Washington’s Farewell Address and a Possible Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement with Iran

George Washington delivering his Farewell Address

George Washington delivering his Farewell Address

By the end of March, 2015, it is conceivable that the members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the so-called 5+1 group, will reach an agreement with Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons development program and ease the economic sanctions that have isolated Iran from much of the world’s trading system. Even before the ink is dry on the possible agreement, however, it has become the subject of partisan controversy in the United States, Israel, and Iran. Before evaluating the merits of the agreement, it may therefore be worthwhile for readers of a journal devoted to Law and Liberty to consider some sage advice from President George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 on party politics, foreign influence, and the American national interest.

The French Revolution of 1789 had an enormous influence in the infant American republic. Americans were bound by a treaty, signed in 1778, engaging France as an ally of the United States. Absent French aid on land and sea, American victory in the War for Independence would have been far less likely and far more costly. The quid pro quo demanded by France, then under a monarchy, was that the United States grant it the most favorable trading relationship and pledge itself to aid France if it were attacked by other European powers. When the French deposed, and eventually decapitated their king, some in America questioned whether the United States remained bound by the treaty, which might have been construed as an obligation for the United States to come to the defense of revolutionary France in its war with the crowned heads of Europe.

And when the French republic sent an envoy, Citizen Genet, as its representative to the United States in 1793, President Washington and his cabinet, including Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, had to decide whether to accept Genet as the official representative of France. Meanwhile, Genet commissioned privateers in American ports to attack British and Spanish shipping, organized militias to attack Spain’s possessions in Florida, and supported “democratic republican” societies to agitate for republican liberty, as that term was understood in France, not in the United States. No one in Washington’s cabinet wanted to go to war at this time, but Hamilton at least feared that accepting Genet as France’s minister, as well as Genet’s provocative actions, might trap the United States into doing so. After much heated debate, Washington agreed to accept Genet as France’s minister in America. However, following Hamilton’s observation that France had declared war on Austria and other European nations first, Washington decided that France was engaged in an offensive rather than a defensive war, so it was within American treaty rights to remain neutral in the war in Europe.

Genet responded by appealing over the head of Washington to the American people. He was hosted and toasted throughout much of the country at least in part because many felt that not supporting republican France was synonymous with disloyalty to republican government in the United States. In some cases, mock guillotines were erected in the streets. An effigy of Washington was even guillotined to protest his Neutrality Proclamation. In this odd way, the French Revolution helped give birth to American party politics with Federalists and much of the North aiming to stay neutral but tilt toward England against France and Republicans in the South also aiming to stay neutral but tilt toward France instead. Not for the last time in American history, the United States found itself caught in the middle of a cataclysmic world war with foreign nations seeking to manipulate partisan politics in America to their advantage.

So in the Farewell Address, understanding that the Franco-American alliance had become an albatross, Washington advised the American people to stay clear of “permanent alliances”. He did not say “entangling alliances”. That was Jefferson’s more dogmatic phrase in his First Inaugural in 1801. Washington granted that “temporary” alliances might be necessary from time to time, but thought it generally best for the United States to focus on internal development until it had reached such a stage of maturity that it could “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by our justice” might dictate. With bitter memories of Genet’s misconduct in mind, Washington warned against the dangers of foreign influence in American foreign policy. In the worst case, since American party politics were becoming sectional, such influence could have resulted in civil war pitting the North against the South, with England supporting the North and France the South.

Only somewhat less pernicious might have been surrendering control of American foreign policy to other nations. Said Washington, “The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and interest”. True national independence thus required vigilance against the “wiles of foreign influence”, lest the United States become a mere proxy in the Europeans’ wars with each other. At least until American entry into the First World War, Washington’s sage advice was the sacred text in American foreign policy. Statesmen in each of the major political parties appealed to it consistently to warn Americans at home that party politics must stop at the water’s edge.

In light of Washington’s Farewell Address, how do partisan quarrels over foreign policy in America look today? Without consulting the president, the Speaker of the House of Representatives recently asked the Israeli prime minister to address Congress on the possible nuclear arms agreement with Iran, that is, to play the same role as Citizen Genet in appealing over the head of the American president. Not to be outdone by the House, 47 senators even more recently sent a letter to the Iranian government explaining that treaties require the advice and consent of the Senate and that executive agreements can be changed any time a new president is elected. Whereas Washington advised keeping foreign influence out of American party politics, the Speaker of the House deliberately, openly, and defiantly invited foreign influence into the middle of those politics!

And the Speaker is due soon to fly to Israel, to do what? Coordinate foreign (electoral?) policy with the recently reelected prime minister? The 47 senators, preaching the platitudes of advice and consent, were blatantly undermining the president’s efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran, even though few-to-none of them had even seen a draft of it. Does this count as slavishness in American foreign policy, that rather than read an agreement and deliberate upon it, senators would be allied with hardliners in Iran, whom they hate and who are also opposed to an agreement, and the Israeli prime minister in seeking to defeat an agreement even before it has been negotiated? Can we not at least wait until we see the results of negotiations? Constitutional propriety would seem to require waiting for the results for the Senate especially to play an advice and consent role.

