At a large dinner given in New York in recognition of his ninetieth birthday, the author of these lines ventured to say that what our country needed at this point was not primarily policies, "much less a single policy." What we needed, he argued, were principles -- sound principles -- "principles that accorded with the nature, the needs, the interests, and the limitations of our country." This rather cryptic statement could surely benefit from a few words of elucidation.

The place that principle has taken in the conduct of American foreign policy in past years and decades can perhaps best be explained by a single example from American history. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, and particularly in the period beginning about 1815-25, there set in a weakening of the ties that had previously held the Spanish empire together, and demands were raised by certain of the American colonies for complete independence. Pressure was brought on Washington to take the lead not only in recognizing their independence at an early stage, but also in giving them political and presumably military aid in their efforts to consolidate their independence in the face of whatever resistance might be put up by the Spanish government.

These questions presented themselves with particular intensity when James Monroe was president (1817-25). At that time the office of secretary of state was occupied by John Quincy Adams. In view of his exceptional qualities and experience, and the high respect with which he was held in Washington and throughout the country, much of the burden of designing the U.S. response to those pressures rested on him.

Adams realized that the U.S. historical experience left no choice but to welcome and give moral support to these South American peoples in their struggle for the recognition and consolidation of their independence. But he had little confidence in the ability of the new revolutionary leaders to shape these communities at any early date into mature, orderly, and firmly established states. For this reason, he was determined that America not be drawn too deeply into their armed conflicts with Spain, domestic political squabbles, or sometimes complicated relationships with their neighbors. Adams took this position, incidentally, not just with regard to the emerging South American countries, but also in relation to similar conflicts in Europe, particularly the efforts of Greek patriots to break away from the Turkish empire and establish an independent state.

These attitudes on Adams' part did not fail to meet with opposition in portions of the American political establishment. Some people, including the influential speaker of the House, Henry Clay, remembering America's own recent struggle for independence, felt strongly that the United States should take an active part in the similar struggles of other peoples. This, of course, was directly opposed to Adams' views. For this reason, Adams felt the need to take the problem to a wider audience and enlist public support for his views. In 1823, when he was invited by a committee of citizens to deliver a Fourth of July address in the nation's capital, he promptly agreed. The address was delivered in the premises of the House of Representatives, although not before a formal session of that body. The talk was presented as a personal statement, not an official one; and Adams took care to see that the text was printed and made widely available to the public.

A considerable part of the address was devoted to the questions I have just mentioned. On this subject Adams had some firm views. America, he said, had always extended to these new candidates for statehood "the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, and of generous reciprocity." It had spoken to them in "the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights." It had respected their independence. It had abstained from interference with their undertakings even when these were being conducted "for principles to which she [America] clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart." Why? Because, he explained, "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom . . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."

The relevance of this statement to many current problems -- in such places as Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and even Haiti -- is obvious. But that is not the reason why attention is being drawn to the statement at this point. What Adams was doing in those passages of his address was enunciating a principle of American foreign policy: namely, that, while it was "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all," America was also "the champion and vindicator only of her own." Those words seem to provide as clear an example as any of what the term "principle" might mean in relation to the diplomacy of this country or any other.


How, then, using Adams' statement as a model, would the term "principle" be defined? One might say that a principle is a general rule of conduct by which a given country chooses to abide in the conduct of its relations with other countries. There are several aspects of the term, one or two of them touched on in this definition, others not, that require elucidation.

A principle was just defined as a general rule of conduct. That means that whoever adopts a principle does not specify any particular situation, problem, or bilateral relationship to which this rule should apply. It is designed to cover the entirety of possible or presumptive situations. It merely defines certain limits, positive and negative, within which policy, when those situations present themselves, ought to operate.

A principle, then, is a rule of conduct. But it is not an absolute one. The possibility is not precluded that situations might arise -- unforeseeable situations, in particular -- to which the adopted principle might not seem applicable or to the meeting of which the resources of the government in question were clearly inadequate. In such cases, exceptions might have to be made. This is not, after all, a perfect world. People make mistakes in judgment. And there is always the unforeseeable and unexpected.

