On July 7, 1798, the Federalist administration of John Adams rescinded our treaties with France, sparking the Quasi-War with France, which began two days later, on July 9... and the Jeffersonians went ballistic. How DARE we break our treaties with the French, that great ally who helped us win our independence from England?
Viewed on its own, without context, it does indeed sound outrageous, doesn’t it? What ingrates we would be, if we break our treaties with our greatest ally, so soon after they helped us so much. The Jeffersonians – known then as the Republicans, then later, the Democratic-Republicans, until they finally settled on the name Democrats, decades later – were generally unrepentant Francophiles, while the Federalists were generally Anglophiles. Normally, such generalizing, over two centuries later, could be dismissed as “historians going overboard to make it easy for us,” but in this case, the distinction is accurate, and helps explain the events of the day.
Once we review the context, we find that the tale of the Quasi-War with France is an excellent illustration of a common foreign policy mistake, and it holds important lessons for today. The tale begins long before 1798; in fact, we could argue it begins in the 1750s with the Seven Years War, known more commonly on this side of The Pond as the French and Indian War, or even earlier…
Foes Across The Channel
France and England have been natural rivals for a thousand years. We could date it from the Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror crossed the Channel from Normandy to press his claim as rightful king of England… or to over a century later, when King Henry put his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine under house arrest… or to another century later, when the Hundred Years War saw dynastic struggles and claims of divine favor propel seemingly endless war throughout four generations… oh yes, the rivalry between England and France goes way, way back indeed.
In the mid-1700s, France had no interest in permanently settling what we now call the American Midwest… but they did have interest in trading with the American Indian tribes who lived there, and in ensuring their fur traders free transit through Indian territories. The close association between the French and some American Indian tribes caused a natural problem for the British, who at the same time were considering allowing further westward migration by their colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. The British colonists – especially the Virginians, but many more as well – wanted to settle to the west, but the French had built forts to support their traders, and to impress their American Indian allies and foes.
These French forts, built on land claimed by England, precipitated the Seven Years War. As members of the British Commonwealth, our founding colonies fought alongside Britain against the French in that war, which lasted from 1756 through 1763. It ended with a total remapping of the world, as borders were defined, as Quebec ostensibly became English (Ha!), and as the Americans got their first real taste of warfare on North American soil.
Fast forward a dozen years. In the mid-1770s, these North American colonies (at least, the ones to the south of what is now Canada) joined up to throw off the English yoke. Despite their numbers, and their huge geographical footprint, the American colonists were militarily outclassed in every way. We had some good officers who had service with Britain or others in the past – particularly in the Seven Years War – but we had virtually no money, no arms, no uniforms, no navy, no cannon, no gunpowder, and no battle-trained troops. We were truly starting from scratch, and not against a small opponent either, but against the greatest military power in the history of the world.
So the nascent United States went looking for allies, and we found them in spades. England’s growth had made plenty of enemies, so there were countries who might loan us money… and there were nations that might not have money but would remain neutral… and there were nations that might even join us in battle if we could prove ourselves worthy… and there was France.
Largely through the brilliant diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, the King of France agreed first to loan money and arms, then to give money and arms, and then eventually to just join us as a full ally.
We could not have won the war without France and the other allies she brought. Why did the king help? Was it because the King of France so loved republican governance and the cause of American independence? Was it because the King of France dreamed of a day when American citizens were guaranteed the right to vote for legislatures and presidents, the right to assemble, the right to freely publish political thought? Of course not. It was because the King of France thought it was in France’s best interest to help us, at that moment in history. That’s all.
The National Interest
Treaties are – or at least, should be – written for one reason, and one reason alone: At the end of a negotiation process, the representatives of two or more governments come to the agreement that this text is in the national interest of their respective nations, or at least, it’s the best they can get at the moment.
There are all kinds of treaties.
There are economic treaties: The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a one-way grant of duty-free status on many qualifying products of African origin, as an American effort to generously encourage commerce with the struggling nations of Africa. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a multilateral grant of duty-free status on many qualifying products of Canadian, Mexican, and American products, as a joint effort to encourage local (North American) sourcing and manufacturing, and to retard our mutual ongoing loss of manufacturing to Mainland China.
There are mutual defense treaties: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an alliance of nations on both sides of the Atlantic, an effort to protect the West, especially Western Europe, from a long-expected onslaught from the Soviet Union. The alliance is still in force, despite having been oddly anachronistic for awhile now, and its current construction is almost inexplicable in view of Russia’s post-Soviet appetite. To say this treaty is due for renegotiation is to state the obvious.
