George Washington’s Warnings Yet Go Unheeded

Foreign influence, designed to affect political outcomes and influence our nation’s conduct and policies, did not begin with Russia and the 2016 elections. In the early days of the Republic, as President Washington was resisting pressure to abandon the policy of neutrality and support France in its war with England, Edmond Genet, the French ambassador to the United States, was traveling across America to drum up support for the French cause. When Genet allowed a French-sponsored ship to sail out of Philadelphia, against Washington’s orders, the President demanded that France recall the ambassador. And when Secretary of State Edmund Randolph was accused of soliciting a bribe from a French envoy, a charge he denied, Washington forced his old friend into retirement.

In a long-standing tradition, Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation is read aloud on the floor of the U.S. Senate every February 22, in honor of the birth date of our first President. Yet that document reveals the stark contrast between the principles espoused by Washington and the politics practiced today in the city that bears his name. "Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence," Washington wrote, "the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government." A nation that harbors habitual fondness for some nations or hatred toward others, he warned, "is a slave to its animosity or affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest." Today our nation maintains "habitual fondness" for erstwhile friends and former allies, while President Trump and the Republicans keep stoking animosity toward Iran and many Democrats in Congress seem eager for a new cold war with Russia.

Washington envisioned the day, "not far off," when the fledgling nation would be powerful enough to "choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel." He upheld as "our true policy" the determination to "steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world . . ." Existing commitments should be honored, he conceded, but "it is unnecessary and unwise to extend them." We can only imagine what Washington might have thought of our expansion of NATO to the Russian border following the end of the Cold War, creating a permanent alliance of 28 nations with whom we are committed to go to war if any of them are attacked. Such far-flung commitments take our nation well beyond "its duty and its interest," and threaten to stretch our military beyond the breaking point while bankrupting our economy.

Foreign "alliances, attachments and intrigues," Washington warned, "lead to "the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty." At a time when our nation’s military spending exceeds that of the next seven leading nations combined, President Trump in this year’s State of the Union Address promised an increase in the military budget to a total of $716 billion. And while boasting of an ability to "outspend and out-innovate all others by far," he made no mention of our trillion-dollar annual deficits or the national debt that now exceeds $22 trillion.

Washington called for "vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen, which we ourselves ought to bear." We no longer have a time of peace, since we are perpetually at war in the far corners of the earth, and our "wars of choice" and efforts at "regime
change" in distant lands (Iraq, Libya, Syria) have contributed mightily to a national debt that is 78 percent of the current Gross Domestic Product. While Washington worried over his nation being drawn into the rivalries, ambitions and wars of Europe, he could hardly have imagined we would today be waging war simultaneously in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Niger.

Of course the nation and the world have changed greatly since Washington’s day, when there was no Federal Reserve to distribute trillions of dollars, backed by nothing, and no armed forces to rival today’s US military. But our power, while vast, is not unlimited. Conservatives used to warn that the government was spending us to the poorhouse. Today that might be an understatement The White House and the Congress may be warring and spending our nation to the graveyard.

Jack Kenny is a freelance writer in Manchester, NH and a former columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.