In our days it is dangerous to suggest that the United States might be a bit too much in love with Israel because one might be called anti-Semitic for saying American interests are not always identical to Israel’s. They certainly are not aligned with those in Israel who refuse a land for peace deal in a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. This refusal can only fuel the seemingly endless conflict and put Israel in a dilemma: either it gives up being a free government to enforce an apartheid regime in occupied territories or its ceases to be a mainly Jewish state as Palestinians come to outnumber its Jewish population. There is no denying that any autonomy for Palestinians will give some among them a sanctuary from which to renew attacks on Israel, but the seemingly endless struggle is hard on Palestinians too. Difficult as it may be, trading sufficient territory to persuade a majority to accept the result of the struggle as final may be the only way to bring it to an end. It is no less dangerous today to suggest that the United States may also bear a bit too much hatred toward Iran because, then, one might be called an appeaser. Thus partisan politics, fueled by love of one foreign nation and hatred of another, intimidates us all.

As a matter of constitutional law, both the House and the Senate are within their rights to insist on consent to any appropriations or treaties related to an agreement with Iran. As a matter of constitutional propriety, however, negotiations are usually considered an executive responsibility primarily, so there is something ugly and unseemly about a matter of vital American interest, nuclear proliferation in one of the most politically volatile regions of the world, becoming a partisan football. It is disgraceful, indeed arrogant, for the Israeli prime minister to try to manipulate factions in America, partly to aid in his own reelection; it is no less disgraceful, if not even slavish, for Congress to play along with this gambit. Consistent with Washington’s famous advice, a truly independent American foreign policy would seem to require putting some distance between the United States and Israel, at least for now, and considering whether, over the long run, the United States might be better off putting aside the animosity that began in 1979 with the seizure of the American embassy, including American hostages, by Iranian “students” during the Iranian revolution.

After all, until that revolution, the United States (and Israel) relied very much on Iran as a “regional sheriff”, something lacking and arguably very much needed in the Persian Gulf today, not least of all because it might relieve the United States of regional policing responsibilities. Passion for revolution waxes and wanes and as new threats develop, like the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, old animosities often give way to shared interests. The Chinese Revolution is a good example.

From 1949, when Mao Tse Tung and the Communist Party took over mainland China, to 1969, China was among the most bitter of American enemies. Mao’s almost gleeful rhetoric about nuclear warfare was far more chilling than anything we hear from Iranian hardliners today. But China’s border war with the Soviet Union in 1969 and increasing disgust with the Cultural Revolution gradually inclined the Chinese and the Americans to open their relations and balance against a common adversary, the Soviet Union.  Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1970 was a small step for Nixon, but a “giant leap” for the United States in tipping the balance of power for the remainder of the Cold War.

The diplomatic realignment between the United States and China took twenty-one years to consummate and another two decades to complete, when the Soviet empire began to disintegrate, 1989-1991. It has now been thirty-six years since the Iranian revolution, more than enough time for it to have lost much of its steam at home (and among the young especially, it most certainly has lost much of its appeal). The United States and Iran do share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State and otherwise combatting Salafist versions of Islamist extremism.

Until Nixon went to China, something many said only Nixon could get away with given the partisan alignments of his time, détente with American adversaries in the communist world seemed to many to be a pipe dream. Today, perhaps only someone with strong conservative credentials, like Nixon, could make a similar sort of détente possible with Iran, but it is well worth a try, if the opportunity comes along. An agreement on nuclear weapons might prove a good start, but substantial and durable improvement will require a blend of patience and firmness.  Setting aside the complicated technical difficulties of negotiating an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful uses and enforcing the agreement effectively, Iran has its fingers in the domestic politics of much of the region, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Hardliners in Iran will be loath to abstain from such influence.

For geopolitical, not merely ideological reasons, they may also argue they need a nuclear weapon to deter the United States. Taking away fears of conflict with the United States may undermine their position, therefore détente with Iran ought to be a fundamental objective of American foreign policy.   Concessions on the part of the United States, however, would require what Henry Kissinger called “linkage” in the détente era. At a minimum, if Iran wishes to cease being treated as a pariah nation, it would have to abstain from such interference, terrorism especially. None of this could happen overnight, but if it could happen between China and the United States, it could happen between the United States and Iran. So long as we are not deluded by excessive hopes, e.g., insist on effective inspections of nuclear facilities, and remain patient, because persuading Iran to renounce support for terrorists may take many years. It is high time we begin thinking about how to achieve it, though it may seem like waiting for Godot until the right combination of leaders in the United States, Iran, and even Israel are available to make détente possible.

Domestic opposition to such détente within the United States will be enormous. Many American combat veterans from the past decade of war in Iraq know that Iran supplied the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that killed and maimed their comrades. However, to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, nations do not have permanent allies (or enemies). They have permanent interests instead, with interests determining their allies and adversaries rather than their allies and adversaries determining their interests.

Beyond a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Iran lies the possibility of détente, which cannot and need not be a one-way street. If the Security Council and Germany ease up, slowly, on sanctions, they can monitor Iran’s behavior, with the option of replacing carrots with sticks, if Iran cheats again. Both to make an effective agreement possible and to build from it toward détente, however, it is imperative not to let partiality toward one country or disgust with another stand in the way of a sober calculation of American interests. Emancipation from a slavish foreign policy, in other words, will require judging whatever agreement is reached on its merits – and only after the ink is dry. Bipartisanship stopping at the water’s edge is almost the last term one would use to characterize current relations between Congress and the president, but in this case, it would be healthy return to the wisdom of George Washington.