But as new situations and challenges present themselves, and as government is confronted with the necessity of devising actions or policies with which to meet them, established principle is something that should have the first and the most authoritative claim on the attention and respect of the policymaker. Barring special circumstances, principle should be automatically applied, and whoever proposes to set it aside or violate it should explain why such violation seems unavoidable.

Second, a principle is, by definition, self-engendered. It is not something that requires, or would even admit of, any sort of communication, negotiation, or formal agreement with another government. In the case of the individual person (because individuals have principles, just as governments do), the principles that guide his life are a matter of conscience and self-respect. They flow from the individual's view of himself, the nature of his inner commitments, and his concept of the way he ought to behave if he is to be at peace with himself.

Now, the principles of a government are not entirely the same as those of an individual. The individual, in choosing his principles, engages only himself. He is at liberty to sacrifice his own practical interests in the service of some higher and more unselfish ideal. But this sort of sacrifice is one that a responsible government, and a democratic government in particular, is unable to take upon itself. It is an agent, not a principal. It is only a representative of others.

When a government speaks, it speaks not only for itself but for the people of the country. It cannot play fast and loose with their interests. Yet a country, too, can have a predominant collective sense of itself -- what sort of a country it conceives itself or would like itself to be -- and what sort of behavior would fit that concept. The place where this self-image finds its most natural reflection is in the principles that a country chooses to adopt and, to the extent possible, to follow. Principle represents, in other words, the ideal, if not always, alas, the reality, of the rules and restraints a country adopts. Once established, those rules and restraints require no explanation or defense to others. They are one's own business.

A drawing that appeared in The New Yorker magazine many years ago showed a cringing subordinate standing before the desk of an irate officer, presumably a colonel, who was banging the desk with his fist and saying: "There is no reason, damn it; it's just our policy."

Well, as a statement about policy, this was ridiculous. But had the colonel been referring to a principle instead of a policy, the statement might not have been so out of place. It would not be unusual, for example, for someone in authority in Washington today to say to the representative of a foreign government, when the situation warranted it, "I am sorry, but for us, this is a matter of principle, and I am afraid we will have to go on from there."

Let me also point out that principles can have negative as well as positive aspects. There can be certain things that a country can make it a matter of principle not to do. In many instances these negative aspects of principle may be more important than the positive ones. The positive ones normally suggest or involve action; actions have a way of carrying over almost imperceptibly from the realm of principle into that of policy, where they develop a momentum of their own in which the original considerations of principle either are forgotten or are compelled to yield to what appear to be necessities of the moment. In other words, it is sometimes clearer and simpler to define on principle the kinds of things a country will not go in for -- the things that would fit with neither its standards nor its pretensions -- than it is to define ways in which it will act positively, whatever the circumstances. The basic function of principles is, after all, to establish the parameters within which the policies of a country may be normally conducted. This is essentially a negative, rather than a positive, determination.

Another quality of a principle that deserves notice is that it is not, and cannot be, the product of the normal workings of the political process in any democratic country. It could not be decided by a plebiscite or even by legislative action. You would never get agreement on it if it came under that sort of debate, and whatever results might be achieved would deprive the concept of the degree of flexibility it requires to serve its purpose.

A principle is something that can only be declared, and then only by a political leader. It represents, of necessity, his own view of what sort of a country his is, and how it should conduct itself in the international arena. But the principle finds its reality, if it finds it at all, in the degree of acceptance, tacit or otherwise, that its proclamation ultimately receives from the remainder of the political establishment and from the populace at large. If that acceptance and support are not forthcoming in sufficient degree, a principle ceases to have reality. The statesman who proclaims it, therefore, has to be reasonably confident that, in putting it forward, he is interpreting, appealing to, and expressing the sentiment of a large proportion of the people for whom he speaks. This task of defining a principle must be seen as not just a privilege, but also a duty of political leadership.

