“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington famously wrote in his farewell address. The phrase has long been used to justify “unilateralism” or “isolationism” in US foreign policy — a position which is not justified by its historical context.
“To announce his decision not to seek a third term as President, George Washington presented his Farewell Address in a newspaper article September 17, 1796.
“Frustrated by French meddling in US politics, Washington warned the nation to avoid permanent alliances with foreign nations and to rely instead on temporary alliances for emergencies. Washington’s efforts to protect the fragile young republic by steering a neutral course between England and France during the French Revolutionary Wars was made extremely difficult by the intense rhetoric flowing from the pro-English Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the pro-French, personified by Thomas Jefferson.
“In his farewell address, Washington exhorted Americans to set aside their violent likes and dislikes of foreign nations, lest they be controlled by their passions: ‘The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.’
“Washington’s remarks have served as an inspiration for American isolationism.”
The US was a young nation barely twenty years old, isolated from Europe by a vast ocean. Why import the struggles we had left on the other side?
“Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.
“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
Nations can and do build relationships with each other. So should we, but even-handedly.
“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements.
“Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
“Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view 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; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.
“There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”
Current American policy makes no such effort at even-handedness. Once considered the world’s “moral leader,”  we have withdrawn into moral isolation, abiding by a code of belief and behavior fashioned around populist nationalism. America puts America first and makes American great again — both initiatives driven by a notion of “freedom” founded on Social Darwinism applied both globally and domestically.
Globally, the US positions itself uncompromisingly at the apex of the food chain. Yes, we participated in the formation of the United Nations and other international s initiatives following WWII, but we also stand aside from them, tolerating more than participating.
Domestically, both economic and social policy are driven by the principles of free market capitalism. “Working for a living” displays good moral character and patriotism; needing a hand up signals depravity and dereliction of duty. Rugged individualism is strong and good; community-building is weak and insidious. Government is not in business to promote the public good. Life cycle needs such as education, healthcare, upward mobility, and retirement security are left to individual initiative and private enterprise.
A contrary approach of “floating all boats” powered post-WWII recovery and culture into the 1970’s. Since the 1980’s, that approach has been supplanted with hyper-competitive, hyper-privatized free market economics and social policy. The working middle class was the main beneficiary of the first thirty years, it has been the main casualty of the past four decades. Free-market evangelists promised a “trickle down” of wealth from the top to the bottom socio-economic classes. That promise has long since been exposed as bogus, but remains patterned into American culture and consciousness. As a result, American economic inequality is fast eclipsing its most extreme historical precedents — internationally, just prior to the French Revolution; domestically, in the heyday of the 19 thCentury “Robber Barons,” and again in the 20 thCentury’s Roaring 20's.
The European social democracies were created during roughly the same time frame (1860–1930), but then reinvented themselves post-WWII to reject the Communist model, instead promoting both private enterprise and the public welfare. Now, those nations are perennially the world’s happiest.
Meanwhile, after four decades of free market Social Darwinism, the American electorate and its politicians now routinely demean the democratic socialists as weak and dangerous. Free market capitalism has become a form of secular fundamentalism, which now openly acts to deny citizens the most basic right of democracy — the right to vote — while brutalizing dissent with jackbooted law and order.
“In God We Trust”
It is not a stretch to suggest that the Constitution’s Preamble had something else in mind. After “We the People of the United States,” it continues, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
These days, promoting “the general Welfare” has been banned from national economic and social policy-making, leaving “our Posterity” in deep despair over its future. America in 2020 — two and a quarter centuries after Washington’s farewell address -revels in its “splendid isolation.” Our global consciousness has shrunk to the size of Washington’s day.
It has not always been this way.
Not long ago, the US-based corporate nation-states exploited globalization to achieve international dominance, evangelizing the nations with free market economics and American culture. Flush with dizzying success and newly freed to invest in the electoral process, they underwrote the public castigation of big government even as it sponsored monopolies, skewed taxation, and relaxed regulation to unchain predatory capitalism and release it on the world. American workers denied themselves a living wage to enable the use of cheap off-shore labor, tolerated decades of flat purchasing power and the evaporation of healthcare benefits and retirement security, until now we marvel at free market capitalism’s crowning achievement: a labor market of short-term, temporary jobs with no benefits, augmented by the side hustle. And now, business doesn’t even need to pay payroll taxes, Social Security’s primary funding mechanism.
Having achieved ubiquitous commercial and cultural colonization, America opted out of globalization. We hyped up the privatization of what used to be the public good and we slandered social democracies by stamping them with the Communism label and conspiracy theories and allegations of one world government. Global economic opportunism? Yes, of course. Global military dominance? Yes, of course — because we can. Global community and accountability? No. No way. No effing way. We’ll go it alone. We’ll do it our way. That’s what Americans do.
And then, as we settled into the delusional security of walls literal and figurative, a new international force gave globalization a completely new, unforeseeable meaning.
Globalization and COVID-19
As a result, the USA became the world’s uncontested plague victims leader. Our populist champions of freedom are unmoved that our death toll — 178,000 as I write this — already matches nearly half the number of US military deaths of WWII — a number which in turn matches all the deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (The latter brought about by bombs we cheerfully christened “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” as we sent them on their missions of mass civilian slaughter. )
A New Civil Rights Movement
Into the USA’s pandemic debacle came yet one more instance of murderous police racism, and a fresh anti-racism uprising was born — supported, ironically enough, throughout the world we defiantly rejected. Protestors took to the streets, risking the thuggery of newly-mobilized SS troops, while the pandemic disproportionately affected racial and ethnic communities.
“Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The term “racial and ethnic minority groups” includes people of color with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. But some experiences are common to many people within these groups, and social determinants of health have historically prevented them from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health.
“There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.Inequities in the social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. To achieve health equity, barriers must be removed so that everyone has a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible.”
Slavery reparations enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early days of the new civil rights movement. But then…
Reparations require America to humble itself to the position of one nation accountable to the many. That we will not do. Abraham Lincoln assembled his “team of rivals” to advise him on slavery. We will not do likewise re: reparations for the slavery that was officially ended by the Civil War but continued in de facto form for another century until officially ended again by the 1960’s civil right movement, but still continues in American systemic racism. But America doesn’t want to hear that. To American arrogance, the nation of “truth spoken to power” is the delusion of the powerless. American sovereignty denies any duty to other sovereign nations, let alone its own citizens, nor does it acknowledge any transnational duty to the human race.
As we saw last time, it was not always this way. The USA was once considered the world’s moral leader, but has now abrogated the role.
“We have had a system of international governance since World War II that reflects the ascendance of a set of commitments to individual rights and protections rooted in the UN system, emerging over time because the United States-full of its imperfections-has been a more benevolent power internationally than most empires historically,” says [Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor and director of the Stanford global studies division], who served as deputy to the US ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2015.
“A world without US leadership and without an international architecture that’s rooted in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a very different universe, and not one I’m sure most people would want to live in.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court
The “international architecture” referred to above includes an ideological statement — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which is backed up by criminal enforcement — the international Criminal Court. These together mean that if a country’s moral compass is askew, the international community is entitled to intervene as a matter of law. This architecture emanates from the UN, created in 1945, which issued the Declaration in 1948, and convened the international conclave that produced the Rome Statute in 1998 — a treaty which created the ICC, effective in 2002.
“The ICC is not part of the UN. The Court was established by the Rome Statute. This treaty was negotiated within the UN; however, it created an independent judicial body distinct from the UN. The Rome Statute was the outcome of a long process of consideration of the question of international criminal law within the UN.”
The ink was barely dry on the Rome Statute when the United States announced its withdrawal from the treaty and its rejection of the ICC.
“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits US government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates US participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use ‘all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release’ of certain US and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”
“As of January 2019, 123 states are members of the Court. Other states that have not become parties to the Rome Statute include India, Indonesia, and China. On May 6th, 2002, the United States, in a position shared with Israel and Sudan, having previously signed the Rome Statute formally withdrew its signature and indicated that it did not intend to ratify the agreement.”
Reparations Under International Law
In 2005, the same “international architecture” issued guidelines for reparations for victims of “Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law” and “Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.” The Guidelines contemplate consistency across national and international jurisdiction:
“( a) Treaties to which a State is a party;
( b) Customary international law;
( c) The domestic law of each State.”
Accordingly, the Guidelines impose a duty to
“( a) Take appropriate legislative and administrative and other appropriate measures to prevent violations;
( b) Investigate violations effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially and, where appropriate, take action against those allegedly responsible in accordance with domestic and international law;
( c) Provide those who claim to be victims of a human rights or humanitarian law violation with equal and effective access to justice, as described below, irrespective of who may ultimately be the bearer of responsibility for the violation; and
( d) Provide effective remedies to victims, including reparation….”
In 2016, in furtherance of these Guidelines, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent issued a “Statement to the Media” after an official visit to the United States.
“During the visit, the Working Group assessed the situation of African Americans and people of African descent and gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance that they face. We studied the official measures and mechanisms taken to prevent structural racial discrimination and protect victims of racism and hate crimes as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination. The visit focused on both good practices and challenges faced in realising their human rights.”
The Statement begins with a careful recitation of the Working Group’s mission, requests, affirmations and denials, acknowledgments, recognitions, etc., then summarizes its observations as follows:
“Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.
“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.
“Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.
“During this country visit, the experts observed the excessive control and supervision targeting all levels of their life. This control since September 2001, has been reinforced by the introduction of the Patriot Act.”
Specifically on the topic of reparations for American slavery, the Statement observes that:
“There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity and among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and that Africans and people of African descent were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.”
The Statement advocates the enactment and ratification of domestic legislation and international treaties to carry out reparations:
“We encourage congress to pass the H.R. 40 -Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act — Establishes the Commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.
“We encourage the US government to elaborate a National Action Plan for Racial Justice to fully implement the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and comprehensively address racism affecting African Americans.
“In addition to the above, the Working Group urges the Government of the United States to consider the ratification of the core international human rights treaties to which the United States is still not a party, with a view to remove any gaps in the protection and full enjoyment of rights therein. It also encourages the USA to ratify regional human rights treaties as well as review reservations related to the treaties it has signed or ratified.”
As we saw above, the USA has exempted itself from international accountability, and it is obvious from the full text of the Working Group’s Statement that its visit was barely tolerated. Thus neither the Guidelines nor the Statement have had any effect on US policy.
Despite its “voluntary” nature, international law has at times been imposed on the perpetrators of egregious violations of human rights. Recently, an iconic figure from the Nuremberg Nazi trials accused the US of crimes against humanity under international law. We’ll look at that next time.
 Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)
 Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln(2006).
 Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Jan 8, 2020. See also Wikipedia — Rome Statute International Criminal Court.
 Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005.