John Quincy Adams and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Revolutionary Era
By Charles Edel, Professor of Strategy and Policy, Naval War College
Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
In a recent lecture at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Charles Edel of the Naval War College applied the prudent realism of John Quincy Adams to America's foreign policy challenges of the early 21st century.
Adams famously warned his country not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy based on sympathy or sentiment. Revolutionary opposition groups in non-democratic countries frequently invoke American ideals in their efforts to bring about regime change. This often produces what Edel calls "republican enthusiasm" that clouds a proper assessment of U.S. interests.
Edel identified three principal lessons to be drawn from Adam's approach to foreign policy. First, American must be conscious of the limits as well as the reach of its power. When the U.S. is over-committed, it limits our ability to act decisively when real strategic interests are at stake. In Adams' time, the nation's focus was westward expansion which would have been seriously compromised if the U.S. involved itself in foreign wars on behalf of oppressed groups in non-democratic countries.
The second lesson, according to Edel, is to be careful about getting involved in foreign revolutions. The U.S. can verbally support the liberty of all peoples, but it is rarely, if ever, wise to use American force to promote revolutions when U.S. strategic interests are not involved.
Third, the U.S. should advocate change but not upheaval in foreign countries. The desire for change must be balanced by the importance of preserving order. Revolutions all too often result in radical change that undermines U.S. strategic interests.
Edel recognizes that U.S. interests are much broader today than in Adams' times, but the principles underlying Adams' approach to the world are still valid. Foreign policy involves setting priorities, making difficult trade-offs, and assessing long-term American interests.