Courtesy Reuters

Two Hundred Years of American Foreign Policy: The United States and the European Balance

In November 1782, during the peace negotiations with Great Britain, John Adams talked with one of the British commissioners about the future relationship of the American republic with the European political system. In his diary he reproduced the exchange.

"You are afraid," says Mr. Otis today, "of being made the tool of the powers of Europe." "Indeed I am," says I. "What powers?" said he. "All of them," said I. "It is obvious that all the powers of Europe will be continually maneuvering with us, to work us into their real or imaginary balances of power. They will all wish to make of us a make-weight candle, when they are weighing out their pounds. Indeed, it is not surprising, for we shall very often, if not always, be able to turn the scale. But I think it ought to be our rule not to meddle. . . ."

Adams was expressing what, in the course of the next 150 years, was to become an article of faith with many Americans, the belief that, having won its freedom from the old world, the American republic should have as little contact with it as possible. What other course was feasible, given the nature of the European system of politics? Regarded from this side of the Atlantic, it appeared to be animated by the whims of princes and the intrigues of diplomats and characterized by continual friction between its members, by an endless search for an equilibrium that was in reality neither attainable nor desired, and, intermittently, by wasting and destructive wars. It represented a perpetual menace to American liberties because its members were constantly seeking to involve the republic in their tangled affairs, and because American statesmen were not always as deaf as they should be to their seductions. Safety, therefore, lay in complete abstention from political contact with Europe.

This conclusion, formulated more drastically in 1793 by John Quincy Adams when he wrote that, in the face of the European struggle for power, it was the duty of

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