Have you noticed that, as John Kerry has aged, he looks a lot like George Washington?
His similarity to the great Founding Father and Commander-in-Chief is unnerving. It’s as though the ghost of Washington is haunting us, reminding us of his legacy, just in time for Halloween. When Secretary Kerry appears on television, he unwittingly channels the ghost of Washington. It’s cautionary.
The ghost prompts the question, “What would George Washington think of our actions overseas?” Would he have condoned the President’s hawkish determination to punish Syria with military force for its use of chemical weapons against its people? Would he have applauded the US intelligence forces’ capture of a suspected terrorist in the Libyan capital? More generally, would George Washington, if alive in our time, be inclined toward intervention, or isolation?
The value of these conjectural questions lies in reminding us of the intimate connection between internal strength and influence abroad. We need a fixed yardstick against which to measure our global acts and ambitions, which are more over-reaching and morally dubious than they were back in Revolutionary days. Conscious of enjoying military and technological advantages and relatively ample means, the US frequently intervenes just because it can. Because it can, our government has been spying on Angela Merkel, of all people.
Alternately, our government follows a schoolyard logic: if Johnny Johnson jumps off a bridge, then so will we. If our strength relative to other nations continues to supply an irresistible rationale for scatter-shot decisions, soon that strength will be gone; what remains of our moral integrity will vanish, too.
When the United States were weaker, they had little choice but to be savvy about what fights they took on. In George Washington’s time, a time of global conflict if ever there was one, even the most powerful Americans understood the truly vital importance of focusing on ‘within’ while exercising caution abroad. While General Washington (1732-1799) was the preeminent ‘hawk’ of his day, he was also a prime founder of the powerful civic institutions that, in their fruition, secured broad national safety and prosperity.
The blessings of that peace were hard-won. The North America of Washington’s lifetime was shaped by the great global conflict between France and Britain. As a youth, Washington was one of the earliest participants in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), an expensive multinational conflict waged on the borders of the American colonies that lasted nine years. He then reluctantly led the colonial Revolutionary Army in its War of Independence against the British, a wearisome duty that absorbed him for another eight years’ time (1775-1783).
Given the tortuous path the young nation followed toward establishing a viable government under the US Constitution, George Washington was relatively old by the time he became the nation’s first president. He governed those eight years with a consciousness of the nation’s fragility, respecting the preciousness of what it had achieved.
Little wonder that, on leaving office, Washington famously warned the nation to avoid the dangers of “foreign entanglements.” Americans still faced the daunting challenge of growing together as a Union. The last thing they needed was to become enmeshed in the machinations of world’s great powers. Violent conflict throughout Europe marked the final years of Washington’s presidency. Napoleon’s star had begun to rise. The year Washington died, the long Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) were just beginning. Protecting ourselves from the debilitating snares of global conflict was an important early contributor to our national growth, our 1812 war with England notwithstanding.
There is much to be said for shaping a foreign policy as creditable to a puny government as to one that’s strong. Sadly, Kerry’s resemblance to Washington is only skin-deep, and President Obama doesn’t resemble George Washington at all.