • July 4, 1821 saw Secretary of State John Quincy Adams deliver his famed Independence Day speech at the U.S. Capitol. Adams sought to respond to attacks from two sides: one, arguing that the United States had done little for the world, the other, arguing for a policy of actively spreading American political forms into new countries. Adams articulated a balanced, careful approach that at once recognized the value of American ideals while questioning the prudence of an ideology-driven foreign policy. Thus, said Adams,
    What has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this–America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.
    She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama, the European World, will be contests between inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
    She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
  • July 1947 saw the publication of George Kennan’s famed “X Article,” analyzing the underpinnings of Soviet foreign policy thought and outlining a containment strategy for the United States. Kennan had a similar optimism about America’s ideas: the ideology underpinning Soviet foreign policy envisioned the capitalist world as doomed to destroy itself from within. The United States could erode that ideology’s appeal and its influence in Soviet policy simply by being a society attractive to others “which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” Kennan adds,
    The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.
    And Kennan brought a keen understanding of political psychology, too. Nations were not mere billiard balls whose momentum and direction alone determined outcomes. Thus, leaders should avoid a foreign policy of
    threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.’ While the Kremlin is basically flexible in its reaction to political realities, it is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige. Like almost any other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism. The Russian leaders are keen judges of human psychology, and as such they are highly conscious that loss of temper and of self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs. They are quick to exploit such evidences of weakness. For these reasons, it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.

Together, Kennan and Adams articulate a vision of foreign policy that shaped by pragmatism, temperance, and a belief in the real power of America as an exemplar, a power that would become less effective if pursued by force. A similar vision animates this Society that bears Adams’ name. This Fourth of July, please consider supporting us in our mission. We can build a foreign policy in which, as Adams said almost two centuries ago, America’s “glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.”

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