There are human rights treaties. The Geneva Convention is an agreement between ostensibly militarily-honorable nations, who have pledged to treat civilians and POWs decently, provided they honor the rules of war… and emphatically denying such decent treatment to combatants who violate the rules of war. Either mistreating real honorably POWs (uniformed soldiers of legitimate nation-states) or granting good treatment to terrorists would therefore undermine the treaty, and ought to get a country tossed out. But some treaties have more teeth than others, so a country can today give first class treatment to terrorists, utterly undermining the whole point of the Geneva Convention, without a peep from others.
The number of treaties across the globe is beyond count; there are treaties of every size and kind, from heavily watched and scrupulously enforced to utterly forgotten. The key point for us today is that, at the time of signing the treaty, the signers thought it served their national interest.
- You sign a treaty because you believe you’re in danger if you don’t… when the threat no longer exists, perhaps you can extricate yourself.
- You sign a treaty because you have a need for the other party’s resources, whether that be ancient Rome’s need for Carthaginian purple dye or modern America’s need for Arab oil… or when the other party has such a need for something of yours. When the product becomes obsolete, or you find a preferable alternative source, perhaps you can extricate yourself.
- You sign a treaty because the other party has a similar government to yours – two republics in cooperation, or two monarchies – an alliance of the free west, or an Axis of fascists, or a Warsaw Pact of communists. When the nature of one or more of those governments changes, the alliance ceases to make any sense at all. So the Axis dissolved when the fascists were overthrown; so the Warsaw Pact disassembled when the Soviet Union broke up. The party that overthrew its form of government already de facto extricated itself from its treaties; all that’s left is to acknowledge the fact.
This last is the key point for today’s story: The United States of America signed a mutual cooperation treaty with the Bourbon King of France in 1778. By 1798, that king had been overthrown, his family and allied nobles executed, and his government usurped by a mob of bloodthirsty sadists. The French Revolution replaced an autocratic monarchy with a vicious tyranny rarely seen in human history; not often is any period of time known to historians as “The Reign of Terror.”
How could a mutual defense pact between the honorable United States and the utterly dishonorable French Revolutionary juntas of the 1790s be considered logical? In 1778, our interests aligned with King Louis’ interests. We wanted to win our North American land from England. King Louis wanted to win back some other North American land, and maybe pick up some Caribbean land, perhaps Asian land too, from England. We could potentially help each other, and we did.
But when the French government fell to the terrorists, our treaties were no longer binding. The Washington and Adams administrations were not hasty; they waited just a week shy of nine years between the revolution of 1789 and the final revocation of the treaties in 1798.
It’s like a renter with a lease to pay a landlord for use of an apartment; if some killer murders the landlord and burns down the building, then rebuilds a new complex on the lot, that renter doesn’t still owe a monthly rent check to the killer. By killing the other signer, you don’t automatically get access to all of your victim’s existing partnerships and contractual obligations.
This was the situation in 1798. The Americans, under Washington and Adams, had been slowly patching up our differences with England, rebuilding our trade, finding agreement on borders and debts, in a gradual attempt to become friends on an equal footing, in happy replacement of the king-and-subject relationship that sparked our revolution.
But the Jeffersonian “Republicans” – from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to their supporters in the countryside – neither recognized the value of our friendly relations with England nor the enormity of the changes in France. Back during the French Revolution itself, in fact, while serving as our minister to the Bourbon court, Jefferson famously dismissed its importance, shrugging it off while all Europe was in horror at the bloodletting. Jefferson and his party were blinded by their visceral hatred of England and love of France, too blinded to recognize either the change in circumstances or the current condition under international law.
By 1798, it was clear that a treaty between the United States and France – particularly one calling for us to assist France in their fresh war with England! – was no longer in our best interest. We announced that the French revolutionaries had voided that agreement, and prepared for what followed – a period known as “the Quasi-War,” a period of naval battles but mercifully no ground confrontations. It lasted about a year, and then Napoleon’s consolidation of power in France changed the circumstances yet again, and we finally had someone with whom we could talk peacefully.
There’s much more to the story – the mid-1790s are a fascinating period for any historian, ranging from the revolutionary fervor of Citizen Genet to the duplicity of Talleyrand and the offensive solicitation of bribes in the X-Y-Z Affair. But that’s for another day. The issue at hand is the decision – the difficult but absolutely correct decision – on July 7, 1798, to tear up the treaty between the United States and France, even though it started the Quasi-War two days later. It was time to distance ourselves from the wild-eyed warmongers who now ruled France. It was time to concentrate on building a new and strong friendship with England.
Two Centuries Later
At the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon – a hearty drinker of the kool-aid known as “Mutually Assured Destruction” – negotiated an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
This ABM Treaty agreed to stop building defenses against nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), on the theory that, if both Russia and the USA couldn’t defend ourselves against nuclear weapons, neither would ever start a war, because full destruction of both countries would be unavoidable. No rational actor would start a war that can’t be won.
