The Founders: The World Matters

Americans who dismiss or even resent the notion that we should look abroad for new ideas should know that the Founders they revere would have heavily disagreed — which makes sense given they were inspired by the European Enlightenment and Greco-Roman ideas and institutions.

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, believed that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively.”

In Federalist 63 he articulated the importance of respecting global public opinion, noting that “sensibility to the opinion of the world [was] perhaps not less necessary in order to merit, than it is to obtain, its respect and confidence.” In other words, America’s standing in the world matters, and in turn depends on how open we are to foreign ideas and judgments.

Madison also laid out two reasons why every government should pay attention to the international community:

The one is, that independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy.

Thus, no matter how good or justified a domestic policy may seem, we should also ensure that other nations agree as well. It lends support and credibility while also giving us legitimacy.

The second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion, or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world, may be the best guide that can be followed.

Translation: sometimes Americans get it wrong, and the world can offer guidance we may be lacking.

Madison then went so far as to claim that America has suffered for not taking the world into account:

What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiassed part of mankind?”

As Goloveand and Hulesbosch point out in their law review article, A Civilized Nation, Madison’s point is clear:

“Even apart from the danger of provoking war or acting unjustly, paying respect to the consensus judgments embodied in the law of nations was an essential strategy for avoiding ‘errors and follies’ and for managing a foreign policy that would enable the nation to flourish”.

John Jay and Alexander Hamilton concurred, as did most of the Framers:

Madison’s views were shared by many of the framers, and consequently, they carefully designed the new Constitution to ensure that the new nation would uphold its duties under the law of nations. The most immediate concern, based on bitter experience, was to ensure that localist pressures at the state level would not undermine the nation’s capacity to comply. To accomplish this result, the Constitution centralized the foreign affairs powers in the hands of the federal government. As Madison put it,“[i]f we are to be one nation in any respect, it clearly ought to be in respect to other nations.”

Again, however, the framers’ concerns were not limited to federal-state relations. They also worried that popular sentiment,whipped up by “the artful misrepresentations of interested men,” would threaten to undermine compliance with the nation’s international duties. The people, John Jay lamented, were “liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which like transient meteors sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.”Consequently, their representative assemblies would be prone “to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders, into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.” Indeed, it was precisely this sort of defect in democratic systems that had led to disastrous results during the Confederation. “[T]he best instruction on this subject is unhappily conveyed to America by the example of her own situation,” Madison observed. “She finds that she is held in no respect by her friends; that she is the derision of her enemies; and that she is a prey to every nation which has an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs.”

Hence the Constitution gives treaties and international agreements the same strength as domestic law (see the Treaty and Supremacy clauses) and insulates foreign policy from local and state politicians who are too unscrupulous or far removed from international affairs (hence the requirement that only the Senate must ratify a treaty, and Jefferson’s interpretation that many international agreements can be made by the president alone).

It is safe to say that the Founders would be marked as elitist globalists by the very Americans who deify them.

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