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Hobbes and George Washington Examine Foreign Policy

October 13, 2010

Although countries have separate agendas and do not act according to a universal sovereign, interactions between countries can be related to a Hobbesian society.  When a society creates a social contract and agrees to abide by the laws of a sovereign, the people essentially give up their rights to chose the direction of their life.  The only liberties that remain, are liberties not already specified by laws, and, as Hobbes describes in Leviathan Part two chapter 21, “if the sovereign command a man to kill, wound, or maim himself…hath that man the liberty to disobey”.  Individuals have the right to defend themselves if they are in danger, which is consistent with Hobbes’ belief that humans are self-interested.  However, humans’ tendency to be self-interested does not explain why an individual does not have the liberty to defend someone else, innocent or guilty.  In some cases it might be in ones’ interest to defend someone else.  So, why does Hobbes make this distinction?

The primary reason that defending someone else is “not allowed” under Hobbes’ social contract is because it reverts humans to the state of nature, which humans try to avoid.  If one group of people defends one side, others might join the other side, causing a state of war to arise for no reason at all.  However, if only the person affected is able to defend him or herself, the conflict is isolated.  Therefore, under the conditions Hobbes’ presents, individuals are expected too look out for their own well-being and let others fend for themselves.

Although the context is very different, this idea of isolation is exactly what George Washington advises that the United States of America do with respect to foreign policy in his Farewell Address.  Washington makes claims about how creating treaties and forming allies forces the USA into wars by association, which is very similar to the state of war Hobbes talks about when people defend their friends.   Because the USA is physically isolated from Europe, it makes no sense for America to become involved in European conflicts.

America has had moments in its history when the words of Hobbes and Washington were abided by and times when the advice was brushed aside.  An example of the former is in WWII, America remained separate from the conflict, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  However, in the case of the Vietnam War, the USA would have benefited by not defending the South Vietnamese and remaining isolated.  Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s global economy to remain isolated, but if America remembers to consider Hobbes and only defend itself, it will hopefully experience a peaceful future.

http://www.access.gpo.gov/congress/senate/farewell/sd106-21.pdf  : link to George Washington’s Farewell Address

2 Comments
  1. Lorig Stepanian permalink
    October 13, 2010 11:53 PM

    In this day and age I do not think that it is wise to maintain an isolationist policy. Although this tactic keeps America out of foreign wars, I believe that it is in our county’s self interest to establish alliances with others. In the structure of our world today, maintaining good international relations is essential to prosperity. Not only does it promote trade, and allocate resources, but it also establishes and defines our reputation in the international realm of politics. If we do not help other people, then no one will want to help us.

    • andrewjclark permalink
      October 15, 2010 7:18 PM

      Adding to the comment from above, it seems as if a policy veered against isolationist tendencies would actually prevent war. The more and more we, as nations, become dependent on each other, the less and less we will be willing to go to war with them. What do you think?

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