W. R. Mead: American Foreign Policy Is Hamiltonian

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 10
Words: 2563
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College

Walter Russell Mead argues that one of the four basic paradigms of American foreign policy has been Hamiltonian. History shows that the Federalists, the post- 1812 National Republicans, the Whigs, and the Republican Party have all been guided by Hamiltonian principles in foreign policy for most of their history. Hamiltonian ideas have heavily influenced the thinking of most modern Democratic administrations as well.

According to the Hamiltonian policy, the United States should develop its foreign policy based on its interests, strengths, weaknesses, and resources. Some important elements of a Hamiltonian foreign policy are freedom of seas and air, freedom of trade, freedom of flow of money, and maintaining the balance of power. It can be proved by reference to specific events in American history that the Hamiltonian paradigm has shaped American foreign policy.

The Hamiltonian policy supporters among the Founding Fathers viewed humankind as a quarrelsome and greedy race and held that the human heart is wicked. They did not trust the councils of foreign countries nor the American politicians to exhibit a spirit of generosity and fair play. So, they chose the ‘interest’ factor. In foreign policy, as in domestic policy, the Hamiltonians looked to interest as the guide to conducting.

Both socially and in terms of its foreign policy interests, the United States in its early years was to Britain as Britain was to Europe. Both the countries were loose societies governed by pragmatism compared to their Continental neighbors; in both countries, the Parliament was supreme, and religion did not play a vital role in government. Britain was an island trading nation protected by the English Channel; the United States was a continental trading nation protected by the Atlantic Ocean.

The Hamiltonians list of foreign policy interests of the United States resembled that of Great Britain. The early Hamiltonians wanted the American foreign policy to be based on British foreign policy. However, the United States had its own unique set of characteristics. It was less exposed to the jealousies of rival powers than Britain was. Its territories and population were larger. With 3,000 miles instead of 30 miles separating it from the nearest great power, the United States was far safer than Britain from any Continental state.

According to the Hamiltonian way, the importance of trade would determine the definitions of America’s security interests. It was important for the United States to have military security across the Atlantic if it were to trade with other European countries safely. Trade, rather than loss of territory, was the major factor that dictated American foreign policy for the first 150 years after independence. A foreign policy that was based on commercial interests would change the nature of the American relationship with other powers. A policy of military competition that was traditionally followed meant eternal conflicts. Every political agreement would leave some power or group of powers unhappy.

On the other hand, it was possible to have both sides happy through commercial transactions. It would also be mutually beneficial as the prosperity of one nation would help another nation become prosperous too. A foreign policy based on the war, on the other hand, would be economically destructive to both sides.

The Hamiltonians perceived commercial capitalism as a tool of peace. The expansion of trade was considered a win-win strategy compared to the Hobbesian game of war. Hamiltonians generally did pay attention to military matters, especially in the context of the navy and a professional standing army. But the Hamiltonians’ foreign policy and the traditional foreign policy of the United States assigned a significantly smaller role to military matters than was common in Europe.

Contrary to Jeffersonians, the Hamiltonians did not object to the idea of elite diplomatic service. But the purpose of the diplomatic service would be different from that in a military monarchy. In the Hamiltonian view, the American state needed to be strong in the military department, but the state itself was civilian. American diplomats generally spent more time dealing with trade and far less time dealing with military matters or other state-to-state business than their foreign colleagues. This was the Hamiltonian way.

The Hamiltonian diplomacy based on trade suited the United States very well because of the existing consciousness of the great destiny that awaited the country ever since its independence. European countries faced constant threats to their status as great powers or even to their independent status.

On the other hand, the United States believed that it would be a very rich, powerful, and respected country with the passage of time. Because of this confidence of the United States, the approach to the United States’ diplomacy was less defensive and more optimistic compared to European powers. American Hamiltonians did not believe that the United States must either conquer or be conquered in its international relations. They rather believed in progress through constructive compromises of mutual benefit in its dealings with foreign powers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that American Hamiltonianism in foreign policy was a radical innovation in the world of great-power diplomacy.

