George Washington's Presidency

Start Free Trial

What was President George Washington's foreign policy and was it successful? Did he accomplish his goals and policy?

President George Washington's foreign policy largely involved remaining neutral in European affairs. He was successful in this, refusing to take sides in conflict between Britain and France, and he protected the new nation from harm from the European powers on the continent.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is important to remember that the United States, as it is existed under George Washington, was still militarily and politically vulnerable (and was far from the superpower it would eventually become). Thus, Washington largely tried to chart a path of neutrality, especially as Europe was swept up in the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

It is important to remember that the United States, as it is existed under George Washington, was still militarily and politically vulnerable (and was far from the superpower it would eventually become). Thus, Washington largely tried to chart a path of neutrality, especially as Europe was swept up in the turbulence of the French Revolution.

When it came to foreign policy (and the war against France), once again Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were in dispute with one another. Hamilton argued that the United States should tie itself closer to Britain, whereas Jefferson and his supporters were more inclined to support the French. Washington's neutrality represented a middle ground between those two contrasting visions.

In addition to his policy of neutrality vis-a-vis Europe, his administration also importantly negotiated Pinckney's Treaty with Spain. Ultimately, it should be remembered that, in this early stage of United States history, American farmers living beyond the Appalachians relied on the Mississippi River to connect them with the eastern part of the country. (The Mississippi River, then, can be perceived as the key highway which tied the United States together, and a highway that Spain, during this time period, ultimately controlled). Pinckney's Treaty clarified this difficult situation, allowing the United States access to the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Washington's foreign policy was to have as little to do with foreign powers as possible. The administration saw the passage of Jay's Treaty, which proved to be largely unpopular with the American people. This was because Jay could only get the British to agree to abandon forts in the Northwest Territory (this was already part of the Treaty of Paris deal which ended the Revolutionary War). Pinckney's Treaty, which gave the United States permission to use New Orleans as a trade port, proved to be more popular.  Washington sought neutrality during the early stages of the war between Britain and France; however, both sides raided American shipping at will. In his Farewell Address, Washington warned the nation against foreign entanglements as these would commit American troops to causes which would not be in the nation's interest.  Washington was quite pragmatic as, compared to the armies of Europe, the American forces were really much too small and poorly equipped to stand alone in any war on the continent.

Washington accomplished his isolationist goals though the war between Britain and France would affect American shipping until 1815.  He was successful in that he did not get the new nation destroyed by stronger imperialist powers already on the American continent.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

George Washington's foreign policy was primarily to keep the United States neutral in foreign affairs as much as possible, as he did not believe it wise for the new nation to involve itself in the affairs of other nations. In this regard, he was not only successful, but set a precedent for U.S. foreign policy for many years to come.

Among his accomplishments:

  • He issued a Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793 which largely declared the U.S. neutral in the ongoing war between France and Britain. He said in the Proclamation that the U.S. would remain:

friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers

  • Special envoy John Jay negotiated the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1794 which resolved issues remaining from the Revolutionary War and led to British evacuation of forts in the Northwest Territories.
  • The Pinckney Treaty with Spain secured free navigation of the Mississippi River for Americans and the right to ship goods to and from New Orleans. 
  • Famously, Washington in his farewell address advised the nation to remain free of foreign alliances:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the  jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign  influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must  be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense  against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those  whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of  influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become  suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to  surrender their interests."

        The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial  relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed  engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. 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. Hence, therefore, it must be  unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the  ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities

As a result of Washington's advice, American foriegn policy was largely isolationist for many years into the future.

 

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team