Adams' statement certainly had this quality. The concept was indeed his own. But his formulation of it met wide and enthusiastic support among the people of his time, as he probably thought it would. The same could be said of similar declarations of principle from a number of other American statesmen, then and later. One has only to think, for example, of George Washington's statements in his farewell address, Thomas Jefferson's language in the Declaration of Independence, or Abraham Lincoln's in his Gettysburg speech. In each of those instances, the leaders, in putting forward their idea of principle, were speaking from their own estimate -- a well-informed estimate -- of what would find a sufficient response on the part of a large body, and not just a partisan body, of American opinion.

In no way other than by advocacy or proclamation from high office could such professions of principle be usefully formulated and brought forward. The rest of us may have our thoughts from time to time about the principles America ought to follow in its relations with the world, but none of us could state these principles in a manner that would give them significance for the behavior of the country at large.


So much, then, for the essential characteristics of a principle and the manner in which it can be established. But there are those who will not be content with this abstract description of what a principle is, and who will want an example of what a principle valid for adoption by the United States of our day might look like.

The principle cited from Secretary Adams' Fourth of July speech was one that was applicable, in his view, to the situation then. The world now is, of course, different from his in many respects. There are those who will hold the gloomy view that such is the variety of our population and such are the differences among its various components, racial, social, and political, that it is idle to suppose that there could be any consensus among them on matters of principle. They have too little in common. There is much to be said for that view. This writer has at times been inclined to it himself. But further reflection suggests that there are certain feelings that we Americans or the great majority of us share, living as we do under the same political system and enjoying the same national consciousness, even though we are not always aware of having them. One may further suspect that if the translation of these feelings into principles of American behavior on the world scene were to be put forward from the highest governmental levels and adequately explained to the people at large, it might evoke a surprisingly strong response.

But this understanding and support cannot be expected to come spontaneously from below. It will not be likely to emerge from a public media dominated by advertisers and the entertainment industry. It will not be likely to emerge from legislative bodies extensively beholden to special interests, precisely because what would be at stake here would be the feelings and interests of the nation as a whole and not those of any particular and limited bodies of the citizenry. An adequate consensus on principles, in other words, could come from below only by way of response to suggestions from above, brought forward by a leadership that would take responsibility for educating and forming popular opinion, rather than merely trying to assess its existing moods and prejudices and play up to them.

Now, coming back to the model of Adams' Fourth of July speech, the problems now facing this country show a strong resemblance to ones Adams had in mind when he gave that address in 1823. At that time the dissolution of the great empires was only just beginning, and few -- at the most half a dozen -- of the newly emerging states were looking to us for assistance. In the period between Adams' time and our own, and particularly in the wake of the Second World War, the process of decolonization has proceeded at a dizzying pace, casting onto the surface of international life dozens of new states, many of them poorly prepared, as were those of Adams' time, for the responsibilities of independent statehood. This has led to many situations of instability, including civil wars and armed conflicts with neighbors, and there have been, accordingly, a great many appeals to us for political, economic, or military support.

To what extent, then, could Adams' principle of nonintervention, as set forth in 1823, be relevant to our situation today?

One cannot ignore the many respects in which our present situation differs from that which Adams was obliged to face. This writer is well aware of the increasingly global nature of our problems and the myriad involvements connecting our people and government with foreign countries. I do not mean to suggest a great reduction in those minor involvements. But what is at stake here are major political-military interventions by our government in the affairs of smaller countries. These are very different things.

First of all, we do not approach these questions with entirely free hands. We have conducted a number of such interventions in recent years, and at least three of these -- Korea, Iraq, and Haiti -- have led to new commitments that are still weighty and active.

