Power and Prudence
300 years on, Alexander Hamilton’s advice to a young republic navigating tyrannical regimes still rings true.
It has been a long year for America on the world stage. A year ago, the United States lost the war in Afghanistan to a fundamentalist Islamic regime that now rules over 40 million people. Eight months ago, Vladimir Putin launched the greatest war in Europe since World War Two, and currently occupies 30 percent of Ukraine. Two months ago, Beijing used the pretext of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to conduct significant military exercises in Taiwanese and Japanese territorial waters. Soon thereafter, Iranian-backed militias attacked U.S. forces in Syria. The Biden Administration and the U.S. intelligence community is increasingly warning of an outright Chinese attack on Taiwan, which could expand to include U.S. bases and territories in the near future. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the American position in the world degrades first gradually, and then suddenly.
Why has it been such a dreadful spell? If weakness is provocative, as former Secretary Don Rumsfeld used to say, then it seems like crises are contagious. Events so disconfirmed the Biden Administration’s initial national security strategy that it had to delay its publication for nearly a year. To be caught so unaware of the hole the United States finds itself in suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are as a nation. To reverse the decline of our position, a reevaluation of one of our founding fathers would be a useful tonic.
As Alexander Hamilton so clearly articulated, our foreign policy ought to preserve, protect, and advance the American experiment of republican liberty from the despotic and divisive intentions of other world powers. Whether by building a bulwark against their capabilities, a forward presence to stymie their advances, or strategies to undermine their aspirations, deterring and ultimately defeating today’s totalitarian powers is necessary to the survival of liberty at home. What makes America exceptional is, in turn, what China fears.
Hamilton was the true father of “American Exceptionalism,” although the French Alexis de Tocqueville may have first coined the term. Hamilton contended that the effort to create a new republic was not merely an act of secession, but the mark of a new era in human history. America, Hamilton wrote, was different from other nations (read: Great Britain and France) because its purpose was not to serve a monarch, but to protect and advance liberty. In Federalist No. 1, Hamilton famously frames the American founding as the great human experiment to determine “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The American constitutional system—limited government, decentralization of powers, checks and balances, fixed electoral terms—sought to constrain the forces that might squelch freedom. In parallel, union, Hamilton argued, and the strength to defend it, was essential to prevent foreign despotic powers from driving wedges between states. If 1776 proclaimed our independence from British rule, 1789 was the roadmap to protecting it from enemies foreign and domestic.
The United States was exceptional, Hamilton believed, because the budding Republic had broken from the yoke of the aristocratic age. America was to be the foil to European pretension. Her purpose was the protection of republican liberty. When Hamilton crafted Washington’s Farewell Address, he emphasized the importance of national unity and a strong defense, warning against “every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.” To confront such an existential threat, Washington implored Americans to embrace their federation such that they may “derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same government.” Written in the context of the fragile, nascent Union surrounded by rapacious European empires, Hamilton and Washington bestowed us with wise commandments: The preservation of liberty requires that America remain united, strong, and free. To exit the endless wars of the Old World, America needed an outlook whose primary purpose was to preserve its own hard-fought liberties.
Hamilton’s prescriptions—and proscriptions—were clear and remain remarkably relevant for our current malaise. First and foremost, they required military strength, initially through the creation of a strong navy. It was, Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 11, essential to defending the embryonic Union from European encroachment. America was not “protected” by two vast oceans and friendly neighbors; it was surrounded by far more powerful and hostile forces. From the Spanish to the west and south and the British to the north and east, the United States spent the next several decades careening from conflict to conflict with these same European powers. As John Quincy Adams wrote in an 1817 letter, “the universal feeling of Europe in witnessing the gigantic growth of our population and power is that we shall, if united become a very dangerous member of the Society of Nations.” The only way to avoid this, Adams wrote of European intentions, was to divide the union and ensure that America “break up into two or more Nations in opposition against one another.” America’s mere existence seemingly represented an existential threat to the landed, hereditary elites of the European regimes.
Military power was also essential to protect and advance American commerce. France, Spain, and Great Britain had taken advantage of our lack of a navy to poach American fishing waters. America, Hamilton lamented in Federalist No. 15, was in no position to “resent or to repel the aggression” or “even…remonstrate with dignity.” Hamilton laid this out explicitly in Federalist No. 24, arguing that a standing military and strong garrisons were necessary to protect trade and prevent the “insults and encroachments” of Britain and Spain, who would be emboldened by American gains in strength and commercial prowess. As Washington wrote to Congress in his annual message on December 3, 1793, “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.” Not only peace, but also prosperity—through strength. America’s power was the sine qua non of preserving the experiment in human liberty.
