It has been many years since I first read Isaac Kramnick’s Bolingbroke and His Circle. I came upon it when I was in graduate school more than a decade ago, and quickly devoured it. Some of Bolingbroke’s political persuasion has survived through the Country tradition in American politics, and many of his ideas are still relevant and worth engaging today. The section on Bolingbroke’s writings about international relations is worth revisiting for a couple reasons. First, he defines the national interest quite narrowly, and he rejects the idea of becoming attached to other states for reasons of sentiment and passion. That has obvious relevance to many of our current foreign policy woes in the Middle East and elsewhere. Second, these ideas in turn influenced Washington and informed his Farewell Address, and so they are an important source of our own political traditions here in America.
A wise Prince, and a wise people, bear no regard to other states, except that which arises from the coincidence or repugnancy of their several interests; and this regard must therefore vary as these interests do, in the perpetual fluctuation of human affairs.
Bolingbroke had the interests of Britain in mind when he wrote this, but it is a good principle for any government to follow. We can hear the echo of Bolingbroke’s words in Washington’s advice to his fellow countrymen to reject both inveterate antipathies and passionate attachments to other nations. No two nations will ever have identical interests, and no two nations will ever have their interests aligned permanently, so it makes no sense for any of them to enter into permanent alliances. There may be occasions when alliances are useful and even necessary in extreme situations, but it is vital that they are regularly reviewed so that they are not kept in place when they no longer serve a purpose. Maintaining alliances as relics of another era or as “sacred” idols that must not be questioned is not healthy for any state, and it becomes particularly dangerous for a major power that has had the habit of acquiring new security commitments over time without shedding any of the old ones.
Bolingbroke advised that Britain should remain aloof and avoid unnecessary involvement in continental affairs, and he held that Britain had this luxury because of its greater security:
But as we cannot be easily, nor suddenly attacked, and as we ought not to aim at any acquisition of terrtory on the continent, it may be our interest to watch the secret workings of the several councils abroad; to advise and warn; to abet and oppose, but it never can be our true interest easily and officiously to enter into action, much less into engagements that imply action and expense.
When we compare this counsel with the conduct of U.S. foreign policy today, it becomes clear that our leaders do almost exactly the opposite. Instead of watching and advising from a distance, the U.S. rushes to take “action” in places where no vital interests are threatened. The U.S. acts on reflex and assumes burdens it does not have to bear, and it inflates every passing partnership into an “alliance” to be defended and makes other nations’ rivalries our own. Our location permits us to avoid these entanglements, but our leaders have chosen otherwise for decades. Washington asked: “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” Bolingbroke would have wondered the same thing, and so should we.