There are several things to note about these interventions and commitments. First, while some may well have helped preserve peace or promote stability in local military relationships, this has not always been their stated purpose; in a number of instances, in particular, where we have portrayed them as efforts to promote democracy or human rights, they seem to have had little enduring success.

Second, lest there be any misunderstanding about this, the interventions in which we are now engaged or committed represent serious responsibilities. Any abrupt withdrawal from them would be a violation of these responsibilities; and there is no intention here to recommend anything of that sort. On the contrary, it should be a matter of principle for this government to meet to the best of its ability any responsibilities it has already incurred. Only when we have succeeded in extracting ourselves from the existing ones with dignity and honor will the question of further interventions present itself to us in the way that it did to Mr. Adams.

Third, instances where we have undertaken or committed ourselves to intervene represent only a small proportion of the demands and expectations that have come to rest on us. This is a great and confused world, and there are many other peoples and countries clamoring for our assistance. Yet it is clear that even these involvements stretch to the limit our economic and military resources, not to mention the goodwill of our people. And even if this were not a compelling limitation, there would still be the question of consistency. Are there any considerations being presented as justifications for our present involvements that would not, if consistently applied, be found to be relevant to many other situations as well? And if not, the question arises: If we cannot meet all the demands of this sort coming to rest upon us, should we attempt to meet any at all? The answer many would give to this question would be: yes, but only when our vital national interests are clearly threatened.

And last, beyond all these considerations, we have the general proposition that clearly underlay John Quincy Adams' response to similar problems so many years ago -- his recognition that it is very difficult for one country to help another by intervening directly in its domestic affairs or in its conflicts with its neighbors. It is particularly difficult to do this without creating new and unwelcome embarrassments and burdens for the country endeavoring to help. The best way for a larger country to help smaller ones is surely by the power of example. Adams made this clear in the address cited above. One will recall his urging that the best response we could give to those appealing to us for support would be to give them what he called "the benign sympathy of our example." To go further, he warned, and try to give direct assistance would be to involve ourselves beyond the power of extrication "in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom." Who, today, looking at our involvements of recent years, could maintain that the fears these words expressed were any less applicable in our time than in his?

These, then, are some of the considerations bearing on the relevance of Adams' principle to the present problems of our country. This writer, for one, finds Adams' principle, albeit with certain adjustments to meet our present circumstances and commitments, entirely suitable and indeed greatly needed as a guide for American policy in the coming period. This examination of what Adams said, and its relevance to the problems of our own age, will in any case have served to illustrate what the word "principle" meant in his time and what it could, in this case or others, mean in our own.

One last word: the example offered above of what a principle might be revolved primarily around our relations with smaller countries that felt, or professed to feel, the need for our help in furthering their places in the modern world. These demands have indeed taken a leading place in our diplomacy of this post-Cold War era. But one should not be left with the impression that these relationships were all that counted in our present problems with diplomacy. Also at stake are our relations with the other great powers, and these place even more important demands on our attention, policies, and resources.

The present moment is marked, most happily, by the fact that there are no great conflicts among the great powers. This situation is without precedent in recent centuries, and it is essential that it be cherished, nurtured, and preserved. Such is the destructive potential of advanced modern weapons that another great conflict between any of the leading powers could well do irreparable damage to the entire structure of modern civilization.

Intimately connected with those problems, of course, is the necessity of restraining, and eventually halting, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of achieving their eventual total removal from national arsenals. And finally, also connected with these problems but going beyond them in many respects, there is the great environmental crisis our world is entering. To this crisis, too, adequate answers must be found if modern civilization is to have a future.

All of these challenges stand before us. Until they are met, even the many smaller and weaker countries can have no happy future. Our priorities must be shaped accordingly. Only when these wider problems have found their answers will any efforts we make to solve the problems of humane and civil government in the rest of the world have hopes of success.

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  • George F. Kennan is Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. This is his nineteenth article for Foreign Affairs. His first, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," appeared in July 1947 under the pseudonym, X. Copyright 1995 by George F. Kennan.
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