Though the main Hamiltonian agenda in American foreign policy involved trade, Hamiltonians did not ignore national defense and other issues. They just considered the commercial and economic interests of the country as the primary means of understanding other interests. In the context of commercial interests, the first interest was that of the freedom of the seas. America needed to be able to trade safely across the seas with freedom for its citizens, goods, and ships. There should be no threat of piracy or of foreign nations. Freedom of the seas that America desired due to its Hamiltonian way was often an issue of conflict with other powers.

The United States fought undeclared naval wars with both Britain and France on this issue during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, as the opposing sides sought to restrict the trade of neutral nations with their enemies. During the Civil War, America took on Britain, the world’s greatest military power at that time to safeguard its maritime interests. At the time of the First World War, issues in the context of shipping led to serious conflicts between America and Britain and were also the reason behind why America entered the war against Germany.

In 1941, America was already fighting an undeclared naval war with Germany in the North Atlantic when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Interference with shipping led President Gerald Ford into a conflict with Cambodia. Ronald Reagan sent American ships into the Persian Gulf to protect neutral shipping during the Iran-Iraq War and confronted Libya with the threat of war when it tried to bar American ships from crossing the “line of death” it had drawn in international waters.

In the spring of 1996, President Clinton sent the Seventh Fleet to the waters off Taiwan to deter China from interfering with neutral shipping. Freedom of the skies was another element of the Hamiltonian way that became a crucial factor in shaping American foreign policy. The United States depends on air traffic for transportation of goods and people and considers interference with this right of passage to be a direct and immediate threat to its vital interests. It will not hesitate to declare war if it perceives any threat to its freedom to travel by sea and air.

A very important element of the Hamiltonian policy is freedom of trade. The basic view, which dominated Hamiltonian opinion through most of American history, was that the United States had few territorial ambitions beyond what became the 48 contiguous states and in the central and northern Pacific, but that it should enjoy open commercial relations with all the rest of the world. American diplomacy has consistently concerned itself with opening markets ever since the Revolutionary War.

The first official American foreign mission was that of Benjamin Franklin to the court of Louis XVI. Along with consenting for military cooperation, France and the United States signed a treaty granting one another most-favored-nation status, and American goods were to be admitted to French markets with as few obstacles as possible. The quest for an open door for American goods brought the United States into conflict with the efforts of European powers to maintain exclusive trade privileges within their colonial empires. The attempt to open the doors of these colonial empires was a major thrust of American policy in the early decades of in- dependence.

As colonial empires slowly dissolved, the open door largely disappeared as an element in American foreign policy. This continued until the end of the nineteenth century, when there was a new worldwide scramble for colonies and economic advantages by the European powers.

The United States became concerned about the extension of European influence on the Pacific Rim. The Boston Tea Party, after all, reflected, among other things, the impatience of American merchants with British attempts to limit their access to the Pacific. America pursued a long-term strategy to acquire bases in the Pacific to ensure that European nations, either singly or in combination, could never extend the exclusive colonial system to China, a country whose trade, Hamiltonians firmly believed, was vital to the future of the nation. When the imperialistic mania was at its height, Hamiltonians wanted to make certain that the United States got its fair share. So for a brief time, they annexed territories from Canada to Baja California, but these annexation measures soon ended.

Though America wanted its goods to be accepted everywhere, it did not want to open its markets to foreign goods freely. The zenith of Hamiltonian power in the United States lasted from Abraham Lincoln’s election to the outbreak of the Great Depression; of the 17 presidential elections held between Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and Herbert Hoover’s defeat in 1932, the Republicans won all but four.

This was also the period in which American tariffs were at the highest levels in U.S. history. Hamiltonian opinion in the United States gradually shifted from protectionism toward free trade and ultimately reaching the view that free trade would benefit the American economy even if other countries failed to open their markets in return. In recent years, as America is losing its leading position in many areas of technology in line with perceived American commercial interests, America is adopting a foreign policy of insisting on reciprocity: open doors abroad in exchange for an open door at home.

