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Top 10 Foreign Policy Presidents, Number 3: George Washington

In the 1790s, the United States faced challenges in foreign relations unsurpassed in gravity until World War II. Britain and Spain still blocked access to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, thwarting America’s westward expansion. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, ignited a war in Europe in 1792. The revolutionary ideology turned this European power struggle into a total war where entire populations were mobilized for conflict. President Washington assembled his cabinet to figure out a response to the crisis. The risk of getting pulled into Europe’s war and potentially fighting a superpower like Britain or France meant that the young republic’s survival was at stake.

Secretary of State Jefferson advocated upholding the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France. Secretary of Treasury Hamilton wanted Neutrality that expressed favoritism toward Britain. Washington took ideas from each and declared the Neutrality Proclamation, which prohibited either the American government or private citizens from acting on behalf of either Britain or France. This caused outrage by both those Americans who supported France and those who thought Washington was overstepping his Constitutional bounds. Washington had made his decision without consulting Congress, establishing an important precedent for Executive Branch initiative in foreign policy.

Washington was a foreign policy realist, which means that he thought that nations should pursue their interests when conducting geopolitics, not morality or ideology. Alliances formed when the interest of multiple nations coincided, but countries did not have friends. This puts Washington in the same camp as geopolitical giants like Otto von Bismarck, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger. Although he appreciated France’s help in the War of Independence, Washington no longer saw the alliance with France as beneficial to the United States and did not feel obligated to come to France’s aid.

The biggest foreign policy crisis of Washington’s presidency dominated his second term. The British refused to honor the obligation they made in the Treaty of Paris (which ended the War of Independence) to vacate forts around the Great Lakes, where they stirred up trouble with Native American tribes and restricted American migration into the Ohio Valley. Additionally, the British navy seized American ships carrying French goods in an attempt to undermine France’s war effort. To avoid war, President Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a settlement. Jay’s treaty provided for British evacuation of the northwest posts and gave America a ‘most favored nation’ status in Britain’s trade, and vice-versa. This swelled American exports. It was a commercial treaty that enormously benefited both signatories while hurting neither. Congress narrowly passed the treaty, and a backlash was initiated in the press by Jefferson’s allies, who now saw Washington as Britain and Hamilton’s pawn. Jay’s image was burned in effigy. Madison, a leading figure in the House, tried to withhold funds for the treaty but was defeated.

More ominously, the French saw the Jay Treaty as America taking Britain’s side in the war. France began pursuing American ships, resulting in a crisis that dominated John Adams’ presidency. Washington was exhausted by the aftermath of the Jay Treaty and was upset that his legacy was being damaged by bitter partisanship. He decided not to run for a third term, setting another precedent. Washington had exploited the great power rivalry to America’s advantage and avoided a costly war with Britain. Before he left office, Washington negotiated the Treaty of Madrid with Spain, which was similar to the Jay Treaty. Spain recognized the US’s boundary claim east of the Mississippi, removing the last obstacle to America’s westward expansion. This crowned Washington’s life work.

Washington not only navigated the crises of his time. His Farewell Address articulated a policy framework which was a roadmap for America to become a great power by 1900. A powerful Union. Industrialization. Western expansion. Avoid unnecessary wars. The country more or less followed this checklist (with some obvious large exceptions), resulting in the US becoming the global superpower in the 20th century. Such a legacy secures Washington’s place among the top three. Why isn’t he higher? Because the top two foreign policy Presidents can both claim something that Washington cannot: they saved the world.

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