Never mind that this concept is based on national suicide… never mind that the concept assumes that we can trust the Soviets to honor the agreement (they didn’t) as much as we would… never mind that the whole concept is dependent on both nations being the only nations in possession of nuclear weapons, and both being rational actors. The whole house of cards falls down if a third nation gets ICBMs, or if nukes can be delivered in another way besides ICBMs, or if a non-state enemy (such as a terrorist network) gets access to such things.
Despite the theory’s incredible flaws, the Nixon administration supported it, and we signed the ABM treaty with Leonid Brezhnev in 1972.
By the year 2000, when George W. Bush was elected President, the treaty was still in place, but the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. We had changed presidents in an orderly fashion five times, from Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush I to Clinton to Bush II. But the Soviets had been completely transformed; from 1989 to the mid 1990s, the Soviet Union had broken apart, many of the ICBMs had been disassembled, and new elected governments ruled in Russia and her newly freed former Warsaw Pact neighbors.
George W. Bush wanted to tear up the ABM Treaty – and eventually did – but it infuriated the Left.
Today’s Democrats felt that we should continue to honor it, even though the nation with which we had signed it – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – had been consigned to the history books.
The modern Left’s love of disarmament – their adoration for the concept of leaving their nation defenseless against ICBMs – trumps their ability to even acknowledge the basic fact that one of the treaty partners had ceased to exist!
The World Scene Today
Today, we face a plethora of conflicts, all over the globe. The lure of isolationism is strong – a desire to close our eyes to everything outside our borders. But we have national interests today, all over the world, which simply wasn’t the case during the Founding Era.
Our American corporations own land, operate factories, derive profits, in dozens of countries, on every continent except Australia. Our 401K plans, pension plans, and other investments are in both US and foreign held conglomerates; if we shut our eyes to the world, those foreign holdings may fall, and we will suffer economically. For a nation that was built, at least in part, on the goal of securing free and plentiful trade, such a disregard for our foreign economic interests would be a repudiation of the Founder’s spirit, not an adherence to it at all.
Still, we cannot involve ourselves in every foreign conflict either. Our national interest may be everywhere on earth, but to a wide variety of degrees. One country may have hundreds of factories and billions of dollars in US trade, another may have no American ties other than a couple of American evangelical missionaries or Catholic orphanages. Both merit our attention, but lack equal claims on our willingness to go to war for them.
So we need to do as Theodore Roosevelt put it, so eloquently, a century ago: Walk softly and carry a big stick. In other words, don’t go looking for trouble, don’t spread yourself too thin, but maintain a military worthy of your status as the world’s primary economic power, and keep it ready for use – whole hog! – when such use is truly needed.
In recent years, the current administration has turned the very concept of treaties and alliances on its head. The White House has driven wedges between us and key allies like Great Britain, Canada, and Israel, with intentional offenses ranging from the diplomatic (giving back emotional gifts like the bust of Churchill to England) to the economic (rejecting the Keystone Pipeline that would enrich both Canada and the USA) to the military (actually arming and funding Israel’s terrorist enemies).
Such actions are the path, not to global peace and friendliness, but to global war.
We had a deal with Egypt when an ally ruled; when he fell to the Muslim Brotherhood, this administration fulfilled an agreement signed with the ruler they imprisoned, and gave American fighter jets and money to the Muslim Brotherhood to use against our allies.
We have had a longstanding deal with Israel to support its borders, knowing that a strong Israel is a key to our national interest, as a bulwark of republican governance in that authoritarian region. But this administration has spent years supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, Fatah, and others in the region.
We worked for a decade to develop Iraq and Afghanistan as budding republics… no, they may never be as free as Western nations, but they could have been ruled by more decent authoritarians; they could have supported capitalism once they saw its success; they could have been American allies in a region dangerously devoid of them. But this administration has disregarded the spirit of our agreements with those who overthrew their past tormenters, to treat with those who would supplant them. This administration has supported the growth of ISIS in Iraq and even the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Alliances cannot be with a nation’s geographic borders, because rulers can change through revolution. Alliances can only be with a form of government; the public in those countries must be shown that the flow of aid, defense and trade will stop if they overthrow our allied government in favor of communists, sharia jihadists, or other enemies of the USA and our friends.
Two hundred years after the Quasi War, the Democratic Party still doesn’t understand the nature of alliances. When Democrats are elected to public office, they cause economic and social damage that can be painful and difficult to undo... but far worse is the foreign policy havoc they wreak; the hundreds of thousands killed, through the absence of the United States as a stabilizing force in the world, can never be undone.
November 2016 cannot come too soon.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago based international trade compliance trainer. A former movement conservative activist in the Reagan era, and minor GOP functionary (Milwaukee County Republican Party Chairman) in the 1990s, he has now been a recovering politician for 17 years.
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