James Downie, standing in for Jonathan Chait at The New Republic, believes that The Heritage Foundation’s view of the relationship between first principles and foreign policy is wrong, and contrary to George Washington’s vision. Inevitably, he seeks to prove his point by quoting Washington’s Farewell Address. His case would be even less persuasive if he’d read a little more, or a little more thoroughly.

But before we go into that, it’s worth drawing attention to Downie’s concluding point: “the Founding Fathers don’t provide much of a foundation at all” for foreign policy. That’s a characteristically liberal view, and utterly wrong. Only a simpleton would argue that Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams tell us exactly and directly what we should do today.  But the Founding Fathers created the United States as a sovereign nation. That in itself is directly and obviously relevant to the conduct of American foreign policy, both because it is what enable us to have a foreign policy in the first place, and because it emphasizes the value the Founders placed on sovereignty.

More than that: the Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, which express both our values and define the institutions by which we make policy—including foreign policy. And they were men of wisdom and experience, who wrote widely and well on every aspect of governing. The Left dislikes appeals to the Founders for a simple reason: they have a vision for the United States that is rooted in the progressivism of the late 19th century, not in the thought of the Founders.

The most important fact about the United States is that it is a nation built on an idea. This idea is that people are endowed by their creator with God-given rights, and that they form a government to protect those rights. This is not just an idea, of course: it is a statement about values, about morality, and about freedoms. The United States cannot have a foreign policy that dismisses or ignores this idea, because, as Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter found out to their detriment, the American people will not stand for it for very long. And though the American idea has deep roots in Western civilization, it was the Founders who built a nation on it. We can therefore learn a lot about ourselves, and what principles our policies should be based on, by learning about them.

So let’s return to George Washington. If Downie had read a little further in Washington’s Farewell Address —only to the next sentence, in fact—he would have found the following: “If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when . . . we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Washington was not, in our terms, a realist.  But he was also not an idealist. He believed in advancing the American interest, but he also believed that interests did not speak for themselves. They had to be guided by justice. So while Washington did not use the term “values”—that is our modern language—the idea that foreign policy had to rest on our sense both of justice and of our interests is his own.  And Heritage is proud to follow in his tradition.

In the context of his Farewell Address—with the wars of the French Revolution raging in Europe—Washington’s primary concern was to assert the value of American unity and independence, and to assure that the new nation was defended against attempted subversions from, or conquests by, France or England. That particular problem is no longer relevant, but Washington’s broader concern for American independence, the sovereignty of American institutions, and the need to support the common defense are of enduring importance., As we wrote earlier this week, those are exactly the beliefs that Heritage holds as central to the making of American foreign (and domestic) policy.

Of course, defining “justice” is no easy task. We might gain some insight into what Washington meant by this by looking further at the Farewell Address, and some of his other statements. One of these is particularly short and readable: his speech on resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to Congress on December 23, 1783. Every American should read this statement. In it, Washington said that:

Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.

Justice is concerned with assessing rights and remedying wrongs, and with a sense of fairness. If we understood what kind of government Washington thought was right and what was wrong, we could better judge our just duties—which clearly for him also include upholding signed and ratified treaties—toward other states. What, therefore, is “a respectable Nation”?

It is clearly connected to the possession of independence and sovereignty. In the context of Washington’s resignation, it means the possession of well-ordered armed forces that are subordinate to civilian authority.  But it means more than that. It means that, as he put it in this Farewell Address, “those entrusted with its administration [should] confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres.” It means that we should “cherish public credit.” It means that a respectable nation is a sovereign nation of laws, able to govern itself constitutionally and affordably at home, and defend and negotiate for itself abroad, in a way that accorded with its conception of justice and its interests. It means, in short, the U.S., and other nations that live up to those standards.

And it therefore means one more thing. Washington—like the other Founders, and like The Heritage Foundation—did not cherish many illusions about international relations. His view was that “it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character.” But he also believed that democratic governments—he called them “popular,” the language of his day—were different from, and better than, autocratic ones, because they expressed the American idea.

In his words, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?… In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

In other words, the American people must be virtuous, because otherwise free government will not endure  That virtue consists in part in education, partly in religion, but also in dedication to the nation, its institutions, and the Constitution. The government of a free people gives force to their opinions, which are grounded in their virtues and which define their conception of justice.

And those opinions will not stop at the borders of the nation. The American people can therefore be expected to judge other states, and our policies towards them, by the same fundamental standards they apply to their own government. They will ask, first, whether the other states are basically respectable. And all too often, today, the answer is that they—and the international institutions they populate—are not. Why, for example, is it respectable for Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to sit in judgment as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council on the U.S.’s human rights record?

The importance of respectability is no reason, as Washington warned – and as we said – to indulge in imprudent moralizing, precisely because power matters a great deal in foreign policy.  Nor, therefore, should we base policy on illusions about engagement or diplomacy without strength.  But Washington’s own words gives the lie to the common argument that he was a simple-minded realist, uninterested in, or hostile to, any connection between our conception of justice, our understanding of our interests, and our policies in the world.  The fact that liberals believe this testifies only to their impoverished view of the Founding Fathers and American foreign policy.