Washington, the Realist
George Washington understood that nations like men act in their self-interest. His understanding of human nature developed many years before his role as commander in chief during the Revolutionary War.
Washington cut his teeth on the western frontier of Colonial Virginia. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia militia, he was tasked with a diplomatic expedition to the Ohio River Valley to deliver a message to the French. The French occupied land claimed by the Ohio Company, which was a British company.
During the expedition of 1754, Washington was accompanied by Indian “allies” under the leadership of Mingo chief Tanacharison. Washington led a force of 150 militia soldiers as well as Tanacharison and his Mingos. After discovering a French party of 50, Washington’s unit attacked. Carnage quickly followed. France claimed that the leader of their group, Jumonville, was on a diplomatic mission. Washington’s allies were accused of war crimes that included scalping and bodily desecration.
As subsequent events unfolded, Washington and his Virginians defended a position encircled by French forces at what is known as the Battle of Fort Necessity. The French overwhelmed Washington and his Virginians. As a result, on July 4, 1754, Washington signed terms of surrender. By this time, Tanacharison and his Mingos had abandoned Washington.
The frontier was an early lesson in diplomacy and fragile alliances. Washington’s allies were necessary, but also fickle. At the first sign of trouble, they left. They looked out for themselves and with little regard for Washington’s fate. Indian alliances went back and forth between the French and British. During the Revolutionary War, many tribes allied with the British. Some with America.
With respect to Russia and Ukraine, Washington would not tether America to one party unconditionally. He would recognize that nation’s interests shift. Internal politics change. Leaders change. America should define its own interest first, just as every other nation and tribe defines their own interest first.
During the Revolutionary War, America would form an alliance with France. As mentioned, Washington also fought a war against the French twenty years prior. But, there were no hard feelings. By 1775, America was different and had a new set of political priorities. France’s priorities aligned with America’s. A formal treaty made sense. It was signed on February 6, 1778.
During Washington’s presidency, he was also confronted with the dilemma of the French Revolution. The politics of the United States were favorable to France and many statesmen like Thomas Jefferson saw parallels between America’s revolution and that of France. However, Washington read the news from Paris through the lens of a realist. In doing so, he was able to look past the exuberance and see the French atrocities for what they were and the tyranny they represented.
One of Washington’s signature foreign policy achievements was to steer America on a path to neutrality between France and Britain. As war broke out in Europe, Washington determined neutrality made sense for America. For Washington, any appeal to support a historic ally rang hollow. France in 1794 was different from France in 1778.
The arc of Washington’s approach to France is noteworthy. He fought against them in one war. Allied with them in another. Finally, he declared neutrality during his presidency. In his professional career as officer, general, and statesmen, he was an enemy, ally, and neutral party.
How would Washington approach the current hysteria over unconditional support for our NATO “allies” or Ukraine? He would say get real.
Washington was a farmer from Virginia. A lot of his diary entries relate to the weather. Washington noted with keen interest daily fluctuations in the weather. His early politics were also shaped by men like George Mason. Like many of his fellow American founders, Washington’s political ideas were rooted in enlightenment ideas such as the laws of nature.
This is to say that the state of nature is a state of change and fluctuation. In his own professional life, Washington shifted his farm production from tobacco to wheat. He was willing and able to adapt to new circumstances.
He knew that men changed too. Former cabinet member, Thomas Jefferson became a political rival. So did James Madison, who wrote Washington’s first inaugural address. Thomas Paine, who wrote Common Sense, later cursed Washington. George Mason also had a falling out with his Virginia friend and former colleague.
As a general Washington survived at least one serious attempt to undo his command during the Conway Cabal from 1777 through February 1778. At Newburgh, NY, he singlehandedly stopped a mutiny among Continental Army officers to overthrow Congress in 1783.
In conclusion, Washington had a firmer grasp on nature and human nature than America’s current political class. He had contributed to the formation of America and the many ups and downs that accompanied it. He understood that it was a rough and messy process. A friend today could be an enemy tomorrow and vice versa.
America’s Current Foreign Policy
In the 21st century, American statesmanship is tied to a couple convenient heuristics like Hitler and World War II and Russia and the Cold War. If we want to get real sophisticated, we could probably throw in Wilsonian philosophy of “making the world safe for democracy.” None of these historical events are unpacked beyond recycled platitudes that are clobbered Frankenstein-like into lazy foreign policy. The sloganeering plays well at think tanks, corporate-sponsored fireside chats, and on five minute cable news segments. Most voters shrug. Another set of voters eagerly repeat what they hear. Thus, a quarter of the neighborhood is dotted with Ukraine flags.
But, “our democracy” and “defend democracy” are just catch phrases to distinguish good from bad. Washington did not think in these terms. Post-Revolutionary France was a democracy, and the effects were tyranny. By contrast, America was founded as a republic and even Washington’s first two election victories were not decided by direct votes from the citizens of the United States.
All of this is to say, that Ukraine as a “democracy” simply means we think they are the good guys. Until 2022, most Americans couldn’t find Ukraine on a map, and now they are flying their flag. In contrast, America defined Russia as the bad guy long before their invasion. However, Russia and Putin are not the Soviet Union. Russia of 2023 is different from Russia of 1989 or even 2000. Washington would have understood this. In doing so, it is doubtful that he would have defined preconditions for cooperation in strict moral terms as the U.S. has done over the last two decades.
How would Washington respond?
When Russia invaded Ukraine, America went all in for Ukraine. Washington might have recognized Russia as the obvious aggressor. But it is doubtful that he would have done what America’s current political class has done and continues to do without any clear end state. Perhaps the biggest reason is that Washington would have wanted to clearly define America’s interests. Is the war killing Americans? No. Will the war kill Americans? Highly unlikely. Is this war a threat to American commerce? No.
The reasoning of politicians who went all in for Ukraine was typically threefold. First, Putin is bad. Second, Russia might invade other European nations after Ukraine. Third, China is watching our reaction and taking notes. Even if he accepted all three premises, Washington would still find flaws in each one.
On point number one, Washington would want to know whether the “badness” of Putin has any effect on Americans. Furthermore, he might conclude logically that it does not make sense to provoke a very bad man with very powerful nuclear weapons.
On the second argument, Washington might conclude that European nations should take necessary steps to defend their own borders and deter any threat of Russian invasion on their own.
Third, with respect to the China argument, Washington would probably conclude that this is more of a reason to play it cool. Why tip your hand in a conflict that has little impact on American national security? A younger, more impetuous Washington might have responded rashly. The elder statesmen would have bided his time.
The politics of reality are that the “strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” This is harsh and does not sit well with most Americans. Unfortunately, this is the situation in Ukraine. Proxy wars perpetuate suffering because they don’t do anything about the strong and they continue to prop up the weak. While a real war can defeat the strong, America is not willing to fight a real war against Russia. Frankly, there is no reason to do so. At the very least, American support for Ukraine should be used for diplomatic leverage and to exact concessions from Russia. If terms of negotiation do exist, none have been outlined publicly.
It could be the case that Washington’s America was still too weak to do anything but play diplomacy with larger powers. One could make a convincing argument that way. But, Washington’s statecraft laid the groundwork for America to become a superpower. Furthermore, his decisions were rooted in a lifetime of experience. As a result, Washington would not veer from his realist approach. With respect to Russia and Ukraine, negotiations would have happened by now.
Learn more about the Battle of Fort Necessity here
My essay from a year ago when the war began.