Friday, August 31, 2012

Hamilton: On Morality and Interest in Foreign Policy

In this famous passage from his Pacificus essays (No. 4), Alexander Hamilton takes up the question of whether gratitude to France is a sound basis for foreign policy. He rejects that assumption, invoked by many critics of Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality. In the course of his analysis he offers thoughts on the role of the national interest, as circumscribed by the requirements of faith and justice, in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.

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. . . [I]t may not be without use to indulge some reflections on this very favourite topic of gratitude to France; since it is at this shrine we are continually invited to sacrifice the true interests of the Country; as if “All for love and the world well lost” were a fundamental maxim in politics.

Faith and Justice between nations are virtues of a nature sacred and unequivocal. They cannot be too strongly inculcated nor too highly respected. Their obligations are definite and positive their utility unquestionable: they relate to objects, which with probity and sincerity generally admit of being brought within clear and intelligible rules.

But the same cannot be said of gratitude. It is not very often between nations, that it can be pronounced with certainty, that there exists a solid foundation for the sentiment—and how far it can justifiably be permitted to operate is always a question of still greater difficulty.

The basis of gratitude, is a benefit received or intended, which there was no right to claim, originating in a regard to the interest or advantage of the party, on whom the benefit is or is meant to be conferred. If a service is rendered from views chiefly relative to the immediate interest of the party, who renders it, and is productive of reciprocal advantages, there seems scarcely in such a case to be an adequate basis for a sentiment like that of gratitude. The effect would be disproportioned to the cause; if it ought to beget more than a disposition to render in turn a correspondent good office, founded on mutual interest and reciprocal advantage. But gratitude would require more than this; it would require, to a certain extent, even a sacrifice of the interest of the party obliged to the service or benefit of the party by whom the obligation had been conferred.

Between individuals, occasion is not unfrequently given to the exercise of gratitude. Instances of conferring benefits, from kind and benevolent dispositions or feelings towards the person benefitted, without any other interest on the part of the person, who confers the benefit, than the pleasure of doing a good action, occur every day among individuals. But among nations they perhaps never occur. It may be affirmed as a general principle, that the predominant motive of good offices from one nation to another is the interest or advantage of the Nation, which performs them.

Indeed the rule of morality is in this respect not exactly the same between Nations as between individuals. The duty of making its own welfare the guide of its actions is much stronger upon the former than upon the latter; in proportion to the greater magnitude and importance of national compared with individual happiness, to the greater permanency of the effects of national than of individual conduct. Existing Millions and for the most part future generations are concerned in the present measures of a government: While the consequences of the private actions of an individual, for the most part, terminate with himself or are circumscribed within a narrow compass.

Whence it follows, that an individual may on numerous occasions meritoriously indulge the emotions of generosity and benevolence; not only without an eye to, but even at the expence of his own interest. But a Nation can rarely be justified in pursuing a similar course; and when it does so ought to confine itself within much stricter bounds. Good offices, which are indifferent to the Interest of a Nation performing them, or which are compensated by the existence or expectation of some reasonable equivalent or which produce an essential good to the nation, to which they are rendered, without real detriment to the affairs of the nation rendering them, prescribe the limits of national generosity or benevolence.

It is not meant here to advocate a policy absolutely selfish or interested in nations; but to shew that a policy regulated by their own interest, as far as justice and good faith permit, is, and ought to be their prevailing policy: and that either to ascribe to them a different principle of action, or to deduce from the supposition of it arguments for a self-denying and self-sacrificing gratitude on the part of a Nation, which may have received from another good offices, is to misconceive or mistake what usually are and ought to be the springs of National Conduct.

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Source: The full texts and expert commentary on these essays may be found on-line at Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty, reproducing The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates of 1793-1794: Toward the Completion of the American Founding, edited with and Introduction by Morton J. Frisch (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).