Blame it on J. Q.

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January 29, 2017 by AK

Josef Joffe is der Herausgeber – “publisher-editor” – of the influential Hamburg weekly Die Zeit. He grew up in West Berlin but went to college and earned his postgraduate degrees in the US. When writing in English, Joffe comes across as an American neoconservative with a better than average education and sense of humor. Appearing on on Germany’s “principal publicly owned television channel” earlier this week, he playfully suggested that “murder in the White House, for example” would be one way to stop the disaster that is Trump’s presidency.

Joffe left it to the viewers to decide whether he meant for Trump to be the victim or the perpetrator of the murder (the latter would guarantee impeachment). Leaving aside J. J.’s thanatoptics, I’m turning to his more serious opinions, like this:

Invoking the classic isolationist creed of John Quincy Adams, he [Trump] thundered: “We do not go abroad in search of enemies.”

It’s amusing to hear America’s first ambassador to Russia and one of its greatest diplomats described as an isolationist. All the quotes below come from the website of the Miller Center, an “affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history”:

…Adams accepted appointment as secretary of state, serving from 1817 to 1825… At the top of the list [of his diplomatic accomplishments] stands his role in formulating the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations not to meddle in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. …Adams… persuaded Monroe to make a unilateral and independent statement as a mark of U.S. sovereignty in the hemisphere.

How does one reconcile “US sovereignty in the [Western] hemisphere” with isolationism? It could work if one believes in US sovereignty in both hemispheres, which would have been a laughable conceit in the 1820s: the US even lacked the resources to enforce the Monroe Doctrine for decades.

In other words, the foreign policy of president Monroe and secretary Adams only appears isolationist compared with that of Wilson, FDR, and George W. Bush. Considering that in 1820 the Unites States had a population less than half of the United Kingdom’s (with Ireland), about a third of France’s and less than a quarter of Russia’s, it was not yet in the position to take on these majors. It took on the crumbling Spanish empire instead, annexing Florida in 1819 and recognizing the independence of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru in 1822.

John Quincy Adams’ reputation as a statesman mostly rests on his service as a diplomat and secretary of state. Aged 10, he already accompanied his father on a mission to France. At 14, he moved to St. Petersburg to serve as Frances Dana’s translator and secretary. He studied in Paris and Leiden before Harvard College. At 26, he was sent to the Netherlands by Washington himself. He returned to St. Petersburg as a full-fledged ambassador during the Napoleonic wars. He served as the head of the American delegation at the peace negotiations with Britain 1814, and then as the ambassador to London, probably the most important diplomatic position at that time.

That’s a born and bred isolationist for sure. But if “John Quincy Adams” and “isolationist creed” make for an awkward fit, so would John Quincy Adams and Donald J. Trump, and not only because of the difference in refinement. These days, Trump is often compared to Andrew Jackson, Adams’ successor in the White House. Jackson became a bitter enemy of Adams after the election of 1824. The general received a plurality of both the electoral college and popular vote but the secretary of state struck a deal with Henry Clay, the speaker of the House, which elected Adams.

Generally speaking, the sixth and the seventh presidents differed in every way, personal and political. Of the latter’s international policy, Miller’s Center says simply:

Generally, foreign affairs were not a prominent concern of Jackson’s administration.

That’s obviously closer to isolationism than the Monroe-Adams line but does not tell the whole story. When Jackson moved to the White House, Texas was still Mexican; when he moved out, Texas was not yet a US state and California was still Mexican. Committing significant resources to some overseas conflict would have been absurdly wrong-headed. First Latium, then Carthage. During an expansion phase, a preference for winnable wars close to home can be mistaken for isolationism. But what’s the current phase?


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