The main idea of the Hamiltonian trade policy has been to maintain national prosperity through an appropriate trade regime by the federal government. For Hamiltonians, tariffs and trade policy have always been political instruments used to shape national economic policy.

Another variation of the trade policy involved vital natural materials. They included oil, rubber, and rare materials needed for military manufacturing. Since the nineteenth century, the United States has conducted its foreign policy with an eye on the necessity of maintaining its access to supplies of strategic materials. Any country or group of countries with a monopoly in some key material that attempts to use this monopoly against the United States soon finds itself the object of vigorous countermeasures. The history of OPEC and the unfolding of the close relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia against a background of falling oil prices are examples of foreign policy dictated by oil resources.

The need for a free flow of money between the world’s principal trading nations is another element of the Hamiltonian way. Unless dollars, pounds, and francs could be freely exchanged for one another in some predictable way, and unless traders and investors could freely move money from one country to another, the advantages of trade would be largely lost. To maintain this interest, it was necessary for the government in America to have sound fiscal and monetary policies. It must not borrow excessively, nor must it allow depreciation of the value of the money by printing too much of it.

The assumption of the national debt and the establishment of the First Bank of the United States were the direct and immediate outcomes of the Hamiltonians during the Washington administration. From 1789 until the early twentieth century, the importance of a sound international medium of exchange was felt primarily in the formation of domestic policy. The fights over the restrictive effects of the First and Second Banks of the United States on the money supply were critical battles before the Civil War; the controversies over expansionary and inflationary monetary innovations like greenbacks and free silver did much to shape domestic politics in the following half-century. Throughout the isolationist 1920 s, the Federal Reserve Bank cooperated closely with the central banks of Britain, Germany, and France, and American officials became intimately involved in the intricacies of European financial reconstruction, German reparations, and exchange-rate stabilization.

The end of the Second World War would see an even greater increase in Hamiltonian activism in search of international monetary stability as the Bretton Woods agreement establishing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank was concluded.

Balance of power is an important element of the Hamiltonian policy. As early as the 1830 s, American naval ships regularly patrolled Far Eastern waters to check piracy and save shipwrecked sailors. A national policy of establishing commercial agreements with Asian governments also dates from this era. The United States generally sided with European governments when the issues involved the rights of foreigners to trade and the security of foreigners in Asian countries.

On the other hand, the United States generally opposed the partition and colonization of Asian countries, especially China, by European powers. The United States viewed Japan as a threat to its sovereignty in trade and a long-term threat to the security of Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. Since that time, the United States has generally favored a balance-of-power policy in Asia, supporting the weaker powers against the stronger in the hope of preventing the rise of any power that could dominate the others. Until 1949, Japan was this power, and after the communist takeover of China, it was China in alliance with the Soviet Union.

The United States shares a special relationship with Britain due to this Hamiltonian element of the balance of power. From a defensive standpoint, from 1783 until the First World War, due to the protection conferred by the British navy, no continental European country was strong enough to cross the Atlantic with a fleet that could inflict damage on the United States. Were Britain to use its naval superiority to threaten the American coast, the United States by 1850 had the resources to conquer Canada by land.

This resulted in bonding between the two countries that was distinctly favorable to the United States. The Anglo-American connection also drew strength from the common interest in the balance of power in Europe. So long as the Continental powers were divided among themselves, no European superpower could contest Britain’s power at sea and, therefore, no new threats could arise against the United States. This was, of course, the foundation of the Monroe Doctrine until the American Civil War, and it was the interest that drew the United States toward intervention on Britain’s side in both world wars and during the Cold War.

Thus we find that American foreign policy has been based on the Hamiltonian way focusing on elements of freedom of seas and air, freedom of trade, freedom of flow of money, and balance of power.


Mead, Russell Walter (2002). Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. Routledge Publishers.