On the US International Role
On the US International Role
John Quincy Adams isn’t who you think he is.
Adams, who was a mediocre president from 1825 to 1829 after serving as America’s greatest secretary of state under President James Monroe, is enjoying a remarkable afterlife in today’s arguments over U.S. foreign policy. He is put forth as an exemplar of restraint and realism by those who seek to shrink America’s global role; his warning against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” is a shibboleth among critics of U.S. military interventions.
Yet in truth, Adams was hardly an advocate of American restraint. Insisting that he was distorts the foreign-policy debate by urging Americans to go back to a past that never existed.
Adams’s historical reputation has tended to rise at moments of disillusion with America’s role in the world. Another misunderstood diplomat — George Kennan — famously invoked Adams in arguing against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Today, Adams serves as the namesake of the newly formed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which is committed to ending America’s “endless wars” and promoting a fundamentally more limited foreign policy. Adams’ famous Independence Day oration from 1821 is again and again cited as a prescient warning against the dangers of ideological overreach.
America was the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” Adams declared in that speech, but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Were the US to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, it might “become the dictatress of the world,” but would “be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” To break its addiction to war and overseas adventures, the argument goes, the nation needs only to rediscover its inner John Quincy Adams.
It is a curious argument, given the man’s record. The Independence Day speech was not a blanket warning against American ambition and expansion. It was an argument against a specific policy proposal — supporting a Greek rebellion against Ottoman rule — that Adams worried would needlessly antagonize European powers at a sensitive time and divert the US from more pressing matters.
It was also a provocative address that exhorted people everywhere to follow America’s example in throwing off the chains of monarchy and absolutism: “Go thou and do likewise!” Most important, it was but one part of a broader diplomatic legacy characterized by vaulting ambition, audacious aggrandizement and the promotion of a distinctively American and deeply ideological form of realism.
Adams was a committed expansionist from the earliest days of his diplomatic career. He believed that the fate of US security and democracy was tied to the creation of a strong, united country that would dominate the vast lands to the west. Attaining primacy within North America, Adams argued, was essential to avoiding the unhappy fate of Europe, where small, vulnerable states were constantly arming themselves and fighting one another.
The choice was between having “a nation coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact,” and having “an endless multitude of insignificant clans and tribes at eternal war.” Liberty and expansion went hand in hand.
As secretary of state, Adams focused on securing this continental empire. His most important diplomatic achievement was the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain of 1819. That pact was the product of wise tactical restraint — namely, holding back from supporting South American rebellions against Spanish imperial rule. But it also resulted from not-so-subtle coercion, in the form of implicit threats to seize Spanish Florida and support for Andrew Jackson’s military forays into Spanish territory.
The result was a treaty that ceded key Spanish territories in North America to the US More critically, it secured recognition of America’s claim to a western boundary on the Pacific Ocean, thereby paving the way for expansion across the continent and beyond. (It also paved the way for the spread of slavery into the American West, something Adams would come to regret.) There was nothing modest about Adams’ statecraft.
That went doubly for Adams’s other key diplomatic achievement. The Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823, offered an assurance that America would not meddle politically in Europe’s affairs. But it also advanced the radical idea that the U.S. would not tolerate European efforts to establish new colonies in the Western Hemisphere, or to re-subjugate the nations that had just overthrown Spanish rule.
This was an astonishing assertion of American primacy. It was all the more audacious because Adams insisted on making the statement unilaterally, rather than in concert with the British, who also had an interest in the independence of the new South American nations.
America, Adams argued, would do better “to aver our principles explicitly … than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” And here Adams also testified to the deep connection between American values and American interests, by arguing that the US had a vital interest in keeping autocratic regimes (monarchies, in this case) as far away as possible from its shores. It was impossible, he wrote, that European monarchies “should extend their political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere “without endangering our peace and happiness.”
This was indeed a form of what today is called “realism.” But it was a quintessentially American realism: An assertion that government type matters profoundly in global affairs, that powerful autocracies are inherently threatening to a democratic republic, and that the US will be more secure and influential to the extent that it is surrounded by relatively liberal states.
Why does it matter what Adams said and did 200 years ago? Because the common misunderstanding of his role contributes to a larger misunderstanding of what US foreign policy has been in the past and should be in the future. Advocates of a sharply curtailed foreign policy often contend that they are simply calling for a reversion to the time-tested American tradition of non-intervention and limited engagement with the world. They argue that Adams is representative of a more realistic statecraft that has been lost amid America’s alleged obsession with projecting its influence and values beyond its borders.
Uncovering the actual legacy of John Quincy Adams might make one think differently. It reminds us that America has long been an incredibly ambitious, even aggressive, country. Its foreign policy has always been unsettling to autocracies because it has always been driven by a potent mix of democratic values and geopolitical calculation.
The past to which many proponents of restraint wish to return is more imagined than real. Understanding who Adams really was is a way of understanding what America, as a nation among nations, really is.