Second, it meant recognizing that the greatest threat to our sovereign liberty came from tyrannical regimes, which in the late 18th and much of the 19th century meant European empires. European partnerships were hardly benign, but rather deceitful, according to Hamilton. Europe viewed herself as “the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit.” America’s role in the world would be to overcome European chauvinism: “It belongs to us to “vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation.… Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!” Neither would America’s purpose be limited to its own limited, fragile, and porous territory, but to blunt European claws from even deeper penetration into the Western Hemisphere. This same motivation appears in the Monroe Doctrine issued a near-half century later.
Third and finally, prudence would be necessary to navigate a hostile world. Washington’s famous admonition to “steer clear of permanent alliances,” often willfully misinterpreted to suggest America’s twentieth century military and diplomatic commitments were delusional, made sense when America’s only potential allies were marauding monarchies whose first, second, and third orders of business were to ruin, divide, and dispatch the Republic. Propelled by the most powerful armed forces then known to mankind, the inherent predatory nature of these European regimes posed an existential threat to not only the American Republic, but to the very possibility of republican liberty. In defending Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation pertaining to the French Revolutionary Wars roiling Europe in Pacificus No. VI, Hamilton warned that America could not afford to be naïve. As long as they remained monarchies, European powers would always be hostile to America. France midwifed the American Republic not out of a sense of enlightened destiny, but by “the desire of promoting the interest of France, by lessening the power of Great Britain and opening a new channel of commerce to herself.” Prudence would be required to avoid being “misled by foreign…machinations.” There could be no true alliance with a non-democratic regime, or any value in becoming embroiled in the European morass.
Hamilton’s writings offer profound truths: The world is a dangerous place; the primary threats to our security come from those that deny freedom to their own people; discretion and judgment are necessary to maintain a free and prosperous society. Our true friends and reliable partners are other democratic nations with whom we share a commonality of values. Power, principle, and prudence are necessary when approaching anyone else.
Today, the greatness of the American experiment is under assault once again by totalitarian and kleptocratic regimes that suppress the liberty of their own people. They are thankfully no longer Britain and France, but instead take the form of the Chinese Communist Party, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, among others. Forged not to protect liberty but to serve the interests of the ruling clique, these regimes aim to divide, undermine, and ultimately fell not just the American state, but the American system of republican government. From Russian disinformation campaigns and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which seeks to conduct influence operations within American domestic politics, rapid advances in technology have even allowed Xi and Putin to penetrate and suppress American freedom deep inside our own borders. And as Moscow’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine or Beijing’s threats against Taiwan demonstrate, that threat, left unchecked, will have a chilling effect on the basic freedoms we hold dear.
The strategic competition with China is ultimately about the frontiers of freedom. It may manifest itself in different ways at different times, but this competition is about whether the experiment in human liberty that was launched in 1776 can survive in the face of its most powerful adversary yet—China’s GDP and Russia’s GDP combined equals roughly three-quarters that of the United States, and is growing. It’s also significantly larger than any power or constellation of powers the United States has ever faced. It is about whether predation backed by power can coerce American institutions, companies, and individuals to censor their political opinions for fear of losing access to market opportunity. It is about whether the outer rim of the American orbit can maintain its attraction to liberty under law, or whether the gravitational pull of a fast-growing Orwellian orb will alter its trajectory. In the long run, the CCP and the American constitutional system cannot coexist peacefully, for the former seeks to undermine the latter and the latter’s existence undermines the former.
Hamilton understood that what made America exceptional would also make America safe. Thankfully, and in no small part due to her own efforts, America is no longer the exception in today’s world. The prevalence of once-unique sightings of liberty means that the interests of many nations are aligned with America’s—unsurprisingly, all our collective defense treaties are with fellow republics. A Hamiltonian foreign policy seeks to preserve republican liberty by maintaining unmatched military power, an unambiguous belief in the American experiment, and a full understanding of our own national identity. The order that we are fighting over is not only the greatest guarantor of our own security, liberty, and prosperity, but also that of the world’s. Its survival is paramount; only through a powerful, principled, and prudent foreign policy can we protect it.
Gabriel Scheinmann is the executive director of The Alexander Hamilton Society, a member of the Board of The Vandenberg Coalition, and co-chair of the Forum for American Leadership’s Strategic Planning Working Group.
Image: President Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame welcome Chinese Communist Party Leader President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan to Village Urugwiro, Kigali, 23 July 2018. (Flickr: Paul Kagame)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe